I have to say, that I’ve never been much of a fan of boats.
I really dislike boats.
Scratch that again.
I downright despise boats of all kinds—ferries, canoes, cruises, kayaks, barges, rafts and yes, even those Parisian tourist transit vessels otherwise collectively known as "Batobus."
And yet there I was, not so long ago, in the exact same boat that every master’s student everywhere in France is forced to board at one time or another.
I was in search of an internship.
My mission was nothing less than to find a one-month post that promised to deliver invaluable industry knowledge, personalized on-the-job training, and (hey, why not dream big?) an awesome professional network that would naturally pave the way to a steadfast slew of future career opportunities.
I mean really, how hard could it be?
I was qualified enough–backed by a respectable undergraduate degree, multiple overseas volunteer trips, a year of study abroad, graduate classes and a teaching assistantship, not to mention nearly 10 years of professional experience.
I was also a native Anglophone; that alone had to be considered a perk.
Ergo, I’d easily find an internship within a month.
Okay, maybe two. Right?
The start of my mission appeared promising.
I was, after all, armed with everything I thought I needed: a re-vamped CV (a.k.a. "résumé" to all my fellow Americans); a well-crafted cover letter (a.k.a. "lettre de motivation en français"); a list of URLs pointing me to the best job boards, the best internship-focused Facebook groups, the best university website recommendations for where-to-find-le-meilleur-stage-en-France.com; and of course (because we’ve all heard that it’s not who you are but who you know) an address book containing a small sampling of professors, alumni, old employers, even long lost cousins who might be able to refer me somewhere (anywhere), assuming they remembered who I was.
Never mind that I was an American expat in a foreign, Francophone world.
Never mind that while my French was good enough to survive in-French university exams, it was only so-so in the realm of formal, politically correct, professional exchange.
And never mind if I wasn’t fully briefed on whatever application standards, interview etiquette and hiring customs were unique to France.
I was on a mission, fueled by the relief that follows the completion of semester exams and ready to reach for the stars. I’d read enough blog posts advising me what to do, where to go, and how to "poser une super magnifique candidature" to snag my dream internship.
"Le stage de mes rêves." That ideal post.
That once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get my foot in the door of a budding–no, blooming–start-up or well-established, multi-national company with major wow-factor. I’d settle for nothing less.
I had crossed an ocean to be here after all. If we don’t reach for the stars, we’ll never get off the couch, right?
It turns out that, sometimes, when you reach only for the stars, you miss the perfectly less-than-perfect pearls right in front of you, at ground level.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. I, unfortunately, wasn’t quite there yet. I hadn’t yet realized that there was a world of worthwhile opportunities mid-spectrum between the internship of my dreams and a nightmare post that would be considered by most non-French countries as exploited free labor.
I was still fishing for the "poste parfait"– responding to ads, submitting unsolicited applications (a.k.a "candidatures spontanées en français," which somehow makes "unsolicited" sound so much more welcome), requesting informational interviews, reaching out to professors for advice.
I was casting my net far and wide.
And I was catching: absolutely nothing.
What was I doing wrong?
Was it my CV?
My cover letter?
My level of French?
Or was it (gasp) me?
Was I less experienced than I thought?
Was I a clueless expat failing to fulfill the conventions and standards of French employers?
Did I fail to stand out from the other applicants, the other students, the other French students?
How had I not scored at least one interview?
It was obvious. I had to change my approach. I had to, at the very least, do something. So I did what any student could do. I took a deep breath and…
Lowered my expectations.
Who wants a dream internship anyway?
Everyone knows that perfect is boring. And who wants an internship that is so professionally demanding that in order to reap the rewards I’d have to treat it like a 70-hour job?
I might have finished classes but I hadn’t completely abandoned my "I’m a student, it’s my right and privilege to live a student life" mindset.
No, I didn’t need a top-tier, envy-inducing internship position at the Louvre, the Ministry of (insert your ministry of choice here), le Monde, la Maison de Chanel/Saint Laurent/Dior, or Google France.
I had officially entered the healthier (albeit not as inspiring) phase known as open-minded realism.
Good-bye stagnant idealism.
Hello new possibility.
I was, as I’ve failed to mention, on a deadline. Not a personal deadline. A university administration deadline. And for anyone who has ever lived in France, you know that messing with administration can lead to very, very bad things.
So I continued to peruse ProfilCulture, the queen of cultural jobs boards. I continued to troll post after post on Facebook, LinkedIn, company-specific careers sites, government portals, association homepages, nonprofit forums, even Craigslist (which, by the way, is quite sad "en version française"). But this time around, posts I previously would have passed over gave me pause.
Hmmm…, I’d think.
I could do that.
I could intern there.
That could be fun/rewarding/interesting/tolerable.
Another tweak to my CV.
Another edit to my cover letter.
Another email sent.
Or worse: no response whatsoever.
No "we’ve received your application."
No "we’ll let you know." No "please try again later."
Even an automated "thanks but no thanks" would have been appreciated at that point.
My "Paris is full of possibilities" attitude was slowly turning as murky as the Seine. Unanswered emails chipped away my motivation. The status of applications I’d submitted online remained pending, pending, still pending.
Never a good sign.
I was fast approaching the next phase of the internship search, a stage quite simply known as: desperation. I’ll work anywhere, I thought. I’ll work for anyone.
I’ll do anything.
Well, almost anything. I still had my dignity.
Then, days later, I landed an interview. I couldn't believe it.
Within an hour of submitting my application online, the owner of a communications start-up called me personally to arrange a meeting the very next morning.
Was this it? I thought.
Did the hiring process in France really move this quickly? Were the gods finally on my side? So it seemed, until I was told that the post involved reviewing high-level French legal documents and my competence "en langue française" wasn't, well, quite up to par.
Alas, I was about to enter the fourth and final stage.
I was about to delete every single one of my candidate profiles, revoke all pending applications, shred every last hard copy of my CV, cover letter, "lettre de"…whatever. I would tell my university that the world of French internships was not foreigner-friendly, that I would get an internship in the States, the UK, Australia, or…why not? Bora Bora.
Anywhere but France.
I was quitting my search.
I was "quitter"-ing la France. But first, I needed a drink. I was, after all, in France. How could I leave without having one last glass of Côtes-du-Rhône?
I put aside all internship-related questions and asked something far more pertinent: where do I go for a nice glass of wine, a warm welcome, and a dose of friendly conversation, in Paris, on a Tuesday? I closed all job application windows, opened Meetup.com and spotted a listing for an afterwork at a café near Châtelet hosted by a group called Expats Paris.
Why not? I thought.
I was, in that moment, the epitome of a struggling expat—for better or for worse.
Maybe a fling with fellow internationals was exactly what I needed.
Turns out, it was all I needed.
Call it divine intervention.
Call it karma.
Call it luck.
Not only did I meet a group of kind, welcoming, diverse, interesting, fun, globally-minded people–both international and French, I met Michael, the organizer of the group and founder of Expats Paris.
One topic of conversation led to another to another to another, and the next thing I knew we were arranging a meeting over coffee the next morning to discuss a possible internship.
By the end of the week, my missions were outlined, my duties detailed, my "convention de stage" signed. How had I, in the very darkest hours of my search, landed an internship without even trying?
Now, as I near the end of my term as Strategic Partnership Manager of Expats Paris, I can reflect on the past four weeks, appreciating the struggle of my search and the serendipitous nature of scoring a post I never actually applied for.
And while I don’t feel particularly qualified to offer advice single-handedly, allow me to share some tidbits with the help of a few "friends." (Brace yourself; it’s time to slip on your philosophical jumpsuit.)
So, the next time you find yourself submerged in a sea of internship applications and on the verge of desperation, remember:
“A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for”.
John A. Shedd
So don’t stay locked up in your studio, your focus plastered to the screen of your computer. Volunteer at an association. Check out a new Meetup. Introduce yourself to a stranger. Make room for chance.
“Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known”.
So don’t wait until you need an internship to explore new options and new opportunities; start now. Read a book. Take a class. Ask questions on a blog or forum. You may just discover a career option you never knew existed.
“For it matters not how small the beginning may seem; what is once well done is done forever”.
- Henry David Thoreau.
So don’t completely discount the first forty applications that went unanswered. Tweak that résumé and cover letter one more time. Our on-paper personas are always a work in progress.
“For after all, the best thing one can do when it's raining is to let it rain”
- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
So when that twentieth rejection email pops into your inbox, hit "delete," take a deep breath, and move on. While there's always room for improvement, some things just aren’t meant to be.
“One’s kite will rise on the wind as far as ever one has string to let it go”
- D.H. Lawrence.
So don’t limit yourself to what you think you know or what you think you want. We often don’t know what’s best for us until we find it (or it finds us). And that’s okay.
“One chance meeting can change everything”
[this one’s on me]
So be kind, genuinely, to everyone you meet. Make way for happy accidents. Embrace the unexpected. Take a gamble, take a risk.
Hop aboard and rock the boat.
Expats Paris is looking for Social Media Managers for internship opportunities. Find more here.
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