10 tips for getting the most out of your internship

The following are my 10 target behaviours and outcomes to make the most of your summer internship
Brainstorm By Elliot D. Lasson, Ph.D.
Published on May 21, 2015

First, it should be noted that internship opportunities come in a variety of flavours. Some are part-time; some are full-time. Some are paid, and some (most) are unpaid. You might be helping out in the office, doing “whatever”–like copying, delivering documents or data entry. Some are resume builders; some are not, but do bring in some spending cash while in college. Or you might be doing more specific, meaningful work such as analysing samples in a lab, updating web content or helping out on a technical report.

So beyond the pay check (if any), the following are my 10 target behaviours and outcomes to make the most of your summer internship:

1. Create a Positive First (and Ongoing) Impression

The endgame here is to gain a professional reference, obtain a letter of recommendation or blurb on LinkedIn and have a quality resume entry. You earn these through punctuality and presenting a professional appearance each day.

Be careful what you wear. Yes, it’s summer. But before you leave the house, remember that you are not going to the beach or sunbathing on the campus quad. If you are not certain about the dress code, ask your boss or someone in HR.

Keep your workspace clean and organized, and don’t be seen texting or using technology for personal purposes while on the clock. Updating your Facebook status can wait until you get home. (Also see Tip #8 below.)

2. Deliver

You want to make sure that you complete any assignments, whether easy or complex, by the deadlines. “The dog ate my homework” (or its digital version) will not resonate here.

3. Don’t Be High Maintenance

You obviously want to do a good job. Try to take notes on what is expected of you from the outset. When questions arise while you are performing a task, don’t ask your supervisor questions every two minutes. To the extent possible, bank” your questions and move on to the next part. Then, before the deadline, present your questions in batch mode in order to be able to complete the assignment correctly.

4. Expect Downtime

Not all internships are structured. In many cases, the longer an organization has had an internship program on the books, the more organized it will be. But oftentimes, the placement of an intern is new for an organization and staff is unprepared to mentor or supervise.

That being the case, fill any gaps in your day by offering to help others with something specific. Try to learn the behavior patterns and needs of others so that you know exactly how you might be helpful. If you are really proactive, consider doing some industry-relevant research and creating a white paper to present to your supervisor.

5. Log Everything

In some cases, you will be ask to write a weekly update or submit an end-of-stint report for course credit. So, keep a running log of your activities, including dates and what your contribution was. That will help you later on in terms of recall and help capture what you did on your resume.

6. Develop Your Skills

Try to identify 2-3 skills you do not already have which you can work on developing before the end of your assignment. If there are any opportunities for you to attend a training workshop, ask if you can take advantage of those. There might also be some areas in which you could be cross-trained that are beyond the narrow scope of the department in which you are initially assigned. If and when you have a chance to sit in on a meeting, try to observe what leaders and other successful people say and do.

7. Keep Data Protected

In some cases, you might be working on a proprietary project or otherwise have access to sensitive data. You might also be given opportunities to do some of the work remotely. The last thing you want is to leave your MacBook in your favorite Starbucks, never to be seen again. If you copied a spreadsheet that contained credit card account info or Social Security numbers, your organization might very well be in the headlines on CNN tomorrow morning.

8. Be Discreet

When you get home, don’t feel compelled to tweet “My supervisor’s wardrobe is SO ‘90s! LOL!” or update your Facebook status with “Another day at the office–bored out of my gourd!”

If you post to social media that your fashioned-challenged boss needs to get with the program, a recruiter may not look at you as a compelling candidate. Posting a picture on Instagram of Joe asleep in his cubicle might be funny to your BFFLs now. But it won’t be hysterical when, after Joe gets fired, you have to face him while he’s cleaning out his desk next week.

Remember, the Internet does not forget!

9. Know Your Place

Remember to be polite and respectful of others. The workplace is diverse in terms of gender, generational cohorts and other factors. Try to pick up on cues as to the most appropriate ways to communicate with and address others. This goes for both verbal and nonverbal communication. Some prefer or deserve more formal titles like “Mr.,” “Mrs.” or “Dr.”

Try to fit in, but don’t make yourself too comfortable. Respect the boundaries and space of others. Remember that you are just a student and only there for a couple of months.

10. End on a High Note

As you are concluding the term of your summer internship, make sure to demonstrate your appreciation for the opportunity. Thank your boss, mentors and other coworkers who helped you. A handwritten card is a small token that will go a long way in their remembering you. It is often the small things you did to be helpful or gestures of gratitude that people remember best.

You might also want to ask whether those with whom you worked would be willing to connect on LinkedIn, write you a recommendation or keep in touch for when you are looking for a real job.  Your summer internship placement might in fact be the best prospect for your first job out of college.

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