Interns: Take it one at a time

Interns: Take it one at a timeAn intern came to me last week with an interesting question: She wanted to know if she could do two internships simultaneously during the coming fall semester.

Only in rare circumstances would I suggest that this is a good idea.

When an internship is unpaid and part-time, and an intern has to work at a paid job to pay the rent, or just plain bring in income, that's a different story – and a common one.

An internship is a time during which one can explore a field, learn the tricks of the trade, so to speak, decide if this is a career path that works for them, and try to persuade a supervisor to either hire them eventually or at least be a reference for future employers. If you're splitting your time in two different endeavors, your attention is diluted, as is the impression you leave. How can you sink your teeth into a project and show your boss that you're willing to work past your "quitting time'' when you've got another internship to attend to?

But an even more compelling argument against doubling up on internships is that doing so might be ethically questionable. Internship supervisors might have strict policies against this, and might even ask prospective interns to promise they won't be interning elsewhere at the same time.

Why? Because the two work environments, different as they might seem to an outsider, might well consider themselves competitors in their fields. If you're hoping to become an intern at a record label -- say, Sony Music Entertainment -- your bosses there probably wouldn't be happy to hear you were also simultaneously interning at EMI, Universal Music Group or Warner Music Group. And this isn't simply because they are jealously guarding your time and attention for themselves, no matter how fond of you they might be. Rather, it's because these are competitors, and nobody within a company, non-profit group, political campaign or any organization wants competitors knowing what's going on behind closed doors at the moment.

Even an internship that you might not see as directly competitive – such as, following this example, with an independent music label – likely will be seen as a non-starter. Insiders within a particular industry often view all sources of similar material as a competitor, or at least a potential competitor.

In the news media, for example, television news stations compete with online news, radio news, newspapers and magazines and other potential sources of information. In retailing, Target is a very different animal from, say, a small, locally-based chain of stores, but the management division of neither entity likely would want to share an intern with the other. In the hospitality industry, a cruise line is different from a hotel, obviously, but the public relations or marketing department for either probably doesn't want an intern coming through working two days a week for one company and spending the other three days of the work week at a company competing for the same tourist dollars.

If it seems I'm taking too strict a view on this, simply ask a supervisor or hiring manager about the organization's policy. I've heard students ask if they have to tell the people at one internship that they are going to be doing another one concurrently. This yields a definite "yes'' response. Being up front in such a situation -- or any situation you are questioning -- is always the best policy to avoid anger, frustration or disappointment later.

But the best rule of thumb is to plan to devote your energy and resources to one internship at a time, exploring others in later semesters or summers, or even post-graduation. Making a good impression in one place is far better than leaving a mediocre impression in two.

Jennifer Halperin is the internship coordinator at Columbia College Chicago, and Money College's Internship Insider. Her column runs every Wednesday; send suggestions for story ideas to Jennifer at
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