You don’t need a summer internship or summer research position.

Especially for undergraduates, there seems to be a pervasive culture of paranoia that correlates success with a surface-level LinkedIn update. I’ve experienced this firsthand, hearing the subtle encouragements from my business communications class or passive-aggressive murmurs in class of 2024 GroupMe chats. Don’t get me wrong, there are definitely merits to obtaining employment early on in your college career: You gain real-world insights, have experience to add to your resume and can potentially get paid. However, in my experience the current sentiment surrounding summer internships or research opportunities is more that of panic and settling for the sake of meeting societal expectations than pursuing positions that spark genuine interest. These attitudes subliminally influence student priorities today, creating damaging perceptions of self-worth that rely heavily on external validation to fight the pervasive imposter syndrome associated with feelings of “falling behind” in comparison to classmates. Additionally, many summer internships are unpaid, limiting access for lower income students who do not have the opportunity to engage in unpaid work.

Academic environments seem to breed a hyper-competitive atmosphere where accomplishment means landing a job at Company A, B or C. Consequently, I’ve seen some peers around me forget that the core purpose of utilizing internships is for learning experiences, which has now been overshadowed by the pure desire to hold any position, no matter how unfulfilling or rigorous. There seems to be a subtle sense of shame associated with not having an official position for the summer — an underlying guilt that falsely correlates an “empty” July as wasteful and unproductive. Internships, many argue, are necessary to build professional skills and display on resumes. But, though they certainly help showcase personal initiative, this doesn’t mean that academic progress and not having an internship are mutually exclusive. Rather, the freedom of self-directed summers allows for a more personalized curriculum and time to reconnect with pushed-aside aspirations without any of the formalities or administrative assignments that can be associated with traditional internships. This time can also be a great opportunity to pursue paid opportunities that aren’t internships, which is essential for students looking to reap financial benefits that unpaid work fails to offer. Through personal conversations with University of Michigan upperclassmen, I’ve found that some of the most dynamic people are utilizing diverse methods to guide their professional aspirations, and this conviction to approach careers as a fluid journey rather than a stagnant path has prompted personal excitement for the possibilities that my freshman summer holds.

If you don’t have an internship lined up for this summer, particularly with the uncertainties of the ongoing pandemic, there are still plenty of opportunities and activities to take advantage of. For undergraduates at the University, consider a university-sponsored program like Magnify, where students can participate in real-world consulting projects while obtaining class credit. Similarly, many online self-learning platforms like Coursera offer free courses for university students. Have you always wanted to learn Python but never had space in your schedule? Try this Python Basics course taught by Information professor Paul Resnick. Many costly software programs are also available for free: the University offers the entire Adobe Creative Cloud at no cost to students (regularly valued at over $300/year), so if you’ve ever wanted to try your hand at Photoshop or Premiere Pro, this is your chance! Ultimately, internships are promoted as learning experiences to help gauge industry interest and guide future recruiting. But, the aforementioned opportunities also serve as self-guided experiential leverage for full-time employment.

Whether it be passion projects, hometown jobs or simply not having a drawn-out plan, there’s merit in doing whatever feels right for you over the summer. Today’s academic environment has often created echo chambers of advocacy for singular paths to success. But full-time offers don’t equate to full-time happiness, and there is no dictionary definition for a summer well spent.


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