What’s the Point of School if Students Are Internmaxxing Instead?
Top image: Stephanie Lee / RICE File Photo

I’m currently doing a summer internship at RICE, and this is the only internship I intend to pursue throughout my undergraduate degree. Apparently, I’m the exception now.

Whenever my friends and family ask, “How’s internship?” it’s hard to answer with anything other than a tired sigh. So when I speak to Thea* and she sends me her LinkedIn, I feel exhausted just looking at my laptop screen. The 25-year-old NUS Business Administration graduate did six internships throughout her four-and-a-half years in university, spanning her summer breaks, winter breaks, and even term time.

And she isn’t the only one. SMU was the first university to introduce compulsory internships in 2019. Now, the university estimates that “The average SMU student completes between 2 to 6 internships during their degree programme”. 

This is not specific to SMU, of course. But it reflects a larger trend in the past five years of university students taking on more internships. TODAY has even labelled it an internship arms race.

While the benefits of internships are well-trodden ground, stacking internships (or ‘internmaxxing’, for my fellow Gen Zs) is a relatively recent phenomenon. It helps university graduates to stand out in a competitive job market. 

But if every other university student is doing it, what happens to their actual school life—and what does that say about how we see education in relation to work today?

Image: Joy Lai / RICE File Photo

Above and Beyond

Wen, a 21-year-old NTU English student who only wants to be known by their first name, started their first internship in their third year of university. Before that, they say, “I spent two summers not getting anything done… And I didn’t do any internships because my mum was in the hospital. But I still felt like shit, I still felt like I was doing something wrong.”

Their mother’s cancer meant that she had to be hospitalised for the past two years. Wen spent their free time visiting her in the hospital until she passed away in February 2024. They admit to me that if their mother had not passed away, they might not have been able to do an internship now.

Students across majors and schools are feeling the pressure to fill their university years with internship after internship. Thea says: “I felt it was very important that I try out these little internships, like three months, very low commitment, to kind of figure out what I want to do… an internship was an opportunity to try things in a ‘fuss-free’ manner.”

Another reason is career progression. Internmaxxers start small, slowly building their way up to big-name companies.

Michele Pek, a 22-year-old NUS Communications and New Media major (and my fellow RICE editorial intern), tells me: “I honestly just look for a good brand name to stack on my CV so it looks impressive. I look for internships that’ll help me get a better internship, like stepping stones to a better job.”

Image: Stephanie Lee / RICE File Photo

Students also feel pressure from their peers, especially in certain fields. Sara*, a 22-year-old NTU Sociology student, wants to go into marketing. But it’s a competitive field, and she’s worried that she’ll be at a disadvantage because she doesn’t have a relevant degree. So she stacks her portfolio with experiences in marketing, hoping it’s enough for her to get hired in the industry.

Michele agrees, saying that it’s stressful to see peers on LinkedIn pursuing internships during breaks: “It feels like an inevitability—like you have to do what they do in order to keep up with them.”

Thea brings up the fact that her peers in finance have similar histories of doing multiple internships. “I think summer internships are quite expected,” she says, adding that it contributed to a lot of stress she placed on herself to fill her breaks with internships.

For her, internmaxxing serves multiple ends: “While it’s part of figuring out what I want to do, it’s also building my portfolio so that if I want to get into more competitive roles or industries, my portfolio supports that.”

Happiness, Prosperity, and Progress?

Ultimately, the endgame for internmaxxers is job security. In a constantly changing job market, having a wide range of qualifications creates a safety net. With multiple internships under their belts, internmaxxers can go after the kinds of jobs that they want.

This reflects a shift in student priorities, where gaining hands-on experience and building professional networks during their education is becoming more crucial. There’s the understanding that we learn more on the job than in classrooms.

But if everyone is internmaxxing to stand out from the competition, will we start seeing people doing 10, 11, or 12 internships in university? Will we eventually have to start doing internships in primary school?

Primary school is a bit of a stretch, of course. But this is a worrying trend because it portends an internship arms race—students spending their university years doing more and more internships.

And it begs the question: Why even study at this point? What’s the significance of a degree in this context? If schools are not where students learn about the “real world”, what does that signal about the role of education? Should universities integrate more practical experiences into their curricula?

University degrees have long been considered as a piece of paper to some people, but internmaxxing takes this to an extreme—students aren’t even spending their prime schooling years focusing on schooling.

Image: Tey Liang Jin / RICE File Photo

Dorothy, a 22-year-old NUS Information Systems student who only wants to be known by her first name, did an internship during the summer after her first year. She was also juggling a class with a coding project and two freshmen orientation programmes while tutoring four IB students.

“That summer break actually felt like a full semester’s workload… At the start of my second year, I didn’t feel like I had a break at all, and by the first few weeks, I felt like I had burnt out. I took the next three weeks to take a step back from everything, and then I fell behind on work, and that was a trickle-down effect to how I did for the rest of the semester, grades- and performance-wise.”

On the other hand, internships were a way for RICE production intern Ow Yeong Xue Qi, 25, to renew her passion for learning. As a hands-on learner, the SUSS Marketing major was struggling to keep her grades up—she even received an academic warning.

Xue Qi decided to take a break from school to do an internship and found that she enjoyed it. She then decided to keep doing internships during her semester as a way to gain experience and supplement her grades.

“My grades aren’t very important because I’m just trying to get the bare minimum to graduate,” she says. “I’m using intern experience to learn, and the degree is just a certification.”

She admits that she prioritises internships over school. It’s also hard to juggle her other commitments, including freelancing, and she confesses that she needs to sacrifice rest and her social life.

But she asks me: “Imagine if I have no grades and no portfolio; how would I survive in this economy?”

Sara is concurrently doing two full-time internships. She says she feels overwhelmed every day, but “I try to pacify myself and say I’m going through hardships now so that my future will be a breeze”.

But her health took a hit as a result. “I just wait until I break down and fall sick, and then I have no choice but to take care of myself by rotting in bed and resting. And once I’m well, I go back to the normal routine, and this cycle just repeats.”

Image: Stephanie Lee / RICE File Photo

Work, Work, Work

Is there a way for university students to prepare for their future careers while taking care of themselves and what matters to them?

Looking back on her time in university, Thea says that she genuinely enjoyed doing her internships, and it gave a sense of real work to the things she was studying.

But she also encouraged university students to tone down the overemphasis on internships, building your resume, and grades. 

“It’s very easy to identify yourself to just your job. Work should not define your personality; pursue hobbies and passions,” Thea affirms.

“There’s this pressure to get it all figured out before you graduate, and I know it’s not realistic because we’re still in our 20s, trying to figure out whatever you wanna do with life.”

Plus, internmaxxing doesn’t even guarantee job security. One of Sara’s main worries about the future is whether “all the hardships now [will] even lead to a better future for myself”.

Perhaps employers and university career centres, too, shouldn’t place so much emphasis on having internship experience. After all, there are plenty of other ways to prepare for the job market and the rest of the world out there.

I, for one, spent last summer on a language exchange programme in Spain, taking a Spanish summer class and travelling around the country. While this was a great addition to my resume, it was first and foremost a fun experience.

Maybe I’m in a privileged position to say this. After all, I’m considering going into academia, a field that doesn’t prioritise internship experience as much as research work. By focusing on my studies, I’m also focusing on my future career.

But therein lies the difference. For me, one internship is all I need to graduate. For people like Xue Qi or Thea, internmaxxing might be a necessity to break into their respective industries.

Ultimately, it’s about what works for you. Internships have their benefits, but students shouldn’t be doing them simply because everyone else is. Life is too short to do things you dislike.

*Names have been changed to protect identities

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