Paula Wishart, the assistant dean who leads the LSA Opportunity Hub, once commented to me, “A summer internship is a great way to confirm interest in a career path. It may not be the best way to explore an interest.” What did she mean? Summers have become valuable parts of an undergraduate education.
In a four-year education plan there are three undergraduate summers, so each summer activity comes with a considerable opportunity cost of other possibilities that were not pursued. Suppose that a student agrees to a 10-week summer internship to explore a particular career path and decides within the first couple of weeks that she is not interested after all. This sometimes happens. Risk in the pursuit of our opportunities is inevitable and she now has a good chance to cultivate resilience and creativity in an attempt to make the best use of this situation. Still, it is a situation she’d ideally like to avoid by more fully exploring and researching this career path with lower cost activities first before investing a whole summer in this endeavor. This is all the more true with major investments of time and money such as pursuing a graduate degree. I’ve often paraphrased Dean Wishart in talking to potential law school applicants: “Law school is a necessary investment for pursuing a legal career, but what are some ways we can explore this interest more fully before making that decision?”
This is, essentially, the concept of prototyping - a metaphor from the world of design that I first learned from Burnett and Evans’ book, Designing Your Life (Knopf, 2016). The term gives a name to something that readers will find immediately familiar, but that most of us would benefit from being more intentional about. A prototype is a lower-cost activity that bears a certain similarity to the thing that we want to explore. It allows us to gain direct experience and learn more information before fully investing our time, effort, and money in a larger endeavor. It also allows us to “fail” in ways that are instructive but with minimal consequences. Any student can easily find examples of prototype activities intuitively undertaken. An introductory course is a way of prototyping a larger academic investment like a major or minor. Informational interviews and job-shadowing are low-cost ways of prototyping a career track. From here one might want to further explore, refine, and confirm interests with a medium-cost investment such as an internship or postgraduate position.
One way to use the concept of prototyping more intentionally is to ask yourself, “What are the major investments of time, effort, and money that I will make in my education and career development? What are some prototype activities that I can seek out to explore this decision?”
A second way to use the concept is to think about these activities as prototypes - in other words, as experiments designed to provide additional information. I often advise students to think of their career exploration as research, utilizing the skills that they have developed in their academic research projects. For example, if we think about an introductory course as a prototype for a major we can ask what we liked or disliked about the course. Was it the topic? The instructor? The class format? We can imaginatively isolate each of these variables and think about them in terms of what they tell us about the larger endeavor. A student who wants to pursue a STEM research career has ample opportunity to be involved in academic research on campus. What about industry research or a national lab? Should they explore this avenue with a summer internship in industry rather than an REU or SROP at another university? The internship would itself be a prototype activity for this career track, but the student may also wish to prototype the decision about their summer choices by talking with some industry researchers ahead of time about what they do/don’t like about their positions, comparing these with conversations with academic research mentors on campus. In doing so, they should always be aware of the fact that in prototyping - unlike in more formal research - we’re almost always extrapolating from small sample sets. While a conversation with an individual may provide valuable insight into that career track, it will inevitably be colored by their own individual personality and unique life circumstances in ways that make drawing general conclusions tricky.
There’s one more way that I find the concept of prototype activities very useful in advising conversations, and that is in the application phase. The job of any application is to demonstrate to the reader that you have the knowledge, skills, and character-traits to flourish in that position (whether the “position” in question is a job, internship, graduate program, or self-designed fellowship experience). Ideally, you’ll want to do so by appealing to previous experiences that are either directly or indirectly analogous to the position to which you’re applying - in other words, to previous prototype experiences. If, for example, you’re applying for the Gaither Junior Fellows Program to be a research assistant at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP), you’ll want to highlight previous experiences in which you’ve served as a research assistant - ideally a postgraduate year or internship at a think tank, a research assistant position for a professor on campus, etc. If not one of these, perhaps an analogous academic experience such as an LSA Honors thesis or a research term paper written in an upper-level course related to the work you’d do at CEIP, being a contributor or editor for the Michigan Journal of International Affairs. Various prototypes may fit with certain aspects of the position descriptions in part if not in full.
If you have been intentional in selecting prototype activities along the way, you’ll be in an excellent position to make a solid argument based on experience in your application. If, on the other hand, you’ve explored broadly in your undergraduate career and engaged in a wide variety of experiences, you’ll have ample material for the creative use of imagination in thinking about these activities as prototypes for future endeavors in one way or another. Suppose you’re applying for a program such as the Knight-Hennessy Scholarship at Stanford that places heavy emphasis on their international and interdisciplinary cohort of scholars, and the exciting opportunities for intellectual “cross-pollination” that such a cohort presents. You might think about a time that you’ve benefited from similar diversity in a living-learning community or student org.
The same can be said of behavioral interview questions in an interview. These are questions that ask you to tell a story about your previous experience as a way of predicting how you’ll perform in similar situations in the future. Any behavioral interview question or essay prompt is, in essence, an invitation for you to think about a previous experience as a prototype activity predicting your future flourishing in the position to which you’re applying.