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Can internships set your career path in stone before it even begins?

Sonia Acosta, Special to CareerBuilder

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Internships are the buzz on college campuses everywhere. From freshman year to graduation, students are constantly reminded how important it is to get "real world" experience before they hit the post-grad job search. Companies hiring recent graduates are always going to prefer those who have taken the time and initiative to complete one, two or more internships, gain skills and make connections.

But what if you are not sure what field you want to enter? What if you fall into the general-studies or liberal-arts category? Maybe you're working toward a degree in finance or marketing, but you're not sure you want to go into that line of work. What do you do then? Would interning in marketing, finance or another field set your career path in stone and ultimately lead you to be stuck in a field you're not sure you want to pursue?

Internships and plotting a career path can be tricky business. Here are three tips to help you get the most out of any internship and build the career you want.

Build transferable skills
No matter what the field, any internship experience will add fundamental, transferable skills to your tool belt. Skills such as project management, presenting, working in teams, planning, computer programs, writing, etc., are useful in a variety of jobs in many different fields.

Sarah Bender, account executive at Resound Marketing, based in Princeton, N.J., suggests students remain open-minded about internships. "It's important to realize that just about every job [or internship] offers a chance for an individual to build their skills and prepare for their next move -- no matter what it may be," Bender says.

Instead of focusing on the possibility of being locked into a certain field or position, think of internships as your chance to soak up everything around you. You'd be surprised how much you can gain from simply observing, listening to, asking questions of and networking with more experienced colleagues. In most cases, these individuals have stood in your shoes and welcome the opportunity to mentor young workers.

Shift your 'personal brand'
You've completed several internships in one field, and suddenly you realize that's not where your passions lie. What do you do now? It's simple, and it won't be the last time you'll have to do it throughout your career. It's time to shift your "personal brand."

Maureen Nelson, a career coach and résumé writer in Walnut Creek, Calif., says, "You'll always have to align yourself with what's relevant in the job market if you want to keep moving ahead."

Nelson says she shifts her personal brand depending on the job she's pursuing. "When speaking with college personnel, I say I'm a career counselor. When speaking with government employees, I say I'm in workforce development. The language you use has a lot to do with how people perceive you."

If you've completed internships in marketing, but upon graduation realize you'd like to go into something such as corporate finance, you have to work to recast yourself, Nelson says.

"Volunteer, do project work, research and write -- maybe partnering with a finance expert -- hang out with finance folks at professional association chapter meetings and find a mentor ... I always tell clients they are like diamonds, and employers only know the facets you show them."

Allow yourself to navigate
Perhaps you are interning in the right field, but you're not exactly sure what area you'd like to pursue after graduation. Allow yourself the room to explore, and see the opportunity in every step you take.

When Jessica Albon, a Web-development consultant in Greensboro, N.C., was in college, she wanted to work at a magazine, so that's where she interned. "I gained loads of experience on every step along the way, from working with freelancers to layout to selling ad space," Albon says. "I also learned that I didn't want to work in magazines."

Instead, Albon learned she wanted a career in graphic design.

"What I found was there were ways to talk about my magazine experience that were really relevant when I wanted to work for a marketing agency. I didn't focus exclusively on the experience I'd had with the magazine layout, because that felt disingenuous. Rather, I talked about the way my big-picture understanding of all of the pieces of a magazine translated to my working as a graphic designer -- that I understood the importance of seeing all of the pieces, even as my work directly contributed to only one portion. This was a big hit in interviews."

Tina Beaty, account supervisor at public relations firm Porter Novelli, says, "Having three internships in one field is great if you know you are going into that field, but three internships in different fields and then job hunting in yet another industry can still be powerful if you spin your story and group your experience to fit an employer's needs. Fear of going down the wrong career path is no reason to not jump at a qualified internship and gain any and all experience in the business world."

So what's the answer?
While internships might lead you down a certain career path, they are primarily meant to provide you with transferable skills, knowledge and larger professional networks. You can avoid getting stuck. It's simply a matter of rebranding yourself and continuously working on your story, who you are as a professional and what you bring to the table regardless of industry or field. College and internships are supposed to be a time of discovery, and you should always go into them with an open mind. Your interests, passions and strengths will begin to show themselves if you allow yourself to soak up what is around you.

Sonia Acosta researches and writes about job search strategy, career management, hiring trends and workplace issues for CareerBuilder.



Last Updated: 01/04/2013 - 10:20 AM


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