The title “intern” has lots of negative connotations: the seniors’ dog, the unpaid coffeemaker, or as portrayed at the beginning of the movie The Intern, a company’s window dressing. So why do universities endorse them?
The concept of internship dates to the Middle Ages, where young people seek apprenticeship to learn a craft from an expert and gain access to a guild. In contemporary terms, it’s a training position distinguished from regular employment, sharing a thin line with ‘entry-level jobs’ that we expect post-graduation.
Fundamentally, it is a short period for undergrads to have a glimpse into their field’s career paths, impress relevant people, and secure a job recommendation or if favored, a full-time offer. Provided its impermanence, it is important to realize as a guest in a workplace and a colleague whom others will count on, internships are not a mere 150- to 200-hour compliance, but hours of life that may facilitate some of the most important decisions in one’s early career trajectory — so it deserves your dedication!
Going after several internship interviews, I included this particular question at each one: “What do you expect interns to accomplish during their first month, and/or what mistakes could they avoid?” Based on their answers and my previous internship experience, here are some suggestions to make the most out of your internship:
1. Setting your internship objectives and keeping track as you accomplish them.
Identify what specific skills you want to work on relevant to the projects your employer needs help with and know how likely you will be evaluated. If you want to learn a new skill in your field, look for guidance apropos to that specialization.
Before applying and accepting an offer, I had a goal in mind to focus on interning in a Research and Data Analytics department for a non-profit. I specifically scoured Idealist.org, a website for non-profit job postings. Once I got an interview offer, that’s when I deeply examined the non-profit websites and interesting projects. In my first internship interview, I mentioned one line that I really liked from their website — ”There are nearly 59,000 unique gun dealers across the country, four times as many as there are McDonald’s and nearly twice as many as U.S. post offices” (yup, I got quite specific). I said I thought it is really cool to convey data that way, and it was something I wanted to get used to. Having that cleared, I was given several assignments that got my hands dirty on data analysis and reporting and put me to work immediately with a principal research scientist and senior research editor.
Now, I have a diverse portfolio in the area I am interested in to speak about. Its process is detailed in my internship journal, which came in handy in jotting down learnings, ideas, and processes I work well at and/or I am having a hard time with, and keeping track of milestones, especially specified metrics. These are important for your résumé update post-internship, or for when you ask your employer to be your professional reference.
2. Avoid being idle but pursue to complete each task with excellence.
If you have a good employer, they are likely to have a roster of projects for you to work on based on the career goals you mentioned during the interview. But best you can, take on any looming work you see you’ll able to accomplish, even not asked, especially when you have excess time: from mundane tasks that high-level employees dread to do to critical projects that have not been underway yet.
But as a good rule of thumb, a few tasks completed well are way better than many completed subpar. Pursue tasks with the intent to exceed expectations. Then, ask for feedback.
I agreed to conduct a session on how to navigate a database. Not only I did do the assignment in a quirky manner, but I wrote a comprehensive manual should there be a future new hire who would need the same guidance — including a list of other databases to refer to for other topics not covered, so everyone can have a document ‘cheat sheet’ to refer to. I asked our research editor for feedback who provided ideas on how to write more concisely, and some company-specific style guides I missed. We ended up with a work that one could definitely say ‘it’s done!’
3. Find the “golden mean” of asking questions
While interns are not expected to know everything, it is vital to look for answers on your own first before asking a colleague or manager for help — remember that they too have things to do.
It is a respect of their time to do so, the same way it is when you ask good questions. Good questions may be questions that no one else is asking and provokes ideas that could enliven new projects or methods, or reinstatement of important considerations. Think less of how they may address it, so long as it is authentic and contributes to the discussion. Leave an impression as intellectually curious and this practice will unconsciously build your ability to seek insights during conversations too.
If you have regular meetings with your team, it is best to bank on inquiries to throw in the discussion that could show your investment in your position.
4. If you make a mistake, treat it as a learning curve
Ideally, you will not make a mistake — but you are human, more so someone new at an organization. In case, communicate to your manager about the problem, why it happened, that you are taking responsibility for it, and your solutions — then take action.
I remember spending hours building a database manually, only to know that it won’t be accepted as they would rather have it done through code. I felt bad for having wasted hours and pushing the project timeline. But as there’s no other direction than forward: I worked with our research scientist to speed up the process of building the database and we did. I also learned a little code!
5. Acquaint yourself with workplace etiquette and practices
An internship may be a student’s first exposure to office culture. Unfortunately (or fortunately for the introverts), the pandemic hindered experiences such as an elevator or pre-meeting small talks, team lunches, meeting in conference rooms, sharing a floor with other departments, and using office jargon.
Still, having a job, in general, is a huge shift from university and/or unrelated side gigs. Familiarize yourself with how to act like a professional in your field — adequate punctuality, politeness, and all the social niceties, with appropriate grooming as a cherry on top. Having a good sense of your field’s jargon will also elevate how you write related emails and letters that will make you sound like the real deal in your field.
6. The most important of all: Build connections, find a mentor if possible, and keep them beyond your term
It’s easy to focus on fulfilling your projects because of the limited time you have as an intern but forming relationships with your team alongside will elevate your experience and augment the personal development you gain.
You can ask a colleague to take lunch with you or share a 30-minute coffee break, then have some informal informational interview. This can help you get around, or find out more about the role you are interested in, ask things like: How did you get into this career path? What do you like and dislike about it? How do you see the field changing?
It would be great to identify a mentor, particularly someone who has the skills you want to develop, who, if they accept, would agree to set up regular meetings where you can ask questions.
Having professional relationships is your key when you’re ready to take on your next job — from job recommendations to reference requests. Also, isn’t great to have friends in your field (i.e. people to share your nerdy frustrations about)? Make sure to maintain them even after your internship!
Launching your career journey post-internship
Whether you like or dislike your internship, worry not! Thank the experience for having happened and teaching what really works for you. Simply, love the opportunity and congratulate yourself for reaching this point in your personal growth, you rockstar undergrad! Have fun, go beyond and make it a meaningful phase of your college course. Just maybe, not too much like the intern from this Quora answer: