Two summers ago I took on an internship you could describe as a horror story. I was still a biology student at the time, and I took a job in a research lab.
I wasn’t exactly sure what I was going to learn from the position, but it would be my first internship ever and I was excited to get started.
As this was a marine biology lab, a good deal of the research involved looking at ocean animals. In the beginning I enjoyed learning about the different species and discovering how to pick out qualifying features. It was fun because I was actually learning new skills and getting better at something.
Reality Sets In
Around week two I was introduced to my swivel chair. It sat in the back corner of the office along with an ancient computer monitor. I didn’t think much about it in that moment, but if I could go back in time I would have screamed at my old self, “Run! Run away!”
That swivel chair was my go-to location for the next three months. I sat there every day for eight hours, focused on that monitor.
Previously that year a research cruise had returned from a journey across the Atlantic. It had taken 12 samples from different locations for this particular research project and it was my job to analyze the samples.
In order to conduct the analysis, a picture was take of a portion of each sample. This HD picture was then uploaded to a computer. Once on the computer, you could zoom in on 1/1,000th of the image and label the roughly 50 animals inside.
With about 1,000 boxes to analyze per photograph, one sample could take a week to complete. With 12 samples total I had my work cut out for me over that 3-month summer.
Time Passes Slowly
The woman sitting next to me wasn’t counting animals. She counted bubbles. It gave her headaches, and when I asked her why she did this she said, “I don’t have a choice.” That line cut me to my core and I ominously rotated my head back towards my own computer screen.
Another woman down the hall had been counting plankton like this for 25 years. I really didn’t get it. She was so nice, and even now I feel a little like crying thinking about how she could do that to herself.
By the end of the second month I was itching to finish the job. Like a prisoner suffering from water torture I was slowly going insane.
Drip... Drip... Drip...
Click… Click... Click…
When my last day finally arrived, I let out a sigh of utter relief. I said my goodbyes, and looking back at the office as I walked away, I couldn’t help feeling sorry for the people trapped inside, especially the woman who “didn’t have a choice.”
Certain internships are valuable because of the skills you learn on the job. Some help you meet people who will propel your career forward. Others can help you find what you’re really passionate about and fire you up for your future!
The value I got from this internship was in learning what I didn’t want to do. I don’t belong in that “lab” setting. While this was a hard lesson to learn, I’m now much more prone than my peers to strive for what I want and not just what I think will be “mediocre but comfortable.”
While I wouldn’t go so far as to say I would do it over again, the lessons I took from that summer have differentiated me from my peers.
I’m currently in Vietnam, and I’ve just accepted a very different internship than the one described above. I’ll be doing marketing work for a resort in the Philippines. In addition to the business experience, the deal comes with free food and housing in their beachfront property.
I have no doubt that this experience will be more exciting than my marine biology internship, but I do credit my decision to take this leap in part to my days clicking on plankton. It was those long hours, my eyes glazing over and my clicking hand growing sore, that made me look at myself in the mirror and say, “Something here needs to change.”