Most people assume that the most valuable thing you get out of an internship is a full time job once you graduate. While I'd be silly not to assume that a full time job is extremely valuable, especially with 10% unemployment, there is a second more valuable aspect: The ability to explore.
Once you graduate and start working full time, you start getting paid. And money = a chain on your leg. You're limited to work on only the stuff that is important to the company, not your own personal development. Worse, it's socially unacceptable to leave a company if you've been there less than a year. Jumping is detrimental to your career, greatly limiting how fast you can explore new interesting things to work on.
Internships buy you the ability to try out different companies, different types of jobs, without the social penalty of leaving.
Discovery is so much more important than any pay check, immediate technical skills you learn, or people you meet. It lets you find out what you really like working on. Of course it's much easier to say it post undergrad and after being an intern eight years. No doubt a stable paycheck is a very tempting carrot. It's very difficult to say no to a *perceived* high paying job while in school. Anything more than minimum wage is considered a gold mine. No more ramen! Plus, you get the first real taste of freedom, the ability to tell your parents that they don't have to take care of you anymore. An amazing feeling, but at what cost?
I think two years after undergraduate, I can safely say that it sacrifices the long term for some short term gain. I know many friends who are giving up on their passions. You can see their dreams dwindle, suffering a slow painful death in the gutter. I look at the end result: my mother who just recently retired, my cousin who is in her mid thirties and countless others. When I compare them to others who still love their jobs, the only difference I see is that they spent the time to discover what they really liked to work on.
Which is the real problem internships solve. They let you discover the breadth of work available without the social stigma of being "uncommitted". The technical skills you learn will help you in the future. The people you meet will leave a mark, a lesson that you can carry with you. But at the end of the day, the feeling of working on something you love or hate is what's truly valuable. Because within three months, if you hated it, you can leave. If you love it, you've found a new path - and that's worth more than any full time job offer.
Finding an Internship
This section really didn't fit into the essay, but I know its difficult to find a regular job, let alone an internship. Tips:
- Use craigslist, jobs.joelonsoftware.com, and any other job board and look for internships year round. Many are CoOps, which are really a fancy term for part time.
- If you're close to graduating (within a year), apply for a full time job and ask if you can start now, but part time. Worked for me. Just say it helps you reduce ramp up time :).
- The hiring window for most tech companies is between October - January. It's a lot harder to find a summer internship any other time.
- These rules seem to go out the window in graduate school.