It’s one thing to score your dream internship. It’s quite another thing to have the dream match the reality. During the first few days of summer, you might find that you’re becoming an expert on ordering venti skim lattes instead of gaining the learning experience you had hoped for. Or maybe you were expecting a jam-packed schedule, but your boss doesn’t give you enough work to keep you busy.
Before you start your internship with stars in your eyes, remember that interning is often about paying your dues. Her Campus got the 4-1-1 from two career experts about common internship issues. Here’s how to nip these problems in the bud so you can shine all summer long!
1. Your hours are longer than originally advertised
If you didn’t discuss work hours with your boss during the initial interview, make sure to bring up the topic as soon as possible. This can be asked with a brief, “What are the hours for this position?” either in person or via email. That said, understand that your hours aren’t necessarily set in stone. One of the best ways to stand out at your internship is to arrive early and stay late, especially when you’re working on a big project.
“You are there to gain experience, and the extra work is an opportunity to learn more about the company, contribute to the bottom line and, perhaps, position yourself for a full-time offer after graduation,” said Jackie Jones, a career transformation coach at Jones Coaching in Washington, D.C.
While it’s awesome to put in extra time at your internship, you aren’t obligated to—especially when you have other commitments, too. “I was under the impression that I would be working two days a week from 10:00 to 5:00, so that I would have time for my classes and other commitments that I had,” said Ellyse, a student at DePaul University and a marketing intern. “Recently, my boss has been asking me if I can work more and I feel like I’ve been put in an awkward situation because I truly cannot put in more hours with everything else that I have going on right now.”
If you’re truly unable to take on more hours, ask your boss if he or she has a few free minutes to discuss your schedule. Explain that you had expected a certain number of hours and are unable to put in more time and let her know why. Offer to let her know if your schedule changes (and make sure to follow up if it does!).
2. Your hours are shorter than originally advertised
Especially if you have a remote internship, you may find your boss often telling you to not “come in” on certain days. While you might dig the extra time off at first, this issue can be frustrating in the long run when you aren’t getting as much experience as you hoped out of your internship.
“Learn as much as you can about the company and department and look for areas about which you would like to know more or gain some experience. Then ask the boss to meet with you over coffee or lunch and tell her you are really interested in learning and doing more. It shows you are interested specifically in being an asset to the firm and that you want succeed,” said Jones.
It’s a win-win situation: you get more hours, a better learning experience, and a surefire recommendation letter at the end of the summer; your boss gets an eager, all-star intern!
3. You were promised reimbursement for expenses (like transportation, lunch, or a weekly stipend), but haven’t been compensated yet
Julia, a collegiette from the University of Portland, was promised funds for travel at her unpaid internship. “I was told that I would be paid back for all the gas money I spent (about $60 every week), but ended up only getting gas money a few times, and it was only $20. I lost a TON of money because of it,” she said. “I was afraid of bringing up the issue, because I didn’t want it to seem like I was asking for something I didn’t deserve.”
She’s right—it can be scary to ask your boss for compensation. But if you were told that you would be paid, then you deserve every penny!
“An easy way to broach this topic casually is to say, ‘Did you need me to submit an expense report for the lunches and travel I was being reimbursed for?’ That should be the subtle signal to your boss that they either need to process your expense reimbursement or contact the Accounts Payable (AP) department to find out what the payment schedule is going to be,” says Daniel Draz, co-founder of Professional Development Strategies, a career counseling firm in Naperville, Illinois.
4. You’re given more busy work and less “real” work than you anticipated
Interning isn’t always as exciting as it looked on The Hills. “Interns are often given what amounts to overflow (or busy) work that the regular staff doesn’t have time to handle,” said Draz. “It isn’t the most glamorous, but oftentimes it’s the reality of the deal. Realize that there may be some mundane tasks, work through those tasks quickly, ask for more challenging work and you’re likely to get it!”
It’s important to look at your internship with perspective. You may not be able to write the cover story for the magazine, but you might be able to contribute story research or fact-check the piece. Those tasks aren’t busy work – they’re crucial for the production of the magazine! When you’re consistently receiving real assignments, it’s not so terrible to spend an hour sorting mail or running an errand for the company.
Unfortunately, sometimes the busy work can get out of hand. Andrea, a student at New York University, took on an administrative and web design internship for a major real estate company in New York City last summer. The internship turned out to be a huge disappointment.
“My boss initially excited me with ideas that I would get to design a whole website for her and attend marketing meetings and networking events—essentially meeting and working with some of the most powerful and affluent people in New York City. However, as soon as I started, I realized that she wanted more of a personal assistant than a web design intern. I ended up managing her personal finances and running errands. I barely got to get started on her website, and I didn’t gain as much insight into marketing or get as much networking done as I thought I would. To top it off, it was unpaid, and I had to pay for an expensive commute and my own meals. I wish I had quit earlier on instead of wasting my time, effort, and money,” she said.
If you’re in Andrea’s situation, your first step should be to talk to your boss. Ask to sit down for coffee or lunch to discuss the situation. “It’s never wrong to ask for more or more meaningful work, but it helps to be specific about what you want,” said Jones.
Try saying, “I’m so excited to be learning about the company this summer. When I interviewed, you mentioned that I would be working on your website and attending marketing meetings. Would it be possible to carve out some time this week to do that?”
If your boss still isn’t giving you more challenging work, you have two choices: stick it out, like Andrea did, or consider leaving if the internship isn’t worth your time.
5. You don’t get along well with your boss right away
Newsflash: You might not be BFFs with your boss, no matter how much you rock as an intern. But a positive relationship with your boss can go a long way towards making your internship into a great experience.
“Some people are not engaging at first, so you have to learn how to read a personality and figure out how to interact with that person. That takes time,” said Jones.
One way to speed up the process is to figure out the best way to interact with your boss. Does he or she prefer you to ask questions face-to-face or via email? Does he or she invite you to lunch, or are you expected to eat by yourself or with other interns? Observe these basic details during your first few days in the office for a summer of smooth sailing.
6. You don’t get along well with the other interns right away
Don’t stress if you and the other interns don’t hit it off right away. Just like getting to know your boss, this takes time. You’ll likely spend a lot of time with the other interns, including collaborating on the same projects, so it shouldn’t be too tough to get to know them on a professional basis. The next step requires putting yourself out there a bit—invite them to lunch! It’s a quick, easy way to get to know them on a personal level, too.
“Take the time to hang out a bit after work or on weekends so you can get to know each other better and find someone with whom you connect. It’s an opportunity to build relationships that may become important down the line,” said Jones.
Remember, your fellow interns will be vying for the same jobs after graduation and you might even end up working together at some point in the future. Establishing positive relationships with your peers now can only help you down the road.
7. You’re overwhelmed with work and might not have adequate training
When your work is too tough, it’s important to let someone know ASAP. You’re only setting yourself up for failure if you don’t take steps to catch up! And besides, it’s not uncommon for interns to feel unprepared, as interns replace entry-level positions at many companies.
Before you bug your boss with every minor question, do your homework. Research your question online, check any manual or guides you were given by the company, and ask other interns if they know how to solve the problem. If it’s a matter of learning a new skill, check out a book on the subject or see if you can find step-by-step guides online. If you’ve done all these things and you’re still lost, it’s time to talk to your boss.
“Don’t hesitate to ask for clarification when you don’t understand something or ask to slow the pace a bit. Oftentimes, interns are afraid to speak up because they believe they will be judged harshly for not being able to keep up or they are afraid they will not appear smart. Sometimes you have to remind your supervisors that this is new territory for you. They are on autopilot a lot of the time. A gentle request for a little more direction often helps,” said Jones.
Try out the following script with your boss next time you feel stuck: “I’m having trouble understanding the last assignment you gave me. Is there a convenient time for you to go over it with me?” Come prepared for your meeting with a list of specific questions and take notes on what your boss says. Those small details will show your boss that you’re serious about getting the job done well.
With a little foresight, you’ll be able to tackle these internship issues early on, before they ruin your summer. Good luck, collegiettes!