Why Not Dive into the Unknown? Making the Most of your Internship in a New Industry

By: Julia Chen, MBA/LGO ’21, Spring Core Fellow

Three months ago, I made the decision to pivot my career into an industry that was completely unfamiliar to me when I decided to apply to business school. While b-school fuels inspiration and prepares us for new career opportunities, it can also place us at a crossroads where we struggle to decide which direction to take. I’d love to share my takeaways from exploring a new industry and making an unexpected career pivot:

Experiment with your Internship
During a global pandemic, things may not always go as planned. While internships for many organizations are the key to a full-time offer, they can also be a one-off opportunity to explore a whole new field, with very little risk.

  • Understand your Priorities: Whether it is industry, impact, location or function, establishing a priority list can help narrow down your options and better allocate your time and effort for opportunities that truly interest you.
  • Give the Entrepreneurial Spirit a Chance: In addition to trying out a new industry or functional role, the summer internship is also a great time to leverage the MIT network for your long-held start-up ideas and a way to take advantage of the entrepreneurship resources available on campus.

Maintain your Hunger to Learn
Entering a new field without the relevant technical training or industrial knowledge can be intimidating, but the accelerated learning curve is very rewarding.

  • Trust your instincts: There may be moments of self-doubt, but it is important to remember that you have something unique that you alone bring to the table. Without being tied to the ‘standard practice’ and if delivered skillfully, an outsider’s perspective can prove valuable to the subject matter experts.
  • Prepare to ask Yes/No Questions: It is much easier to get a clear and concrete answer to a Y/N question than one that is open-ended. I always prepare a hypothesis or an action plan before consulting a team member. For instance, I’ll ask ‘am I on the right track to include X’s performance data for the system evaluation?’ rather than asking an open-ended question like ‘where do you suggest I should start?’.  The process of preparing these hypotheses also forced me to search, learn and be prepared for the next layer of the conversation.
  • Act as if this is your Last Chance to Experience a New Industry: It’s possible that you decide not to continue with the industry. But, no learning goes to waste and you would never want to regret not trying hard enough before choosing something else.  Assuming the internship is your last chance to work in a new field, your curiosity could help you stay motivated and engaged, and bring you a more rewarding work experience.

Know Where to Get Help
It is more important to know where to get help to find the answer than it is to know the answer in the first place. A few things that I have done that have helped me navigate a highly technical industry:

  • Online/Open Source Classes: It might take more time, but taking structured intro-level courses is a great way to establish high-level understanding of the overall industry, development trends, players and key technologies. It also helps to pick up buzzwords to use in your coffee chats. Since a lot of classes are currently virtually, it is also much easier to request access to course material or a recording for self-paced study.
  • The Sloanie Network: Many organizations provide staff directories that allow searching by school – our alumni network has been a primary source of support, besides my internship team. Our alumni offered me technical input, critical feedback and honest insights about full-time career opportunities and the culture within the organization.
  • Coffee Chats: Compiling a list of people to set up 1:1s during the first week will set you up for a strong start. The names could come from your direct supervisor and people you might interact with. Your coffee mates could also be people from functions and roles that are of interest for the future. It always helps to establish a warm and friendly connection before working together and making a few new friends with whom you can grab lunch or join a virtual happy hour can also ease the transition into a new environment.

It can be nerve-racking, but at the same time exhilarating, to pursue a career in a new industry, an unfamiliar environment or take on an unconventional role. There are no “perfect decisions”, but at the end of the day, we are all capable of making the most out of whatever the future beholds!

By Julia Chen, MBA '21
Julia Chen, MBA '21 *Spring Fellow