Several years ago, I asked a group of students who had just completed internships to tell me what advice they would give to a someone who was about to begin an internship. While there was a lot of variation in their answers, there were several consistent themes that can help you make the most of your workplace experience.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions.
When you’re an intern (or a new employee), your employer doesn’t expect you to already know how to do the job exactly the way that it needs to be done. Every organization is going to have its own policies and procedures, so even if the task seems familiar, the details may be slightly different. When you’re given an assignment, be sure you understand what it is that you are expected to do, and if you’re not completely sure, ask.
Be open to advice.
It’s unlikely that you’ll complete every task perfectly every time, so be open to any feedback you receive or any advice that you’re given. If you don’t get feedback, ask for it. Pay attention to, and follow, any advice so that you improve with each assignment.
Meet your deadlines.
While you may have had professors who were willing to give you an extension on an assignment, workplace deadlines are usually strict. It’s possible that what you have been asked to do is just one step within a process, and others are waiting for you to complete your work before they can do theirs. Manage your time so that you finish your work when it is needed.
Be a team player.
For the most part, you’re going to be given assignments that will keep you busy. But always keep your eyes and ears open for opportunities where you can lend a hand when other people are overwhelmed or the entire office is in a crisis situation. Don’t neglect your own assignments, but if you have extra time, help others. This also applies when you have completed all your assignments and haven’t been given anything else to do: Look around for work that needs to be done and offer to do it or help get it done.
Recognize that some of the work may be mundane.
While you’re eager to get involved with the more challenging and relevant aspects of your internship, keep in mind that there will be times when you’re asked to do things you find boring. One of my interns, who was interning at a local newspaper, once complained because she was asked to pack all the contents of several filing cabinets into boxes because the office was moving. When I asked what the other employees were doing while she was packing, she admitted that they were all packing, too!
Network within the organization.
Talk to the other employees about their jobs and what they like about the organization, learn the jargon specific to the organization and to the field, and let everyone know what you hope to do after you graduate. The people you work for and with can be great resources during your job search.
Take advantage of this opportunity to learn about careers in this field.
An internship or co-op is a chance to do some in-depth job research because your experience gives you an inside look at what it’s like to work within a particular field. Often, an internship confirms your ideas about the career you want to begin after college, but it’s just as important if what you learn is that you don’t want this career. I thought I wanted to be a high school English teacher until I spent a semester interning at a high school, where I quickly discovered that I never wanted to set foot in a high school classroom again!
Stay in touch.
Even after your internship or co-op is over, stay in touch with the people you met. Connect with them on LinkedIn, send them an occasional email to let them know what you are doing, and join any professional associations that are relevant to your career goals that you learned about during your workplace experience.