How to Make the Most of a Bad Internship Experience

Chances are you have or will have a less than perfect internship experience at some point during your college years. Maybe you were hired at a company related to your major, hoping to gain real-world experience in your field, but all the work you've been given is getting coffee or making copies. Maybe your boss never includes you in relevant emails and then gets mad when you don't read her mind as to what you should have completed that week. 

A bad internship, however, doesn’t have to mean a wasted semester or summer! It’s important to focus on the big picture and realize that there will always be something positive that comes out of your experience. Here are a few ways to find the silver lining and make the most of a negative internship experience.

List the new skills you’re walking away with.

Even if you don’t immediately realize it, you have definitely experienced some growth during your internship. This growth can come in a number of different forms, from professional skills, such as public speaking or analyzing research, to more personal strengths, such as your confidence levels. For example, in an internship where your supervisor never provided any direction, you should think about how this lack of oversight might have impacted your confidence and leadership skills. All those times you've had to take initiative and run meetings on your own have certainly made you a better public speaker and a better team manager. Even if all you are doing is making coffee runs, you are likely improving your organizational skills; after all, not everyone can remember 10 complicated latte and espresso orders.

Take some time during your internship to list the changes you see in your personal skills and how this growth can benefit you later in life. You can make a bullet list or find a list of the professional skills employers value the most and highlight which you think you've improved on the most. When you get back to your university, you can meet with your college advisor or your university's career services office to discuss how you can portray some of these skills positively on a resume or LinkedIn profile. This will allow you to move past some of the worst aspects of your internship and really focus on the ways it has actually benefited you. 

Expand your network as widely as possible.

Though your daily work at your internship might not be what you imagined, you can still take advantage of being in a field that interests you. Take some time to network and make use of the connections you can make during your time in the office. Go to any conferences, meetings or social events you are invited to and meet the other interns and employees working in the career field you hope to work in one day. For example, you could invite internship supervisors from other departments at your company for coffee and conduct an informational interview with them. During your interview, you could discuss what they studied in college, what their ideal career trajectory is going forward and even ask if they are willing to let you take on a project or two from their department. This small move can help you gain relevant work at the company even if your own supervisor only assigns you to the printer. 

Another move would be to always attend conferences or special events hosted by your company. Maybe your office hosts an annual gala and you get free tickets – even if it seems like a stuffy event, take advantage of the opportunity and meet other industry leaders who are attending the event. Even if your bad internship experience has made you feel less than excited about your work, you should use these invitations to still gain something from your position by making connections and having a fun night with co-workers. 

Most importantly, don't forget to connect on LinkedIn before your internship ends! For all you know, these people could be the key to getting a better position in the future.

Invest in time with your fellow interns.

Similar to networking with the professionals at your company or in the industry, use the time you have at your internship to make some new friends out of your co-interns. Even if there seems to be nothing redeemable about your job, you can at least walk away with some contacts who understand what you’ve gone through and can relate. These friends can help support you mentally when you feel your position is just weighing you down and can give you relevant career advice. You can also all bond over drinks after work, which can be a great thing to look forward to during a hard work day. And who knows? These work friends could easily become real, life-long friends. 

Besides gaining more friends, which is never a bad thing, these fellow interns might become professional contacts you can take advantage of in the future. By working with you, these friends know exactly what professional skills you have and are likely to recommend job openings they feel you are qualified for and interested in. You never know where your fellow interns will end up and how they can help you in your own career trajectory!

Consider any money you are making.

If you're working as a paid intern, the salary you are making might outweigh the feeling that the internship was a wasted experience. While not everyone has the privilege of getting only paid internships, money can be a source of relief and a physical way to see that you’re getting something for your time. Money can go towards your savings or be spent hanging out with friends on the days that work really gets you down. Even if you’re in an unpaid internship, there might be lifestyle benefits to the experience. Are you able to see and live in a new city that you never would have had the chance to without this position? Or maybe you are gaining practical experience and not spending as much as when you are attending classes and living on-campus. Any real-world experience is useful, and if you are saving or making money while gaining this experience, all the better.

There will be times when you feel down about the overall internship, but that doesn’t have to mean it’s a wasted experience. A bad internship isn’t the end of the world, and in fact, it may even help you face tougher work environments in your future. Take some time to really reflect on your experience and delve into the work you have accomplished, the skills you have learned and the friends you have made.