Internships have garnered a lot of media attention as of late, criticizing corporations for taking advantage of students that are eager for experience. However, internships are still a great learning opportunity, and a place to make the right connections to help advance your career. Here are the top five things you need to keep in mind while interning.
1. Stay small & find a mentor
While it might seem like a great idea to try to aim high and work for the biggest firm or publication, it’s often the startups or smaller companies that will give you the most hands-on experience. Bureaucracy can get in the way of you pitching ideas or getting involved into projects beyond your job description. Smaller companies might value your input and give you more opportunities to build your portfolio. In a smaller company, you might also have a closer group of people to work with, which can lead to better connections and opportunities.
Whether it is the person that hired you or your desk colleague, a mentor is an invaluable part of your internship experience. You never know who will be instrumental in your career.
2. Be honest & ask questions
If you are unsure whether an internship is paid or not, it doesn’t hurt to ask during your interview. Inquire if there are opportunities to make money by freelancing or writing and editing articles on the side. Internships are rarely a way to make money, but it doesn’t hurt to be open to opportunities within the company.
There may be times where you feel like you are going beyond your job description, and that can be great for impressing your mentor or showing how invested you are in the opportunity to work for the company. However, you should never agree to doing work that you feel is unsafe or beyond your means. If they expect you to travel using your own car, inquire about their insurance policies and whether they will pay for gas and parking (that should go without saying, and if not, you should refuse to use your own vehicle). If you are interning with a school program, make sure to relay back any surprising situations with your internship advisor. They can support you if any issue comes up. Also, if you feel that you are overwhelmed with your duties, it’s okay to say that you need to focus on your tasks at hand, but that you appreciate that they recognize your competence to extend the opportunity.
3. Stay balanced
Interning can make you feel like you are heading in the right direction in your career, but once school work, part-time jobs and family life comes into play, it’s easy to get burnt out. Make sure to be realistic and don’t take on a frenzied schedule. You need down time so that you can perform. If you are ill or midterm season is around the corner, you should talk to your boss or internship coordinator and communicate that you might need to take one day off per week or come in later to the office to not fall behind. While it’s important to be invested in the internship, your education comes first!
4. Step out of your comfort zone
Internships are a great opportunity to test the waters. If you are unsure about a certain career path, an internship might give you a taste for the type of work environment or training involved for that profession. Be active in meetings and pitch ideas if you have the chance, as it will show you are active and passionate. Volunteer and ask your boss if there are any opportunities to help out with any events or projects. Show your initiative and make sure to vary your roles. While it might be easy to answer the phones and help edit the newsletter, you should be working on various technical and social skills.
5. Add to your portfolio & resume
If you are not getting paid, the most valuable, physical thing you can show from an internship is a beefy portfolio. Make sure to keep clippings and PDF’s of any project you worked on. Reference these projects in your future cover letters or LinkedIn profile.
Once an internship is over, it’s important to keep in touch with your colleagues and mentors. You might be interning somewhere else, but you could miss out on an opportunity to freelance or pick up a weekend shift. Update your mentors on what you are doing and send your resume to HR to have on file.
While it's easy to be upset about doing a lot of work for little to no pay, internships are short-term work periods, which can have a long term pay-off. Keep your eyes and ears open and approach every day and its challenges with a positive outlook. Don't forget to dress appropriately and show off your personality! Employers will always remember enthusiastic go-getters and might be more likely to refer you.
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