Opinion: A cynical analysis of a college student's summer

For college students, summer is more than just a season defined by AC installations and pool openings. It is a unique opportunity to gain experiences and insights, which serve as fundamental guidelines for the future. On a less flowery note, it is also a prime “resume padding” period. In this fast-paced, achievement-based world of competition, students see impressive summer internships as a way to stand out and get ahead. Students who struggle financially or aren’t ready for the corporate grind view summer as a time to make money.

Summer is about experience and growth. Whether you’re handling burgers or DNA, you’re bound to learn something, be it about restaurant food regulations, genome sequencing or life in general. With an open mind and positive attitude towards whatever you choose to do, you can’t go wrong.

Paid internships/fellowships: Can’t go wrong

It sounds like a win-win; you get the money and the resume padding. Chances are though, if you work for an investment firm or biotech company, that your salary is being funded by grants and outreach programs. In other words, they don’t need you. Despite what you may think, they didn’t hire you to bring their company to new heights; they hired you for tax breaks and positive publicity.

Courtesy of TheChanel/Flickr Are you ready for Corporate America?

Courtesy of TheChanel/Flickr
Are you ready for Corporate America?

On a less sardonic note, they did pick your application over dozens of others because something about you impressed them. Just don’t expect your Portico: Intro to Business class or A- grade in Statistics to make you an indispensable asset in the workplace. Do expect to have to find your own projects and opportunities. Instead of spending all day refreshing your e-mail page because your supervisor is busy/ambivalent, be proactive and find ways to be useful.

Remember that it’s not about the money, it’s about the connections. It’s easy to feel defeated and unneeded in a professional setting, but you can make the most of your situation by having a spectacular attitude. Offer to make copies of the weekly newsletter; read your company’s publications; make friends with your co-workers. After all, you’re not going to be rehired by taking hour-long lunch breaks, hiding in your cubicle and spending the day on Facebook.

Paid research: Science is cool... sometimes?

Courtesy of Tennessee Wesleyan College/Flickr

Courtesy of Tennessee Wesleyan College/Flickr

Sorry folks, research sounds a lot cooler than it is. In reality, it can be described by two words: repetitive and ambiguous. You will come to find, however, that there is no substitute for experience. When you finally get the chance to put on the latex gloves and get to pipetting, you will inevitably forget to change tips, dispense the wrong volumes and screw up a whole PCR batch. Don’t despair. All the lab technicians have been there.

The beginning is rough, but by the end of your internship, you will have mastered the biotech quirks. Instead of nervously following the purification procedure step-by-step, you will be eyeballing volumes, centrifuging for however long you feel is right and commanding the new intern to make you a gel.

The coolest part of research internships is when you are experienced enough to begin to tweak your own experiments to yield better results. You may decide you want to make a taq concentration curve to determine how much buffer you actually need to get the best bands. Or perhaps you want to try a different type of buffer, or incubation temperature. In most cases, you will be required to make a closing presentation summarizing your summer research project where you can show off your thoughtfulness and analysis skills. Remember that every experiment does teach you something and that it’s all about attitude.

Unpaid internships: Far from slavery

They’re not as bad as they sound, seriously. It’s all of the opportunity and education with none of the guilt or obligation. You won’t have to feel bad about taking a few weeks off for a family trip to Bermuda, or not showing up because you “don’t feel well.” With zero opportunity cost, you’re left with a far more flexible summer schedule.

At the same time, you get to learn about the company and the nature of your future career paths. What’s more, you will still be able to make plenty of personal connections and pad your resume with the position. Perhaps most importantly, the company you work for will likely see you as a potential paid employee. In this sense the internship could indirectly benefit your future salary by increasing your chances of getting hired.

Courtesy of Sean MacEntee/Flickr

Courtesy of Sean MacEntee/Flickr

Think of it this way: you don’t get paid to get a college degree, but you do it anyways because you see it as a necessary component to a better future. Unpaid internships ought to be viewed the same way -- as stepping-stones to your ideal position. So, don’t let the depressing “unpaid” label deter you from accepting that prestigious internship. I mean, at least you’re not paying to do it. Think of it as free summer camp!

Legitimate jobs: Wasted time, or lifelong lessons?

Photo by Tim Coogan/Gavel Media

Photo by Tim Coogan/Gavel Media

While lifeguarding at your local beach or working at Pinkberry are easy ways to make money, the opportunity cost may not be worth it. By spending your summer in an occupation unrelated to your field of study/interest, you may be wasting precious time that could be spent bolstering your experience in your actual intended career path.

At the same time there are many intangible lessons to be learned from service-oriented jobs such as waitressing or retail. By having to deal with annoying, rude people you will undoubtedly gain appreciation for those who serve you and you will also learn to be a better customer. At a job where your wage is determined by the market and where your manager is actually relying on you for your services, you will gain a sense of responsibility and teamwork. Surprisingly enough, having to repeatedly ask, “would you like fries with that?” offers a tremendous amount of perspective.

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