We all know that interns are the lowest employees on the company totem pole, which means that trips to the Xerox machine are probably inevitable. However, that doesn’t mean you should resign yourself to a “coffee-and-copies” type of internship if a couple weeks have gone by and you still haven’t been asked to do anything meaningful.
Rather than complaining to all of your friends about your wasted semester, here are eight ways you can transform a “meh” internship into a super-productive experience.
1. Talk to your supervisor
Although it may seem obvious that you didn’t sign up to be an intern so you could spend all of your time doing mindless chores, your supervisor might have no idea she’s not using you to your full potential. However, if you’re considering going up to her and saying, “I’m bored,” abort mission! That’s the number one thing you should never utter at work.
"Avoid putting yourself in the victim role, but be honest and forthight," says Lisa Orrell, author of Your Employee Brand is in Your Hands. "Your adviser will probably assume you have things to do if you don't say anything." Orrell recommends asking for a meeting with your boss and respectfully asking for more responsibilities. She also says this is a great time to restate your strengths. “Are you strong at Excel, PowerPoint or another type of software? Are you good at social media? Even if you brought those things up during the initial interview, your supervisor may have forgotten,” Orwell says. “You’ll jog their memory and they’ll remember other tasks and projects they can have you do.”
For example, you could say, “During the interview, we discussed my research skills. Is there anything I can help you with that would utilize those skills?”
Maybe you’re a talented writer and your blog is your baby. Ask your supervisor if you can help work on the company newsletter. Or maybe you’d like to help out with the company’s Twitter page.
Don’t think you can’t use this strategy if you have the opposite problem: being too busy, but with busywork. You should still respectfully ask for more higher-level tasks by reiterating your strong suits. Succeeding at these will have a domino effect: your supervisor will see that you’re capable and responsible, which will lead to more challenging projects. This will further prove your potential!
2. Manage your time
If, even after talking to your supervisor, you’re still bogged down with chores that require approximately 2% of your mental capacity to complete, than try to do them as quickly as you can without sacrificing quality. In other words, don’t make the time “go by faster” by checking Facebook at every consecutive 10-minute mark, as tempting as that may be. The faster you complete the boring tasks, the sooner you can get to more stimulating ones.
“There will always be a juggling act at work that tests your ability to complete the things that need to get done and those you would prefer to be doing,” says Joan Snyder Kuhl, founder of Why Millennials Matter, a Gen-Y speaking and consulting company. “If you approach your internship with a project-management mindset, then it will help you organize your time to execute the top priorities set by your boss and allocate time for developmental opportunity projects.”
This may require writing copious to-do lists, blocking social media on your phone and laptop and logging on early. But even if you have to buy an extra cup of coffee and sacrifice a couple sushi nights with your friends, it will be worth it. Your boss will notice what a strong and dedicated worker you are, which will — hopefully — lead to projects that actually require some thinking.
3. Come up with your own project
“Taking initiative” is a career buzzword, but there’s a good reason for that: it’s super impressive. There’s no better way to show your supervisors you can think for yourself, find areas for improvement and develop solutions.
According to Snyder, the first step in creating your own task is to understand the business model of the company you’re working for. “You need to ask yourself, ‘How do they make money? What’s important to them? What drives their results?’” she says. “Any project you devise should help them get their results faster.”
There are also projects that apply to almost every industry. For example, if you notice that meetings are run inefficiently — they always run over their scheduled times, people become restless, no one stays on topic, etc. — you could research ways to run meetings more effectively and then share the info with your supervisor or team.
“Sometimes, especially at small companies, employees are out of touch and relying on antiquated ways of doing something,” Orrell says. “They’re so busy doing their jobs, they don’t have time to re-organize their processes.” If nothing jumps out at you to fix, the last approach is sitting down with your supervisor and other team members and asking them what niggling problems they have at work. “It could even be something like, ‘our storage room is incredibly disorganized, and none of us want to deal with it, but we complain about it all the time,’” Orwell says. “Even if it doesn’t directly pertain to your major or your career, you’ll look like a rock star for solving an ongoing problem.”
4. Go to other departments
If you still don't have enough to do, you can go to other departments — but tread carefully. Walking over to another wing of the building and volunteering your help may seem vastly preferable to sitting at your desk and idly swiping through Tinder to pass the time; however, doing so without asking your boss first is a serious faux pas.
Instead, go to your supervisor and tell him or her you’re interested in helping out, say, the marketing department, because you took a couple of marketing courses in college and would like a chance to learn more about the field.
“When you ask, don’t forget to say that the work that they have assigned you obviously comes first and you’ll get that done before helping the other department,” Snyder says.
You can also find opportunities for work by sitting in on company meetings (with your supervisor’s permission) and listening carefully. If someone is assigned a project they seem less than enthusiastic about, they would probably jump at an offer for an extra pair of hands. And even if the employee does accept a task with a smile, they may still want your help! After the meeting, send them an email saying, “I’d love to contribute to X project. Are there any tasks I can do for you?”
Stay alert and you won’t have to resort to swiping right and left for entertainment. Meanwhile, your go-getter attitude will impress the whole office.
Whether you’re doing grunt work or helping out on a major project, you can definitely make connections so that even if you walk away with nothing else, you’ve still gotten a lot of value out of your internship. According to career author Jack Dorsey, an intern should network every single day, but not just at work.
“If you’re in a small office, there may simply not be that many people, and you’re already getting to know them,” he says. “If you’re in a big company, there may be hundreds or thousands of people at your location, so meeting all of them is impossible and a waste of time.” Dorsey advises building a core group of contacts by consistently getting meals with your coworkers and holding friendly conversations. After that, you can expand your network outward. “Make new friends when you go to get coffee, eat lunch, take a break or [are] in areas of the building where people naturally congregate,” he says. “Be the person who says ‘hello’ first, and your network will naturally build.”
In addition to making connections organically, you also can request an informational interview with professionals in the company or area where you’re working. “Interns should send polite emails asking for 15-minute coffee meetings to learn more about that person’s career path, field or just any advice they may have,” Snyder says.
Take advantage of the one time in your life where you can pull the “student card.” And thankfully, you can schedule meetings outside the 9-5 workday, so even if you’re busy unjamming the copier, networking is totally doable.
6. Develop your skills
If you’re still a little bitter about how your internship expectations differed from reality, look at this as a fantastic opportunity to broaden your skill set. Start by observing what’s highly valued at your workplace and then find areas for self-improvement.
“Maybe you aren’t really strong at Excel, but the company uses it quite a bit,” Orrell says. “You could ramp up your skills within a couple days, and that would open the door towards people asking for your help.”
Teaching yourself how to code, reading tutorials on SEO (search engine optimization), practicing your Photoshop and image-editing skills, improving your writing and even learning practical business skills are all great uses of your time that you can do for free and on your laptop (YouTube, anyone?). Plus, they’ll look way better on your screen than Facebook’s characteristic blue-and-white page, should your supervisor should happen to walk by.
7. Research the competition
By examining the competition, you can improve your knowledge and potentially help your company. Try looking at other companies in the field and figuring out what they do differently than the one you’re interning for. What works? What doesn’t? If you find anything yours could change to increase its competitive edge, summarize your results in a Word document or PowerPoint and send them to your supervisor. Your employers will love that you recognized such an essential part of being a successful business.
8. Request to job shadow
For a hands-on learning experience and a way to get a feel for different roles in the company, see if there’s anyone willing to let you shadow them. Dorsey says asking to job shadow is a good idea as long as you don’t request a whole day. “Make it more manageable by asking if there are specific blocks of time that work well for them for you to tag along,” he says. “That way they don’t feel obligated, and it increases the likelihood they’ll say yes.”
According to Orrell, you should shadow someone at the level above you as well as someone above that person, if possible. “That gives you a really good picture of what to expect and what skills you will need as you move up the ladder,” she says. “In addition, it can help you determine if that’s even a career path you want to pursue.”
Orrell also advises starting in your own department and then branching out. For example, if you’re interning with marketing, start there, then move to sales, and then move to the next related tiers, such as distribution, customer service or manufacturing.
With a little creativity and effort on your part, virtually any internship can be productive! Today, you’re filing documents ceaselessly; tomorrow, you’ll be taking over the world.