How Summer Can Change Your Future

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New research suggests that an internship could be more important for your career than your classwork.

New research suggests that a summer internship could be more important for your career prospects than what you do in the classroom.

According to a recent study by the New York Federal Reserve, more than half of new graduates are currently working in jobs that don’t require a degree, a percentage that is on the rise.

Economics professors John Nunley and Adam Pugh at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, Nicholas Romero of the University of Pennsylvania and Richard Seals of Auburn University in Alabama wanted to find out what was really going on in the jobs market for new graduates.

From January through July of last year, the researchers created 9,400 fictitious résumés for supposed recent graduates and sent them out to more than 2,000 online job openings in Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Dallas, Los Angeles, Minneapolis and Portland, Ore. The team’s paper was published by the Auburn University economics department in March.

They applied for jobs in banking, finance, insurance, management, marketing and sales. Each résumé claimed the applicant had graduated three years earlier, in 2010, and had only held one job since then.

They sent four different résumés for each job. In each they changed different variables. Half the résumés showed a major in business subjects, the other half a major in English, history, biology or psychology. One quarter of the résumés said the applicant had spent the summer before graduation as an intern in the same field as the job. (The study didn’t look at jobs requiring specific or technical degrees, such as education, computer programming or engineering.)

The bottom line? Five out of six candidates never heard back. Just 17% were invited to come in for an interview.

Majors didn’t matter. Those who had majored in business subjects didn’t do any better than those who hadn’t. English majors were as likely to get an interview as finance majors.

Even more remarkably, those who had a higher grade-point average or who had been an honors student didn’t do significantly better than those who hadn’t achieved either distinction. Any benefits, say the researchers, were minor and statistically insignificant.

What mattered from their college years: that summer internship.

Candidates whose résumés could point to pre-graduation work experience in the industry they were applying for were 14% more likely to get an interview. An English major with a middling GPA and a summer internship in a bank was more likely to get a job interview at a bank than an outstanding finance major who spent the summer touring Europe.

The percentage difference may seem slight, but it is significant. Wisconsin’s Mr. Nunley says that in the real world, it probably is even bigger than the study suggests.

By the time he and his fellow researchers sent out the résumés, he points out, the fictitious candidates already were three years out of college. If a college internship is still playing a role that far down the road, it is likely it would have played a much bigger one for those who had just graduated.

Furthermore, Mr. Nunley adds, the study’s findings don’t count all those interns in the real world who get hired by the company where they had their work experience.

A summer internship also cushioned job applicants from any résumé damage caused by working in a shop or a coffee bar for an extended period after graduation. The research found that employers appeared to penalize recent graduates who had been “underemployed” in low-level jobs since graduation, but that an internship cuts that damage in half.

“There is a huge return, even years later, to internships,” Auburn’s Mr. Seals says. This explains, he says, why so many young people are willing to work as interns for so little, or even, where allowed, for nothing at all.

The role of work experience or a relevant internship took the researchers by surprise. Mr. Seals says they were originally intending to look at the role of such variables as race and unemployment on interview rates. They added the internships to the résumés only as an afterthought.

Why do internships matter so much? Researchers don’t know, but they hazard some guesses. If you apply for a job in a bank, and you spent your last summer in college working in a bank, it suggests to the employer that you are interested, have some knowledge of the business and were able to function in a work environment.

Conversely, why do majors and grades matter so little? Mr. Nunley suggests grade inflation may play a role, and that perhaps all that really matters to employers is that you have a college degree.

According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, a non-profit that connects college career-service departments and recruiters, over half of recent graduates worked as an intern while at college.

The other half need to follow suit. That trip to Europe may have to wait.

Keyword: Internship in Asia 

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