After the long process of resume rewrites and anxiously awaited call-backs, Shelby M., 20, a junior at NYU, finally scored a competitive publishing internship. And like every other eager intern on that uneasy first day, Shelby awoke to an all-too-early alarm, ironed out an appropriate outfit from her new wardrobe and allotted enough time on the subway for even the most extreme of delays and disasters.
What Shelby did not plan for, however, was a deserted office. It was 20 minutes of awkward waiting before a receptionist eventually moseyed in. With no idea of what to do with the bright-eyed intern, the woman only shooed Shelby into an empty lobby. Nearly an hour later, the (newly disheartened) intern was finally put to work—by sorting the office mail.
The internship eventually improved, but the whole experience was not without its major curveballs and setbacks. And chances are, if you’ve ever been an intern anywhere, you’ve experienced something like Shelby did—whether it, too, had to do with that awkward first-day confusion, or whether the chaos lasted throughout. Truth is, we often put so much energy and focus into earning our dream internships that it’s easy to be totally disappointed by how the experience actually shapes up.
But hey collegiettes™, that doesn’t mean you don’t have a hand in directing your internship. Sure, you may be on the (very) low end of the totem pole, but there are still actions you can take to make the most out of your situation. Now that summer internship season is in full swing, you may have a few woes of your own, and we’re here to help you smooth them out!
Read on learn our top four internship obstacles—and how to successfully troubleshoot your way out of disaster…
You’re Always Assigned Tasks—That a Monkey Could Do
Whether it’s the clichéd coffee-run or endless envelope-stuffing, it’s the rare internship that’s devoid of basic administrative (or even custodial) tasks. But this doesn’t mean that the majority of your time should be spent making copies or restocking the office pen supply.
If this is the case, first weather the internship for at least a week to see if you are gradually weaned off the more basic errands. When you see an opportunity to work on something you’re passionate about, speak up and pitch your idea! Any “down time” should be spent seeking out additional projects or soaking up as much information as you can—even if this is simply by reading the company manual or daily memos. Shelby was stuck filing old papers until she sent her boss a review of a manuscript she had read in her free time. The boss took notice of Shelby’s skills, and asked her to edit other manuscripts, leaving the filing to less active interns. By taking the initiative to seek out more high-level (and more exciting!) assignments, not only will you likely be pulled off of copying duty, but you will also get yourself noticed as an enterprising intern.
If you’re still having trouble exiting the mailroom, it’s time to talk to your supervisor. You don’t want to come off as the haughty new intern who thinks pitching a hand is below her, especially if you’re thrilled enough as it is just to get your foot in the door. Approach this sticky situation politely—and DON’T resort to complaints or protests. “The quickest way to kill an internship is being negative,” reminds career expert Dr. Randall S. Hansen in his book, The Quintessential Guide to Finding and Maximizing Internships. Politely explain to your boss that you are eager to learn more about the company and play a more direct role in its operations. Remind them of your experience or qualifications in relevant areas and be specific about how you would like to get involved. “Remember that there are always other opportunities at an internship—as long as you’re proactive and don’t play the victim,” says Heather Huhman, career expert and author of the new internship guide, Lies, Damned Lies & Internships: The Truth About Getting from Classroom to Cubicle.
Many universities will actually deny you course credit if you can’t prove you did anything other than organize the supply closet during your experience. At times it may be necessary to (reasonably) remind your supervisor that your earning of credit relies on a more hands-on internship. Consult your campus career advisor if you are running into serious obstacles.
The Not-So-Social Network: Making Connections in a Lonely Cubicle
An internship is a great opportunity to come away with a hearty number of connections and career mentors. But what interns are often disappointed to discover is that it isn’t always so easy to network. Couple physical isolation with your own insecurities about being the office newbie, and it’s easy to feel invisible in the workplace.
Realizing that her boss was never going to make the introductions for her, Shelby took it upon herself to reach out to other members of the staff. Looking back, she recognizes that having to go out of her way to be friendly actually improved her internship experience. “Introduce yourself to anyone who seems to be a regular fixture in the office,” Shelby advises. “It will make the work space much more comfortable and it will make asking questions easier.” Remember, the company didn’t hire a robot—it’s okay to have a personality, as long as you keep it PG. Colleen Sabatino, the Intern Coach at internships.com, explains that instead of only asking pesky work questions, “the best way to start a conversation is to ask the other person about himself/herself. Good questions include ‘How long have you worked here?’ ‘Any suggestions for a good place to grab lunch?’ ‘Did you catch last night’s game?’”
One collegiette™ in a politics internship found that first bonding with administrators and colleagues on her level, and then working up, made networking less intimidating. Her co-worker then went out of her way to introduce the intern to a top employee—who later served as a mentor for the student.
Career experts also recommend being active and getting out of the cubicle as much as possible by joining the office sports league, attending an after-hours conference, or electing to attend optional meetings.
Your Internship Has You In Over Your Head—And No One’s Lending a Hand
Mindless work is one thing, but the other side of the spectrum isn’t so sunny either—what to do when assigned tasks are completely beyond your skills?
First, put things in perspective. Unless you completely fudged your resume, your boss likely wouldn’t be assigning you something she didn’t believe you could handle or eventually master. The point is, internships are learning experiences; don’t be afraid to “ask as many questions as possible to clarify challenging assignments on the job,” urges Huhman.
Of course, always make sure you’ve thoroughly pored over any intern packet or cheat sheets your supervisor may have provided before you go bothering the boss. Often, these are created with past interns in mind, and you’d be surprised at how many FAQs you can find between the pages. You were given the packet for a reason—use it as your internship bible!
Sometimes, however, we’re stuck with barely-there bosses—and left with little direction. While you should never let the Internet become a substitute for discussing major questions or game plans with supervisors, it can be extremely useful for answering little, day-to-day inquiries. In my last internship, I frequently found answers to quick questions (i.e. company policies) simply by searching their website, avoiding being needy when I knew I could find the answer elsewhere. A little research can never hurt!
If you’re at a complete loss, and your direct supervisor is still MIA, try reaching out to former interns, or other co-workers and colleagues—anyone who has been in your position before or can sympathize.
Major Change: When Your Dream Career Isn’t So Dreamy After All
You loved all the classes you’ve taken in your major, and just landed the perfect internship in the field. Everything’s going great, with one exception—you don’t like the line of work. At all.
Realizing that we simply don’t like the careers we always thought we wanted can be one of the most challenging aspects of interning, but it can also be the most beneficial. After three weeks of being completely mistreated (and learning few skills) at a coveted fashion journalism internship, one collegiette™ decided she had to make a change. She’s now moved to the marketing side of journalism—and happier for it. Resham Parikh, a graduate of UC Irvine, can relate. Convinced she wanted to become a lawyer, Resham spent a summer working at a law firm—only to realize she absolutely hated the field. Trusting her gut, she checked out a marketing internship and ended up finding a great fit. Often, internships will double as a career guide, allowing you to dabble in diverse areas. “It is never too late to try something new and change career paths,” says Resham. “Don’t be afraid of getting lost. That’s what internships are for! Always go with your intuition and do something that you love.”
If your internship leaves you less than thrilled, it may actually benefit you to stick it out. You can still make valuable connections and come away with a stellar recommendation even if you decide to go in a different direction after the summer is over—an internship is never a time to burn bridges or slack off. “Show your best. Always,” Shelby reiterates. “In my opinion, that’s the number one internship rule.”
Shelby M., NYU Student
Dr. Randall S. Hanson, Career Expert, founder of quintcareers.com
Heather R. Huhman, Career Expert, heatherhuhman.com
Colleen Sabatino, Intern Coach, internships.com
Anonymous college students and interns
Resham Parikh, UC Irvine Graduate