When it comes to internships, we’ve all had our fair share of “what if” moments—what if I had done this one project differently? What if I had gotten to know so-and-so better? What if I had just gone up to my supervisor and asked the questions I wanted to ask?
It’s officially time to change the “what if” to the “just did.” It’s pretty safe to say that we’re all trying to get the most learning and networking out of our internships, so don’t be hesitant to go up to your supervisor and ask a lot of good questions. You’ll impress your boss and get some answers at the same time. Plus, you might never get another chance like this once your internship ends.
So take advantage of your intern status now and check out these seven questions you should definitely ask your supervisor while you’re still interning for them.
1. “Can I touch base with you about both your expectations of me and my personal goals for this internship?”
You might have some huge aspirations for your internship—being a major contributor to a project or landing a full-time job, for example—but your supervisor might not have the darndest clue. If you’re going to get the most out of your internship, you have to make sure that you and your boss are on the same page when it comes to the larger goals of your internship and actively working to achieve them. Ideally, aim to touch base multiple times throughout the internship so you know you’re on track from both your supervisor’s standpoint and your own.
“It’s all about timing and the power of access,” says Kimberly Rolfe, the director for business engagement at Whitman College. “If you’re still on their payroll, they’re more likely to give you their attention. An employer wants an engaged and energized intern—especially if they’re looking to transition someone into full-time employment.”
But with your supervisor zipping around all day and having his or her hands full 24/7, it might be hard to squeeze in a few words. In this case, you have to be creative with finding ways to get the answers you need. If you need advice determining the best approach for reaching a supervisor, coworkers can shed some light on how they’ve had success.
“I recommend a scheduled one-on-one, but you have to know your audience,” Rolfe says. “If your supervisor is a better written communicator, then you’ll get a more useful response via email. If they are incredibly busy, you have to figure out how you’ll get their time and attention to have a meaningful dialogue.”
Once you’ve got your boss’s attention, convey your enthusiasm by showing interest in not only achieving your own goals, but also helping the company achieve its goals. What do you hope to take away from this internship? Are you learning the skills you were hoping to gain? How are you contributing to the company? Is your work meeting your supervisor’s expectations? According to Rolfe, the answers you and your supervisor come up with should include the expected outcomes for both the employer and the student.
“A demonstrated interest in the outcome not only for the individual, but for the organization shows the supervisor that the intern is committed to learning, interested in the field and invested in their future,” Rolfe says.
There’s a lot of give-and-take, and the over-quoted phrase “You get what you give” is actually pretty appropriate in this case.
2. “What do you feel is currently missing from the team, and how can I fill that gap?”
Every team has its weaknesses, and as the flexible, free-to-wander, not-yet-established intern, you’re in the perfect position to fill in those weak spots. Find a niche for yourself, and you’ll be ready to go. If a team has been struggling to find someone who is good at or willing to do X, establish yourself as the go-to person for X. That way, you’ll end up doing more meaningful work, feeling more like a part of the team and learning a lot.
“One of the most valuable questions I asked a new supervisor—long into my career—was what they were needing from the team in place that they felt was missing,” Rolfe says. “Then, I was able to focus my efforts in that area to make myself more valuable to the organization and my supervisor.”
You can make yourself irreplaceable by acquiring the skills that are needed. If it’s something more technical, find resources in your network or online to help you gain those skills. If it’s a soft skill, like communication or teamwork, “dig a bit to find out what success in those areas would look like to your supervisor,” Rolfe says. She also suggests interns fine their areas of expertise and hone those skills, but not at the expense of other work that the department or organization may need.
“Your job as an intern is to learn from the organization in whatever way the internship is structured, so that should be your primary goal,” Rolfe says. “It’s a delicate balance between creating your individual value and adding that value to a project team or department to contribute to organizational goals.”
In the end, being considerate and aware of what the organization needs from you goes a long way and can even put you in a better position to be offered a full-time job.
3. “How am I doing? What can I do to improve, and how can I go about doing so?”
It’s great to go full speed into a new internship, but it’s also important to remember to take some pit stops from time to time. Some students may have a few bumps and winding roads along the way; some may not. Some may zip by a few stop signs without even realizing it, and some students won’t. No matter what your road conditions and driving habits are, it’s always a good idea to check in with the authorities every now and then.
Your supervisors are there to help you succeed, so make sure you’re giving them the opportunity to give you feedback. If you’re not doing so well, ask them for critique. While it’s definitely hard to take critique, it’s one of the best ways to learn.
“We are a society that thrives on success and winning, but there is so much more to learn from failing and the critique of those you work with,” Rolfe says. “My tip for taking criticism well is to ask for an honest assessment and then just listen. Ask clarifying questions if necessary, but do not respond, do not argue, do not feel that you need to defend—you’re there to learn.”
In fact, make sure to take notes when your supervisor offers critique to show that you’re earnest about understanding it. Thank your supervisor for the time and then take time to digest the information you’ve been given. How do you feel about it? How can you improve and adjust? What are you missing that they need, and how can you bring that to your work? According to Rolfe, there’s no need to respond unless you’ve been asked, but simply adjust your work style to address the critique or follow up if you need further clarification.
And if you’re getting pats on the back, still ask your supervisor for things you can do better. After all, there’s always room for improvement!
4. “How did you get to where you are today?”
Let’s admit it—people love talking about themselves. Your supervisors are probably no different. But instead of talking about their latest successes at the shopping mall or the fun they had at the party that you totally shouldn’t have missed, your bosses will shower you with pieces of sage advice they’ve learned from their own experiences.
But really, at a time when you’re trying to figure out your future career path, your supervisor is a fantastic resource. Bosses have been where you’ve been (oh, right; they were our age once) and have taken both right and wrong turns, yet, through it all, they’ve somehow navigated the industry and ended up where they are today. Keep your ears open, because there’s some invaluable advice amidst the life stories.
“I personally tend to ask questions about what choices my supervisors made to make it to the career they are in,” says Josephine Barnor, a rising senior at the University of Tennessee and an intern at Ernst & Young. “Gaining … insights about your career choices helps you make a right decision.”
You can really ask this question to anyone—supervisors, alumni and network connections. Usually, it’s asked during either your initial or final meeting with the supervisor or over a casual lunch break or ad hoc conversation.
“It’s a great way to kill time on the way to a meeting or waiting for one to start,” Rolfe says. “I would dive right in with a casual tone so it sounds like small talk but allows them to share their insight and experience with you.”
If you listen to their stories, you’ll be a whole lot better at writing your own. And we promise they won’t be like another one of those, “When I was your age” stories your grandmother always tells.
5. “Could you recommend people in the field whom I could talk to about my career?”
Networking, networking, networking—you can never do enough. And when it comes to building a career network for yourself, your supervisor is definitely not someone you want to consider lightly. Supervisors might know people who may be willing to mentor you or provide invaluable information about the industry. Before you leave an internship, make sure to strengthen those ties.
“I would certainly recommend that any intern ask not only their supervisor, but also coworkers to connect them to others in the field that would be a valued resource for information that could help shape their career,” Rolfe says.
Plus, asking for contacts also shows your genuine interest in the field and in the future. It’s a win-win.
6. “What courses do you suggest I take in school to maximize my learning?”
At the end of the day, you’re still a student, and your main objective is still to learn. While you may have already gained lots of hands-on experience from the internship, you’re still going to have to rely on learning in the classroom when the summer’s over. Before you have to return back to campus, remember to ask your supervisor what courses you can take at school to continue learning, growing and preparing for you career.
Josephine thinks this is the number one question to ask supervisors toward the end of internships in order to gain insight and to show initiative for career preparation. Before you ask, however, Rolfe suggests first re-considering the answers you received from question #2 above, because you might already have received similar advice already.
“If you’re enjoying the internship and want to return to the organization or continue to pursue the field, then I would certainly seek out their advice for the ‘must haves’ – whether you choose to add them to your academic program or seek out that learning via other methods is then up to you,” Rolfe says. “However, ensure that you’ve considered [previous conversations] before you specify to the course level to avoid redundancy. It can also be very valuable to seek out their opinion if you are considering post-grad education.”
Your supervisors will already be familiar with what you’ve been working on during the internship and are in a position to suggest wise next steps for you to take regarding your academics.
7. “What skills or traits are my real assets?”
At this point you’re probably thinking, “enough with the improvements; let’s focus on the good stuff!” Wish granted. While it’s useful to ask for critique and focus on improvement, sometimes it’s nice to look at what you’re doing right. And who better to ask than your supervisor? Not only will this make your ego happy, but this will also give you insight into what you’re genuinely good at, which will help you find a career that’s right for you.
“Looking back on the direction my career took after my internship, I wish I would have asked her what skills she felt were my real assets,” Rolfe says. “If I had known that earlier in my career, it might have saved some frustration down the road. People are often happy to share where you need to improve, but hearing what you do well so you can focus on using those skills more in your work is very helpful.”
Of course, it’s hard not to sound like you’re fishing for compliments. One way to ask this question in a more humble way is to simply ask what strengths you bring to the team and how you’re adding value to the work being done.
“Everyone has strengths that they bring to an organization, and if a supervisor is building their team well, they are balancing the strengths of the team to create a stronger whole,” Rolfe says. “Sometimes a supervisor will turn this question around on you and ask the same thing of you, so be prepared to share what you see as your contributions and assets.”
Whether the things you’ll hear are reassertions or surprises, learning about your real assets will not only help you figure out the right career path for you, but will also help you learn more about who you are as a person.
Although the summer is quickly coming to a close (can you believe it?), there’s still time for you to approach your supervisor and ask some great questions. She’s there to help you get in as much learning and networking as possible, so take every chance to listen to and learn from her while you still can!