Thursday, March 21, 2013

How to Win Your Internship and Parlay It into a Successful Career

Internship season is year-round.  If you're just starting to think about one for next semester and it's two months out, you're late to the party.  Getting a good internship is a competitive process.  You should start working on securing one about six months to a year in advance of the time you want to begin interning.

Cultivate those connections early!

Whether you want to intern for a New York fashion magazine, for Disney or in the sports department in a Dallas/Fort Worth newsroom, there are things you should focus on doing to get the most out of that internship. 

As a lifelong TV sports anchor, reporter and host, I receive a slew of internship requests and email asking me how to break into the business.  These inquiries come from students, burned-out professionals looking to make a career change and parents of students looking to get in the business.  The latter is disappointing, frankly.  If you really want to work in what many consider a dream career, you need to show the initiative to make contact with me and ask questions.  Don't rely on your parents.

The series "How To Win Your Internship and Parlay It Into a Successful Career" is focused on arming you with advice to maximize your experience as an intern.  It features advice from former and current interns I've worked with over the years as well as advice from a colleague who currently vets and approves interns for the sports department at CBS11 & TXA21.

Let's start with my internship story.  I did a bit of an end-around to gain experience in the career field I wanted.  Through hard work, the internship resulted in a job in the exact industry I wanted which ultimately led to my first full-time on-air job.  

My Internship Story
I wanted to be sports broadcaster from the time I was about 14 years old.  When I got to college at the University of Houston, I realized the importance of hands-on experience, particularly in my field.  It is much more a trade than anything.   You learn the most while you're actually doing the job.

I was only a sophomore in college when I started contacting Houston TV and radio stations about a possible internship.  Because I was so "young" in my college career, I wasn't eligible for my internship to count for college credit which meant no local station would allow me to work with them.

So I took another route.

The year was 1994 and the Houston Rockets had just won their first NBA championship but subsequently fired a number of employees including their previous Director of Media Services.  The team hired a woman from Notre Dame to fill that role.  She started as a one-person department and I knew she was overwhelmed.  I called her every week day for a month to inquire about helping her.  We finally connected and she offered me an internship.

It was a lot of work and I was already busy.  I was taking a full course load at school and was a hostess at the Grotto restaurant a few nights when I was free.  She was flexible and had me come in whenever I could, which was a lot.  It was more like a part-time job than anything else.  I went directly to the Summit, the former Rockets home, as soon as I got off school and worked most game nights.  The work was sometimes mindless but important, educational and fun.  It consisted of the following and more:
  • Compiling daily press clippings, delivering them to the staff and faxing them to the owner.  This was in the days of cutting and pasting newspaper on copy paper.  It was a lengthy process.
  • Arranging seats on press row, another job that's more difficult than you would think: Who sits where? Which local guy is going to get booted because a national guy is coming to the game? Who are you going to piss off?
  • Distributing passes and game information to visiting media and VIP's like George Foreman (whose fly was open), Jason Patric and Christy Turlington (who were an item at the time), Warren Moon, Jeff Bagwell and more.
  • Updating game notes and delivering in-game and post-game stats to media, scouts and team personnel.
  • Making sure then Rockets beat writer and now Mavs beat writer Eddie Sefko had beer after the game.
  • Keeping players wives away from their girlfriends.  Kidding.  Sort of.
I made a lot of mistakes.  I almost lost my internship when I gave a VIP guest pass to the friend of an assistant coach after the team's Vice President told me specifically "NO MORE GUEST PASSES."  Dumb move on my part.  My boss was so made she made me cry on the job.  I didn't get the boot but I got a big kick in the ass and learned a lesson.  

That's the great thing about internships.  You CAN make mistakes and learn.  When you have a job that comes with a paycheck and expectations of nonstop success, mistakes are rarely tolerated.  The great opportunity you have as an intern is that you can exceed any expectations companies might have for you and blow them away. 

As I came into my own with the Rockets, I was given more responsibilities.  I got to write articles for basketball publications.  One story was a riveting piece on Zan Tabak who oddly enough always seemed to be sidelined with the very ambiguous "flu-like symptoms with vertigo".

The stories earned me a few hundred dollars but gave me much-needed writing experience.  I traveled with the team a couple of times during the playoffs when the media requests were overwhelming.  I even helped coordinate media interviews which enabled me to prove myself to local reporters, producers and photographers better.

I lucked out.  The Rockets won their second NBA championship that year.  It was the most fun I ever had.  I developed great relationships with local media members.  I was offered two jobs following my internship while I was still in school.

I eventually took a part-time job as an associate sports producer at KHOU-TV and was able to get college credit for an internship while I was actually getting paid to do a job!  SCORE.  That ultimately led to my first full-time job as the sports director at the NBC affiliate, KUAM-TV, in Guam.  Really.

The best bonus: I received an NBA championship ring.  This was something that then-Rockets GM Bob Weinhaur determined.  I, along with my fellow media services intern, Michelle, and only two other interns received rings.  This was a big deal.  Even better: I made some awesome friendships that have lasted to this very day.

I had lunch with a former Rockets VP a year after the internship while I was working at KHOU and he told me something I still take to heart.

"You did everything right," he said.

"I fooled you!" I joked.

I wouldn't agree that I did every right.  No intern rarely does.  I might have gotten a bit of a big head at certain times and there was that VIP guest pass incident.  I did, though, try to respect everyone, be nice and work as hard as I could to do the best job possible.

The takeaway from the experience:
  • Be nice and respectful to everyone.  It seems so simple but I feel the need to keep stressing this.
  • Be proactive in your responsibilities: Ask what you can do to help.  Connect with as many people as possible to learn about what they do and see if you can be an asset to their team.  Don't sit and surf the internet.  There is ALWAYS something to do.
  • Do the grunt work.  The glamorous responsibilities will come but you have to prove you can handle the menial stuff first.
  • Don't be afraid to take an internship opportunity that is not in the exact career field you're interested in entering.  The Rockets internship gave me valuable media services and team PR experience but also put me in contact with important people in local TV news which ultimately lead to my first sports media job.
  • Don't be afraid to work.  Hard.  It will impress people. 
  • Ask questions.  Lots.  People want to help interns.
  • Have fun but be a professional about it.  You don't want to be THAT intern from the company party that employees are talking about over coffee the next morning. 
  • Keep in touch with people.  You never know when that connection will work for you.
Internships are work.  Getting a good one, succeeding at it and juggling it with school, part-time jobs and more is not easy but it's all worth it.  Make the most of the experience.  If you do, you will boost your resume and make wonderful relationships that can last a lifetime and help you professionally the length of your career.

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