Internship survival guide

Hate it or love it, make your internship work for you.

by Bronwyn Miller

For many college students, summer means more than day drinking and vacations: It’s internship season. Internships are generally considered an invaluable way to garner firsthand, real-life experience, yet they can range from the good, the bad and the ugly. Even if your internship is hardly a cakewalk, sticking it out is often worth a line on your résumé or a prestigious reference. Take note of these tips to help you along the way.

Drop your expectations

Every internship is different. My experiences have run the gamut in terms of job duties, direction, trust level and other factors. I’ve had the internship where I was treated like a “real” employee and invited to networking nights and kickball games, but I’ve also had the internship where six hours could pass without anyone saying anything to me if I didn’t speak first. To minimize frustration and disappointment, don’t approach your first day thinking you’re walking into your dream job. It’s better to be pleasantly surprised by a good experience than crushed by a poor one. 

Check your ego at the door

Offer to do anything and everything, and always do it with a smile. Yes, you might have to bite the bullet when your most critical task involves making a Starbucks run, but always express gratitude for the tasks you are given, no matter how menial they may be. In truth, the worst case scenario is not mindless activities but pretending to look busy. Hands down, the most agitating and nerve-racking way to spend your time is trying to look like you’re doing something when you have nothing to do, so be thankful that you are given something — anything — to pass the time. Feel satisfied that doing so makes you look like a team player in the eyes of your superiors.

Don’t give up

I was bewildered by the internship at which I was yelled at on my first day for asking my supervisor to “put me to work,” chastised for expecting to be “babysat.” Be prepared for an internship program that forgoes any training and requires you to seek out your own activities, and try your best to prevent the lack of guidance from ruining your experience. Swallow your nervousness and approach as many people as it takes to find something to do every day. Once you reach out to them, though, they will understand the position you are in and potentially seek you out the next time they need help. As I have learned, it’s better to err on the side of overly eager than reluctant. At the very least, even if you never have the opportunity to work on anything too meaningful, you will have made people know who you are and that you are proactive, and you can justify the time you put in with a few solid letters of recommendation.

Look for the silver lining

Even if your internship offers the same mental stimulation as watching paint dry, don’t burn bridges. If you are truly miserable or stressed, consider quitting, but in less extreme situations, salvage the experience as best you can. When you end up hating an internship in the field that you thought was your ideal career, it can spark quite the existential crisis, but consider it a blessing. Finding out what you want to be when you grow up is often best accomplished by narrowing down what you do not want to be, and an internship that guides that realization is in fact very valuable. But remember, even if your mind is made up, resist the urge to stop caring about your position and screw off at work. Remember, it’s only your time that you’re sacrificing — so make it count.