(Re)Design Your Summer Internship

Photo by Prateek Katyal on Pexels.com

As COVID-19 wreaks havoc on the American economy, many students are seeing their summer internships cancelled and even withdrawn by employers. Even those fortunate enough to still have an internship are likely to have a summer experience very different that the one they imagined months ago when they interviewed and received their offer. 

Faced with this reality, it is easy to despair and fall back into dysfunctional beliefs. But adopting a design thinking mindset can allow you to reframe the situation, and build your way forward in a way that not only can salvage your summer, but might open up new and exciting possibilities for your career. 

Dysfunctional Belief

“My summer internship has been cancelled. My summer is now wasted. I’m never going to get ahead in my chosen career field.”


“While my summer internship may have been cancelled, I can still use my summer effectively to develop professionally and move forward in my career.”

Before beginning the process of (re)designing your summer internship, it’s important to accept that many things are out of your control. There is very little you can do about COVID-19 (except to #StayHome) and probably nothing you could have done to prevent the change in your summer plans. Now is not the time to look towards the past with regret (“if only I had taken the offer with firm A – they are still moving forward with their internship!”) but rather to look towards the future with a design thinking mindset.

Want to learn more about the Accept step? Check out Bill Burnett and Dave Evans discussing “Generative Acceptance” during this time.

Before moving forward with developing new plans, take the time to reflect on where you are now, what you had originally hoped to get out of your summer internships, and where you hope to be in the future. It can be helpful to write down your answers to the following questions in a journal, as you will refer back to them for the next step: 

How are you feeling?

Now’s a good time to check in on how you are feeling, right now, in this moment.  Exercises like the Work / Play / Love / Health Balance Worksheet and similar activities can be helpful in pinpointing areas of your life which might be out of balance.  If you need to focus on your current state of wellbeing before designing your future summer, feel free to put a pause on this activity. 

What did you hope to gain from your summer internship? 

Internships are rarely only valuable in and of themselves. Rather, students pursue internships because they offer opportunities to gain skills, connections, exposure, and experience not available through their studies. Think about what you hoped to get out of your summer internship. Did you hope to gain new skills? Build your network? Gain exposure to a specific area or industry? Earn money? Experience living in a new city? Get an “in” at a specific organization or firm? 

Are you still heading in the right direction?

Is the direction in which you were heading prior to COVID-19 still the right direction for you? Or has your experience in the pandemic shifted your view about your own career and purpose? Will the career field for which you were preparing be hiring in a year or two when you graduate? Has the crisis opened up new pathways and opportunities that hadn’t occurred to you before? Now is an excellent time to reassess your career direction and life purpose and, if necessary, make a pivot.

What are your gravity problems?

In design thinking, a gravity problem is a fact of life that can’t be solved or bent to your will. COVID-19, the shelter-in-place orders currently in effect throughout most of the world, and the cancellation of summer internships and closure of businesses are gravity problems shared by almost everyone. But you may have gravity problems of your own – family members to take care of, being stuck in a region of the country far removed from employers in your chosen field, needing to make money to help support your family. Make note of these, as you will need to build your way forward with them in mind.

How much time and energy are you able to commit to your summer experience?

Let’s face it. While social media is suddenly filled with tips for baking bread, learning new languages, and taking Google tours of European museums, many of us are faced with new obligations and challenges that make it difficult to devote significant time and mental energy to self-improvement or career development. Students who were fully prepared for an intense internship on Wall Street or in Silicon Valley may feel the need to spend more time focused on self-care or their family. At the same time, other students who had planned to take classes this summer in addition to a part-time internship may want to devote more energies towards their professional development.  Regardless of where you are, make note of these limitations and expectations.

Use the information gained from the above reflection exercise to define the problem and draft a short problem statement that will lead to a question that will allow for successful ideation.  (Take note of my earlier posts “5 Common Pitfalls in Defining the Problem” and “Attributes of an Effective Problem Statement“ if you need help with this step). Examples of possible questions might include:

“While I’m disappointed that I will not be able to do a tech internship in San Francisco this summer, I feel confident that this is the right career path for me and eager to devote considerable time this summer to developing professionally in this field. How might I spend my summer so that I am developing my skills as a software engineer and growing my network in Silicon Valley from my family’s house in Colorado?

“I was initially panicked by the cancellation of the internships I was applying to this summer, but I realize now it has provided me with an opportunity to pivot back to my original interest in global public health. I’m excited by this new (old) direction and eager to move forward, but already know that I will need to spend a large chunk of my day this summer taking care of my younger siblings while my parents work. How might I use my free time in the evenings and weekends this summer to explore career options and gain professional skills so that I will be ready for an internship next summer?”

“My life seemed to be on the right track at the beginning of the semester, but since I left campus things have started to unravel. Not only has my internship at a small firm in New York been cancelled, but the anxiety issues that I had under control have now returned. I want to move forward in my career, but I recognize that I need to take care of my own mental health. How might I approach the summer so that I am still moving towards my goal of working at a small green energy start-up while carving out enough time for self-care?

Now that you have defined the problem and framed a question for which you hope to seek answers, the next step is to brainstorm possible solutions.  You want to gather as many ideas as possible, including and especially wild ideas, ideas that seem infeasible, ideas that seem wrong or counterintuitive, etc. In other words, don’t simply limit yourself to obvious answers or solutions you’ve already considered. The goal here is to push yourself and expand your notion of what is possible. 

Successful ideation depends on radical collaboration – the process of working together with individuals with diverse backgrounds, strengths and perspectives. To facilitate radical collaboration and generate a broader range of ideas and solutions, I recommend forming a Virtual Ideation Team to assist you in your efforts. In building your team, consider recruiting the following people:

  1. Your Life Design Educator – or for non-JHU students, someone in your career office
  2. Your academic adviser – or another university professional to whom you turn for academic and personal advice and counsel
  3. A faculty member – someone who has taught you and who you know, regardless of whether they are in the same department in which you are majoring. If you weren’t able to connect with a faculty member in college a high school teacher can work
  4. A family member – parents, older siblings, cousins, etc. Don’t necessarily be too concerned if they are working in a different field than the one which you intend to pursue
  5. A peer – preferably someone whose perspective you value but which is very different than yours (i.e. someone in a different major, or who has a different career interest, or who has a different background/identity).
  6. At least one alumni mentor – If you haven’t yet connected with an alumni mentor, set up an account at PeopleGrove and start building those connections. (For non-JHU students who might not have access to PeopleGrove, LinkedIn is an excellent to connect with alumni in your intended field.) 

Once you have your team in place, create a document using Google Docs (or your preferred web-based collaborative word processor) and write your problem at the top. Then email the link to each member of your team and ask them to offer as many ideas as they can to address your question/problem statement.  It might be helpful to offer guidelines for brainstorming, especially if your team members are unfamiliar with the design thinking process (see the IDEOU website for an example of ideation guidelines).

Even if each member of your team offers only three or four ideas, you should have a pretty sizable list.  Now take the time to go through the list and identify those ideas that sound promising. In evaluating ideas you may wish to consider the following questions:

  • Which ideas could be implemented with little cost or effort (i.e. the low hanging fruit)?
  • Which ideas most excite or delight you?
  • Which ideas were the most surprising or unexpected?
  • Which ideas are most closely aligned with your goals for the summer? For your career?

Hopefully you were able to identify several ideas that seem doable and even a few wild ideas that are worth considering.

While it can be hard to prototype an internship that itself is a bit of an experiment, one approach might be to create mock job descriptions for three possible internships / immersive experiences. Using existing internship descriptions as your template, create a detailed job description for your own Self-Designed Internship. Possible questions you might address include:

  • What is your title?
  • When will the internship start and end?
  • What tasks will you work on?
  • What will be the deliverable or final product?
  • Who will you be accountable to? If you won’t have a supervisor in this internship, can you arrange periodic check ins with an alumni mentor to update them on your progress or ask them to review your final product?
  • How many hours will you work? What will your daily / weekly schedule look like?
  • If your internship prototype will combine several discrete projects, is there a specific order in which you will complete them? What ties them all together?
  • What skills will you develop during this internship? Include both hard/technical skills as well as soft/success skills?

After writing out two or three possible internship descriptions, share your prototypes with your ideation team and gather their feedback. Does one prototype stand out from the others as the preferred choice? Can you combine promising aspects of different prototypes? Are there prototypes you can cross off your list?

Hopefully you now have a promising prototype of a summer experience that will move your career forward, in spite of all of obstacles you may face this summer.  Now test it out and see how it works.  Throughout the summer, check in with your ideation team to let them know how things are going, solicit their feedback, and, if necessary, discuss possible modifications to your plans to maximize the experience. One of the nice things about the experience you just designed is that you can easily modify it over the course of your summer.

And don’t forget to check in with the Life Design Lab at the end of the summer for strategies on how to incorporate your internship into your CV or resume, discuss your experience in interviews and cover letters, and effectively tell your story to potential employers and graduate schools.

Life Design Images (c) 2017 Bill Burnett, Dave Evans and Stanford University

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