A Summer Internship Saga

It was 9:30 p.m. on a Friday night in May, only eleven hours before my last final of the first year. I had just received a phone call from the company with whom I thought I would be working for the summer, and suddenly I was unemployed. So like any veteran first-year student faced with a crisis, I headed to ABP for a beer. Make no mistake, I knew that taking a job with a small start-up would have its difficulties, but I did not expect to be starting my job hunt all over after most of my fellow students had already skipped town.

I actually started the year with the expectation that I would be working for a consulting firm during the summer. They offered well structured programs with a pretty good track record with past HBS students. I migrated from recruiting presentation to recruiting presentation chowing down on plates of shrimp without a concern for the summer. And just like the lemmings heading for a cliff, I was in for a big fall.

After hearing far too many company presentations, I started blowing off the later ones, and by the time we got to the resume deadline, I only sent out six resumes. Hell Week, I thought, went quite well, but to my surprise I ended up with nothing. I was a little more shocked than disappointed: my ego was bruised.

Then began Phase Two of my summer job search. As it turns out, most recruiting during the fall and early spring is for the large established MBA summer internship programs. Thus banking, consulting and marketing companies finished their process by the end of February.

Just as these big firms are winding down, a lot of the smaller companies begin their process. The independent job search also hits high gear. A lot of students head off to places like San Francisco to look for the elusive venture capital job or to Los Angeles for a studio position.

There are literally hundreds of options. As a result, even though we were approaching the middle of March, I felt little pressure as I had plenty of continuing contacts with companies. And while there is safety in numbers, like being one of McKinsey’s 50 HBS summer people, these other possibilities offered unique opportunities in companies that are not used to having a motivated HBS summer worker.

I stumbled upon the company I eventually planned to work for during a case study. The company was new and growing, with a quirky sort of culture I thought I would enjoy. A professor of mine spoke highly of the company, and I interviewed with them in early April. The company had not planned to have an HBS summer intern, but like a lot of companies, they were easily persuaded of the value in having a short-term, hard working, project orientated summer intern.

Most company presidents have projects that they always wanted to do, but had neither the time nor personnel resources to handle it. I also discovered that our professors are a wealth of information about companies and industries, and are a great point of introduction to company executives for determined HBS first-years.

Thus, I found myself in early May negotiating a salary with a great company for a mid-May start date. The Friday night phone call came from the company cofounder who said that their venture backers had mandated a specific level of operating profits, and as a result, my salary was killed.

So for the second time during the spring, I started my job search all over. This time I found the whole process a little frustrating as I was expecting to be working in mid-May rather than sending out resumes. While the career center at HBS was very helpful, I just wasn’t motivated. I sent out a few resumes and had a couple of interviews, but I actually spent most of May golfing and going out in Boston.

I received my first contact from Guinness in a phone call on Monday the 27th of May. The vice-president of strategic planning had contacted the Office of Career Services. He was looking for an MBA student to work in Jamaica for the summer to help with strategy. The OCS screened all of their remaining resumes and forwarded several on to the company, a beer brewing giant.

I had no experience in beer or soft drinks during my previous work experience, but my initial phone interview went well. I drove down to Stamford, CT that Friday for a face-to-face interview, and woke up Saturday morning employed. How things change.

Exactly seven days after first hearing from Guinness I was working, and one day later I was on a plane to Kingston, Jamaica for an outstanding summer. The Jamaican subsidiary was extremely interesting, and in the twelve weeks there I learned a ton about the beverage industry, marketing and strategy. Best of all, my experience occurred not in steamy New York or Boston, but in the tropical beauty of the Caribbean.

My advice to first year job seekers is to sit down early and think about what you really want to be doing during the summer. There are enough opportunities offered to students at Harvard that no one should take a position that is just a job rather than an experience. Talk to the second-year students, meet with your professors, and visit the OCS to see what is really available and interesting. Oh, and good luck!
Originally printed 12/04/01