When your friends ask what you did this summer, it’s easy to fall into the trap of positivity. Why talk about the day-to-day drag when you could mention the weekly happy hours and awesome projects you worked on?! But chatting with friends isn’t the same thing as a job interview; you don’t have to gloss over the unglamorous aspects of your work. Your friends, peers, classmates, and colleagues are, or will be at some point, active jobseekers who deserve an honest look at your industry, government, and/or academic experiences.
Below, I’ve included a true (anonymized) account of what I did last summer and a reading-between-the-lines inside scoop about what it was really like. It was actually a few summers ago, but I think you’ll get the point – things aren’t always what they seem. When discussing your own experiences with colleagues, especially younger mentee types, don’t be afraid to tell it like it is! I took the internship described below on the recommendation of a friend who’d had the job the previous summer. However, I only heard the glamorous half of the story…
What I tell you when you ask what I did this summer:
This summer I interned at the Government Agency, just outside of Big City. My main projects involved doing engineering research about A and B to inform new policy about Important Science Issue. In my first week, Well-known National Newspaper ran a front-page article about our project, which was cool. I also sat in on tons of meetings with industry reps, managed day-to-day minicrises for my boss, and checked out some of the research labs which were awesome! Everyone there was extremely talented, and when I asked, they all said they worked there because it was the place where their engineering (or policy, science, etc.) degree would make the most impact.
My roommates – random friends of friends who turned into besties – and I lived in the city and got to play tourist every weekend. So fun! The local foodie scene was rocking, and I went to a farmer’s market every week – scrumptious! I learned so much this summer and would love to come back to Big City and the GA after grad school!
When you read between the lines:
“just outside of Big City” – To get to work, I had to walk 10 minutes, take 2 subways, and a bus. It took 90 minutes each way. Got a lot of reading done #usedbookstoresaremynewBFF, but I was out of the house from 6am to 7pm every day.
“engineering research” – Yes, this was a desk job.
“front page article” – This is fully true and fully cool, but the article was basically criticizing the GA for previous attempts to handle the situation, so it wasn’t much to write home about.
“our project” – Me and about 50 other people.
“meetings with industry reps” – These were interesting for sure, but it is not the glamorous networking opportunity you are picturing. Mostly I just sat in the back and took notes.
“day-to-day minicrises” – Some of these were legitimately cool problems, but at least 40% were paperwork related.
“checked out some of the research labs” – Got tours of the labs my friends were interning in.
“make the most impact” – Definitely the best part of the job.
“lived in the city” – Because no short-term housing was available in the ‘burbs near my office, I lived in student housing at a university in Big City. I was getting paid (lucky me, not all government interns do…), but between the expensive apartment and the food situation (see below), I made negative money this summer.
“play tourist every weekend” – I had actual, full weekends, every weekend. A definite bonus!
“local foodie scene was rocking” – Or so they say. It was really expensive, so I didn’t sample it much.
“farmers market every week” – Fact. And it was delicious. But I only did this because the only grocery stores within reasonable distance of my place (no car) were Whole Foods and a smallish Trader Joe’s, so if I wanted to eat living organisms without paying $3.99 for a single green bell pepper, this was my only hope.
“would definitely come back… after grad school” – Happily, true!
Next time a friend asks you about your internship, don’t be afraid to dig deep and be honest. They could be sitting in your desk next summer. And next time someone tells you about their summer (or permanent) job, go ahead and ask that awkward question. A long commute or a bit ‘o bureaucracy probably won’t be a dealbreaker when it comes to choosing an internship, but when it comes time for your first Real Job (or second or fifth), those little things may be a big deal.