The MBA summer internship started out as an American phenomenon, and there are still very few such openings available outside the United States or offered by non-US companies. The reason is that almost all graduate business schools in other parts of the world have one-year, full-time MBA programmes. Therefore, most of their graduates complete the course and have a short summer break before re-entering the workforce. In contrast, most top US business schools offer two-year MBA programmes, giving companies the chance to assess the talent pool by recruiting high-calibre summer interns and trying them out with a view to later full-time roles.
Even so, the MBA internship is a slightly weird creation. Most people now see it not just as a matter of giving and gaining useful experience, but as a crucial part of the recruitment process. Employers realise that observing how someone performs on the job is the best way of judging his or her long-term suitability and potential. Essentially, that is why the MBA internship came about. However, it does also provide a great opportunity for students contemplating a career switch to see exactly what the job, company and sector are all about.
Given that, the reason I find it weird is because, whatever the short-term responsibilities, an internship is not a “real” job. Typically, MBA students are thrown into a working environment which might seem real, but differs in important ways. As “trainee managers”, or “summer associates”, the interns are assigned to a team and usually have subordinates to lead. They are given tasks and projects to demonstrate their business skills and managerial talents.
However, this inevitably creates an interesting dynamic. The summer associates may rank higher in the corporate hierarchy than fellow team members, but they may also have little or no relevant experience. They have to learn from other staff about many aspects of the work and the firm’s culture. To operate effectively, they may well be completely dependent on the assistance and co-operation of their subordinates. Without that, MBA interns are walking on thin ice and will have trouble contributing in any significant way.
If they hope to return to the same company after graduation, they must fit in quickly, win over advocates, and take every chance to prove themselves. They must also stay on top of the daily routine, while figuring out what they want to do and multi-tasking in order to make an impression on as many people as possible.
When asked, I advise MBA students about to start internships to expect some tough tasks, not complain about them, and always show willing. By being nice to everyone, you earn the respect of your team. In general, it is amazing how many people don’t get these basics right, therefore spoiling their chances of getting an offer to return to a full-time role the following year.