Interning as an Experienced Professional

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Posted by Liz Seasholtz on May 3, 2011
Interning as an Experienced Professional
After graduating from Georgetown University in 2008, Margaret Breslin entered the working world as a fulltime paralegal at a Philadelphia law firm. But when she lost her job a year later, Breslin used her extra free time to pursue a budding interest in the nonprofit sector by interning at a Washington DC-based nonprofit that helps women gain economic independence.

I couldn't imagine having nothing on my resume during this interim,” says Breslin. “It gives me something to talk about in interviews when they ask what I'm doing with my time, and it’s a productive break from the job search."

Though internships are commonly considered territory dedicated solely for student resume-building, post-collegiate professionals can also use them to springboard into new industries or stay relevant during employment gaps.

Of course, reverting from fulltime employee to intern will have its disadvantages: Both your wallet and your sense of pride will likely take a hit. Yet, just as internships can act as real-world launch pads for students, experienced professionals should recognize internships as a tactic for readjusting their career trajectory.

Three Reasons to Intern
One reason to return to the lowest level of the professional food chain is to learn a new skill. For instance, if a public relations professional feels she needs social media experience to be more marketable, an internship with an online marketing company could be the ideal means to learn the ins and outs of Facebook and Twitter. “Every job is temporary,” says J.T. O'Donnell, founder of the career advice blog CAREEREALISM. “Interning to learn a new skill is a good way to keep your eyes open and get ideas about how to take your career to the next level.”

Experienced professionals may also reenlist as interns to test a new profession or break into a new industry. For example, if you’re a burned-out finance professional and want to try a career in human resources, an HR internship will give you a sense of what it’s like to work in the field.

And whether pursuing a new career or just trying to learn a new skill, you don’t necessarily need to leave your current fulltime job in order to intern. O’Donnell says the availability of flexible schedules and virtual internships is growing.

A third reason to sign up for a mid-career internship may be, as in Breslin’s case, to fill a resume gap. With unemployment hovering around 10 percent, out-of-work professionals can use an internship to show they used their downtime productively to build their skill set while still carrying on a fulltime job search. By spending 10 to 15 hours a week in an office setting, an employer will know you’re ready to hit the ground running.

The Sacrifices
The downside of interning, especially while unemployed, is that you’ll most likely take a pay cut (or receive no compensation at all), have no benefits, and be at the bottom of the corporate food chain. Finding a flexible or virtual internship while still working full time will help you avoid trying to live on an intern’s income, but expect to put in long hours as you’ll essentially be working two jobs. “You have to think of it as investing in the future, because it can feel like a drag on your free time,” says O’Donnell.

The Student versus The Professional
You’ll likely be competing against college students for an internship, and employers will inevitably point out that you’re overqualified. Don’t let this be a deterrent. You should use your work experience as an edge over student candidates. “Young professionals will be able to articulate how they can add value to an organization,” says O’Donnell. “Students don’t really know the concept of selling themselves in interviews yet.”

Selling yourself is especially important so that employers look past the fact that you’re overqualified, and see that you’re eager to start fresh or learn new skills. Explain how the experience will pay off by demonstrating your commitment to a position with small financial rewards while making it clear how the company will benefit from your internship. For example, if you’re an accounting professional hoping to intern at an understaffed nonprofit, you’ll be able to help close the books at the end of the year, in addition to your interning responsibilities.

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