Why internships abroad matter

These offer both international experience and exposure to cultures—work and otherwise—that may be different from your own


John Brennan (left) with his classmates from the Chicago Booth School of Business, US, at Care24 in Mumbai. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
John Brennan (left) with his classmates from the Chicago Booth School of Business, US, at Care24 in Mumbai. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

In July, eight students from the master’s in business administration programme at The University of Chicago Booth School of Business, US, travelled to India for three weeks on internships. In Bengaluru, they worked with logistics start-up Porter and Web design start-up Oodi Design, before travelling to Delhi to work with craft beer company Bira91 and energy solutions company Inficold, and finally interning in Mumbai with healthcare provider Care24. Each student divided his/her time between three companies.

The trip, which had been in the works for almost a year, cost about $2,000 (around Rs1.36 lakh) per person, including travel and staying costs. The students were given no stipend, but they say the internships were worth the time, the trouble and the expense.

“Students need to think of such internships as they would tuition for classes and housing on a university campus. It is an investment in their future. Sure, these investments aren’t cheap but they provide incredible returns as multinational companies are looking for future managers with international experience and exposure to different cultures,” says J.J. Hummon, US-based executive director of the website www.international-intern ships.com. Himanshu Aggarwal, co-founder at Gurgaon-based employability assessment company. Aspiring Minds, agrees. Aggarwal, who also runs internship listing portal Letsintern.com, says listings for international internships are a growing category. "The return on investment is phenomenal—both in the aspect of learning about another culture, apart from the actual learning at work,” he says. Letsintern.com primarily offers domestic internship listings, though it has some international listings too.

Different perspectives

International internships look good on résumés, give students exposure to diverse learning, and are sure-shot conversation starters in any job interview.  And if your mentors at the interning organizations are pleased with your performance, you may have a job offer the next time round, or at least a LinkedIn recommendation.  

It was the prospect of learning both at work and in an alien environment that drew the Booth team to India. “We wanted to have the global exposure of working in a market outside the US. The types of conversations that you have get your mind going and provide a perspective that might not have otherwise been there," says John Brennan, 30, one of the group of Booth MBA students. Brennan had only worked in the US market before, and wanted to see how start-ups functioned in an emerging market . 

The same was true for 22-year-old Kirtika Jain, a student of fashion at the National Institute of Fashion Design, Ahmedabad. “I wanted to work in New York, because it is the capital of fashion and I could get to learn about all the latest fashion trends,” says Jain. After interning with Mumbai-based designers Allia Al Rufai and Manju Gupta and working on the folk arts of Gujarat, she decided to apply abroad. Jain was thrilled to get an internship with New York-based fashion designer Norisol Ferrari and feels it taught her a lot. “I learnt ways of working, in fitting, in making mock-ups of garments and in styling, that were entirely different to the way things are done in India,” she says. It also taught her a lot about dealing with more exacting Western customers, and just dealing with people at work who were different from her. The internship with Norisol Ferrari, like many of those abroad, didn’t come with a stipend. But since Jain was staying with relatives, her expenses were manageable.

Foreign internships also help young people sharpen their survival skills by exposing them to unfamiliar geographies and cultural situations. “It’s the little things you learn that are so useful. The ability to work with supervisors who have different backgrounds helps you in the workplace,” says 22-year-old Canadian-born Varun Banthia, a bachelor of commerce student at The University of British Columbia in Canada. He  feels internships have been a way for him to develop skills that will be useful later in his career. Banthia currently works as a research intern with Amit Karna, associate professor of strategy at the Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Ahmedabad.

Planning ahead

Planning an international internship can be as complicated as finding a job. It’s best done early. The Booth students began their planning almost a year in advance, studying the start-up landscape in India and contacting several companies through a network of alumni.

Jain began her application process six months in advance, sending her portfolio to different New York-based fashion brands. Banthia says he wrote to as many as 20 professors from the IIMs some months ago, applying for the position of a research intern. He spent time researching each professor, and followed up diligently. “The fact that he reached out to me on his own, and that he had read and analysed research papers I had written made an impression on me,” says Prof. Karna. 

Getting the economics right is the first step to a foreign internship. “Applicants must have enough funds to support themselves to cover living expenses,” says Hummon . Then there is the issue of aligning internships in other countries with the academic schedule in your country. Here, Aggarwal advises students to allow for some flexibility with their academic calendars, taking leave from their college if necessary.

Some universities are flexible when it comes to internships. Still, the length of internship will end up being determined by your academic schedule. Banthia took a term off for his research internship, while Jain looked for a two-month assignment.

The Booth team had to fit their assignment into a three-week slot. This became a point of concern for the organizations they were interning with. “I wasn’t very sure that things would work given the short span of time,” say Vipin Pathak, co-founder at Care24. The Booth MBA students made up for their short stint by beginning the internship work while still in Chicago. They did the background reading on the industries and had Skype conversations with the founders and team members on critical areas for each business that they could work on.

Many of the foreign interns tend to be highly qualified. “Top talent from foreign universities is gravitating to India on international internships, especially in development sectors such as education and healthcare,” says Aggarwal. Young people like these are attracted by the opportunities to work with real markets and real data for many developmental products. They also bring in excellent research backgrounds and an outside perspective.

Prof. Karna found that this fresh perspective helped his study. Banthia was helping research cluster manufacturing in the automobile sector and his uncoloured perspective proved an asset. For Varun Kapoor, founder of Oodi, working with interns from a different country meant they “were able to be a lot more frank about the challenges facing” them. Pathak at Care24 also felt that the interns were able to give strategic inputs because they came from a more developed market, where they had studied models of comparative healthcare in great detail. “It was very useful for us. We would have loved to have had them for longer,” he says.

Whereas foreign students are active about internship opportunities in India, Indian students have been slower to intern abroad. Those who do often depend on exchange programmes that their colleges already have in place. Often, it’s the expense that holds them back, or the fact that their academic schedules clash with the internship periods.  Aggarwal believes it’s time Indian students pursued foreign internships more aggressively. “It’s easier to get an internship abroad than a job,” he says.

After all, there is nothing quite like an internship to find out more about people and places.  

Where you should look

 Apply to individual companies abroad by checking the internship opportunities on their websites. 

■ Join AIESEC, the international organization for students which offers internship programmes with companies around the world. For details, visit Aiesec.in. 

■ Check free listings on sites such as Internshala.com, Letsintern.com, Twenty19.com and GoAbroad.com. 

■Explore opportunities through college and alumni networks—the Booth students used these extensively to set up their internship.

■ Use the services of paid sites like www.international-internships.com. They charge around $3,000 (about Rs2 lakh) for arranging internships in countries such as the US, Israel, Spain and New Zealand. The charge is not inclusive of travel and accommodation.

■For research internships, apply to individual professors in academic and research institutions with an updated résumé and portfolio.

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