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Internship 1: The Absurdity of High-School Internships

If you think about it, high school student internship is absurd.  What do these kids know to contribute anything?

Internship 1: The Absurdity of High-School Internships

By James H. Choi
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To Sabio Parents,

We hear about high-school internships all the time. But once we set out to find such an opportunity for our kids, the elusive “high-school internship” becomes almost mythical: mentioned but never sighted.

If one thinks about it, it is rather absurd a high-school student would even aspire to hold an internship. At least college students have been preparing for internships for years. College students intern in the field they know they will enter as a career. But high-school students? What do they know? Not a lot.

It is important to understand the subtext of this absurdity — that high-school students seek college-level internships but know hardly anything — if you want your child to take fullest advantage of high-school internships.

First of all, let’s define “Internship.” Internships refers to a range of activities from simple, part-time jobs to paper-shuffling volunteer work. In these two cases, the term “internship” is an empty title. The positions are as easy or difficult to obtain as any other part-time job or volunteer work. There is little to be said about these.

Below, I’ll focus on a second type of internship: the research opportunity. Research opportunities give students an ultimate honor: a chance to co-author a research paper. There is no better proof of a student’s worthiness than performing real research for publication in an academic journal (he or she might be the last author listed). This is an honor even college students rarely achieve.

So how can your student get a high-school research opportunity? There are broadly two cases.

Case 1: Sponsored Research

Organizations such as NIH (National Institute of Health) and companies such as Motorola often run summer internship programs. These community-service programs focus on spreading good will and brand recognition of the organization or company. In other words, the interns are doing no real work. Even interns assigned research projects end up performing sand-box projects — inconsequential to the organizer. Of course, the work has to be inconsequential. Would you want your medical treatment to hinge on a high-school student’s summer discovery? But this type of opportunity should be grabbed anyway, with two hands whenever possible, because they are still far more valuable than one of those expensive summer programs, the names of which seem always to begin with “Global Leadership ….” But remember: This is not the type of internship that makes a college admissions officer sit up and read the application twice.
http://dl.dropbox.com/u/6378458/Column/Info/English/SpecialEvents.gifCase 2: Real Laboratory Research

A high-school student who finds him or herself in the middle of actual research is the product of some heavy arm-twisting behind the scenes. Thus, usually only students from academically connected families can find this type of internship. But it’s worth noting that getting a foot in the laboratory’s door does not necessarily open another door. These students often end up accomplishing nothing — in spite of being in the middle of action the whole time. So what’s the problem? This outcome is actually understandable, even logical, if you consider the research director’s two goals for high-school interns:

  1. Don’t let him or her disrupt the experiments and research or damage equipment.
  2. Make sure he or she is kept away from even the slightest dangers so as to return to the parents safely.

Because of these goals, the high-school student can hardly learn, let alone contribute, to the research during his or her internship.

Amazingly, those lucky students who have the arm-twisting parents seem to completely unaware of this reality. They walk into the laboratory totally unprepared. I’ve come up with only one logical interpretation of how this blase attitude and subsequent squandering of their lucky break happens. It can happen only students and parents think the following scenario will unfold upon the student’s arrival at the lab:

The research director sees the new intern’s potential right away. He cancels all his classes, meeting and trips so he can focus on teaching this new intern the fundamentals of science on which research at this lab is based. The intern understands everything, including the research’s implications and ramifications. The graduate students at the lab also see the potential of this high-potential high-school student, and they postpone their own work to aid the intellectual growth of this new intern. The intern catches up with the science by the end of the first week and starts leading the experiment by the second week. By the third week, the intern raises the level of the research so high that now the experiment has a shot at winning the Nobel Prize. On the day of departure, the intern has to tear himself away from the lab’s members, who are also unable to let him go, for the success of the experiment depends solely on the intern’s brilliance. The intern leaves with a parting word: “I am still a kid,” he says. They had forgotten this. “I need to go back home and finish high school. I will come help you again when I find some spare time.”

Actually, I don’t know what goes on in high-school students’ heads. But this scenario is the only way I can understand students who have the audacity to show up unprepared.

Needless to say, the intern will have much to say about his or her experience at the lab, how he or she “learned very much.” But, in this scenario, there can be no mention of the intern’s contribution and no chance he or she will become one of the authors of the research because the only thing the intern did was looking on the experiment from a safe distance, or cleaned the equipment after the experiment.


It sounds bleak. It seem an unprepared high-school student has no way to score a knock-out internship experience or accomplishment. After all, these are high-school kids. We should be reasonable in what we expect and demand from them.

But I am not writing this to show you just the absurdity and bleakness of high-school internships. On the contrary, I want to show you how to make the most of your student’s opportunities through adequate preparation. Your students have a shot to get the highest academic honors and records by becoming published researchers — and they have this chance in high school only through careful preparation.

My next letters will explain one possible preparation procedure and a success story.


James H. Choi


Categories: Internship
  1. June 3, 2015 at 1:31 am

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