So you have a summer internship? Congratulations! As you probably know, since you’re willing to dedicate one of your last college summers to working for little or no money, internships are the best way to get started in a field that you’re interested in. You’ll make good contacts and learn more about an industry, and may even be able to leverage your experience into a paying job. An internship is an opportunity and what you make of it can have a significant impact on the rest of your career. Here are a few ways to set yourself apart:
Listen. There is a temptation as an intern or new employee to question the status quo and show how much you have to contribute by sharing your own (better) ideas. While fresh perspectives can be one of the best parts of bringing new people onto a team, it’s smart to get to know the lay of the land first. Note how others share their thoughts or criticism in meetings. If you’re not sure how receptive a group might be to feedback, ask a colleague before or after the meeting. Consider framing your critique as a question (Good: What was the process like for selecting this vendor? Bad: Why do we work with X when their competitor is so much better?) Pay attention to details that might question your assumptions. Listening and asking questions will help you understand the full picture and present even better ideas.
Be willing to do the boring or unpleasant jobs no one else wants to do. When my colleagues and I interview potential interns, we always ask how they approach monotonous tasks. Although we give our interns plenty of interesting projects, we want them to be forewarned that there will be days of (e-)filing and data entry. Most jobs, not just internships, have some less-than-glamorous aspects and having a positive attitude is key. One of our former interns recognized that one of our storage areas was a mess and took on the massive task of reorganizing it. A few days of dusty, physical work resulted in a space that benefitted everyone in the department. And the proactive spirit and strong work ethic that she showed with that project and throughout that summer resulted in a permanent job with us.
Don’t complain (at least not within a square mile of your workplace). Not all parts of your internship will be exciting and some might be downright boring (see above). Resist the temptation to complain, even to other interns. The person reading quietly in the corner of the lunchroom or standing behind you in the coffee line might one day sit across from you in an interview room.
Network on the job. Informational interviews are a great way to get to know people in other departments and gain a well-rounded picture of how the organization works. Whether you invite someone for a coffee, meet with them in their office, or even ask a few questions after a meeting, your curiosity and interest will show people that you’re serious about the field.
Ask yourself, is this field the right fit for me? An internship isn’t just about proving yourself to your employer. It’s a chance for you to see if the job or career feels right for you. It’s your chance to turn back before committing most of your waking hours and much of your energy to something you’re just not that into. Internships give you a chance to determine what it is that you’re looking for and finding that out is a valuable summer’s work indeed.
Stick with it. No matter what, your internship is a great opportunity. So it turns out you aren’t actually interested in working in the field of your internship. Don’t fret–your summer isn’t wasted. You can learn valuable skills even if you’re not crazy about the actual work: good office communication, software programs, professional writing, project management, etc. Also, you can learn what you like (and don’t) about an office setting, which can be just as important as finding the right profession.
Post by Jocelyn Dawson (CLAS ’02)
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