When it comes to internships, a lot of people think bigger is better: Google over GoPro; Goldman over Guggenheim. After all, who wouldn’t want to work at a place with free lunch, nap pods and incredible brand recognition? Sounds like everything a UC Berkeley student could want, so it’s no wonder that big companies like these attract huge lines at career fairs. From freshmen naively approaching recruiters in their third week on campus to seniors just looking for a job so they can enjoy their final year of college, students of all majors wait patiently to drop off their resumes at the company of their dreams.
But why? There are hundreds of companies looking to hire bright Berkeley students, yet many are spurned by students in favor of bigger, more well-known names. When it comes down to the purpose of an internship, however, which is presumably to provide practical work experience and create opportunities for employment in the future, smaller companies can do just as well as their more established counterparts.
Let’s face it, though: Brand matters. Being affiliated with a large, respected firm does emit an air of legitimacy, and having people actually know the company you just mentioned instead of just nodding politely counts for something. On a more concrete level, too, internships at large companies have unique value: Standardized trainings or mentor programs can create more structured experiences, and well-oiled workflows can exhibit industry best practices.
Even with these benefits of larger firms in mind, smaller and less prominent companies can generate superior internship experiences by providing more impactful work, greater internal exposure and more overall mobility.
At smaller companies, your work is valued in a different way. It comes down to economics: For smaller firms, the wages and internal resources committed to you represent a larger portion of company assets. In turn, more value is placed on what you do. Whereas at a large company, your summer of work could end up being just a 15-minute presentation among 20 that day or a single booth at a science fair-like symposium. At a smaller firm, you matter more. At a young startup, for example, you’ll almost certainly be involved in day-to-day operations and contribute to key initiatives. No matter where you work, you’ll be invested in what you do, but the smaller the company, the more it will be invested in your work, too.
Companies with fewer employees also provide the inherent benefit of greater exposure to individuals within the firm. At a large company, you might be lucky to be in a meeting with someone who’s been in a meeting with the head of engineering, but at a smaller firm you yourself might present to the CFO every other week. There is a greater chance that you’ll meet with key executives and more opportunity to work with higher-level employees. These regular interactions with more influential people can lead to a more fruitful internship. Additionally, a smaller employee pool can lead to closer relationships with colleagues, which can provide more meaningful and beneficial referrals in the future. Internships aren’t just about the work — meeting and developing relationships with important people will undoubtedly brighten your future career prospects.
Finally, smaller companies typically have less formal internships, a feature that can provide higher degrees of freedom and greater opportunities to excel. When working at a startup, you could have the opportunity to work across departments or explore other business lines. This accessibility can allow you to broaden your horizons or develop new interests and is only readily available at startups or younger companies. Within your own department, too, there can be more mobility; high performance may lead to more interesting work or additional responsibilities, as teams at smaller firms are less siloed and have greater flexibility.
Ultimately, all internships can be valuable. Regardless of where you work, you’ll have the chance to gain practical experience while gaining insight into how companies operate. Smaller firms, though, have unique advantages for interns that can result in truly rewarding summer experiences. So if your goal is to learn a lot and set yourself up well for the future, consider stepping out of that Google line and try talking to one of the many other firms at career fairs this week.
Contact Tim Sun at