Last month I had the opportunity to be an extern for a day through Northwestern’s NEXT program. This program pairs alumni with students to provide a “day in the life” job shadowing experience. After being matched with an alumna host, I traveled to Neenah, WI to witness corporate publishing in action! It was a great opportunity to glimpse a business from the inside and expand my network. I hope my documented experience here will help future MSC students should they decide to give it a try.
What is NEXT?
NEXT is a program offered through Northwestern Career Advancement (NCA). Alumni are first solicited to volunteer to host students for a day at their offices, which the program calls externships. A listing of externship opportunities is generated based on alumni response. Students are then invited to peruse and apply for the opportunities. This year, I believe there were about 700 externships offered in a wide variety of industries and geographic locations.
Students are allowed to apply for up to 8 externships. They are also allowed to assign each application a ranking based on interest in the opportunity–very interested, sort of interested, or not interested. The system works by matching the stated interests of students as well as the hosts, so in theory two parties who are “very interested” in each other can be matched.
In addition to providing a resume, applicants are asked to write a paragraph (not an essay) indicating why they are interested in the externship(s). NCA recommended against using the same paragraph for each opportunity, anticipating a generic response would likely be noticeable to the hosts. I started with a generic paragraph and then customized it for each opportunity.
Although it took me several hours to complete, I used all 8 of my application tickets, and I recommend doing so. More applications clearly increase your odds of being matched. Furthermore, I feel any alumnus who is thoughtful enough to voluntarily participate in NEXT probably has something valid to teach and share. Even if an opportunity is a secondary choice, it is likely to provide a positive experience.
I was matched with J. J. Keller, a corporate publisher serving construction and other industries. On the appointed day, I met my host in the lobby of the company headquarters in Neenah, WI. With its grandfather clock and display cases of memorabilia from this family business, it was a surprisingly homey entrance to what is otherwise a very large facility that includes offices, dining, a health clinic, a gym, and manufacturing.
After showing me to her office, my host present me with our schedule for the day. It was completely blocked out. She walked me through each item, pointing out how the various meetings corresponded to my stated areas of interest such as customer insights, product development, and data measurement. (During our previous correspondence, I was asked to indicate what I was interested in learning about during the externship.) It was clear she made an effort to tailor the day’s activities to me, and I was impressed by this thoughtfulness.
It was also clear the company was prepared for my visit. I was introduced to several directors and managers, each of whom seemed to be expecting me. (As it happens, I knew one of them from high school. We hadn’t seen each other in at least 20 years! Small world.) A recruiting manager personally handled my tour of the main office building, inquiring about my background so that she could better show me the building.
Throughout the day, I was encouraged to offer ideas or provide feedback. Occasionally I was also put on the spot and asked directly to contribute based on my learnings from graduate school. I wish I had been better prepared for these questions. Future MSC students who participate in NEXT ought to consider these opportunities as soft interviews. In preparation, go beyond basic research and consider how you might contribute to business conversations during this experience.
Fortunately, I had course readings fresh in my mind from the night before, and despite my lack of direct preparation in this regard I seemed to do okay. I received LinkedIn invitations from almost all the managers and directors I met, which felt reassuring. I also left with a very positive impression of J. J. Keller. The company does great work, and they have a terrific team of people. I was very glad I made the trip.
Interested in applying for NEXT in 2016? Watch for emails from the university in January or so. The date for your externship will be negotiated between you and your host upon being matched, though NCA recommends scheduling sometime in March or April.
Several other MSC students enjoyed externship opportunities, as well. Maybe they will blog about them (hint, hint)? At least one person was not matched, unfortunately, so be sure to apply for as many as you can, as getting a match is not guaranteed.
Although I was not required by NEXT to do any follow up, I sent a thank you note and small gift. And I hope someday, when I’m in the right situation, to consider hosting an extern myself. It was a valuable experience, and I highly recommend it.