Act like an intern, work like a boss
I work full time, from 8 a.m. until 4:30 every weekday, and get paid extremely well compared to others at my experience level. I have my own office, I lead at least one meeting every week and am in charge of planning and promoting a huge company-wide event set to take place in August. Although I don’t have as much professional experience as my colleagues, I can absolutely tell that there’s a feeling of mutual respect – I respect them, and they respect me and allow my voice to be heard.
It might be surprising to learn that I’m not a full time staff member – just an intern here for the summer. There’s a lot being said about internships nowadays, some of it good and some of it not-so-good. Some college students (like me) can’t even think about applying for graduation until they’ve got at least one internship under their belts – and sometimes that’s not even enough. Some recruiters won’t even give your resume a second glance unless they see several internships listed.
Despite the increasing importance of internships for today’s young people, these opportunities can get a bad rap (which is not always unwarranted, in some cases). I’ve heard firsthand horror stories of interns working long, brutal hours for little or no pay, or being delegated menial tasks with no relation to their career path, such as getting coffee or answering phones. For the record, I’ve been at my internship for almost two months and haven’t had to do either of those two things yet. Sure, I occasionally get assigned to edit a draft news release or organize some communications materials for distribution, but all of the more administrative-type tasks I’ve had to do are things that I’ve also seen other (full-time) staff members in my department doing at different times. It’s not a matter of “let’s pass all the grunt work off to the intern” – tasks like that generally fall on whoever is available to do it. Most of my time is spent working on bigger, important projects, such as events and mass communications plans.
I’ve been lucky to be treated as an equal among my coworkers at my internship. Even though I technically rank at the bottom of the totem pole, it doesn’t feel that way. There’s a fine line between knowing that you are an intern and that your main priority is to learn and gain experience, and asserting yourself to get the respect you deserve as a part of the company. Do it right, and your experience will be all the more enjoyable.
- Remember who you meet. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not the greatest at this – if I run into someone who I’ve met once or twice before, I’ll more than likely recognize them but I’ll have trouble putting a name to the face. At my internship I was provided with an overview of my department, which had a small photo of everyone on my team, their first initial and last name, and their job title. As I met people, I filled in their first name on my little chart and wrote down anything else that would help me remember who they are (e.g. office at the end of the hall), and kept it in the top drawer of my desk. I don’t need to use it anymore, but it definitely came in handy the first few weeks. Do whatever it takes to remember who’s who, because knowing who people are shows that you’re taking an interest in them and in the company.
- Speak up! I was invited to sit in on not one, not two, but three meetings on my very first day (the first one was about an hour after orientation). I was unbelievably nervous going into the first meeting and mostly just listened, but I spoke up once or twice near the end of my second meeting and contributed regularly throughout the third. Just because you’re new doesn’t mean your thoughts aren’t valid. If you don’t know what the meeting is about, ask your supervisor or manager to catch you up beforehand so you’re not sitting there with no idea what everyone around the conference table is talking about.
- Say “yes” more. If your boss asks you to do something, do it – even if it doesn’t sound like the most exciting thing in the world. It shows you have initiative and actually want to pitch in. If you can’t do it for some reason (for example, if what you’re being asked to do interferes with another project you’re currently working on), explain the situation and see if a compromise can be reached.
- When in doubt, write it down. I bring a notebook with me to every meeting, even if I’m just stopping by my boss’s office to ask a quick question. I’m also a sucker for making to-do lists (by hand, not just by setting reminders on my computer, because even the act of writing something down helps me remember it). Jotting stuff down in a meeting is a great way to look like you’re organized and on top of things.
- Own up to mistakes. This can be tough when you’re an intern, because when you make a mistake, there’s always that haunting fear that everyone else is probably thinking, “Wow, of COURSE the stupid intern messed up.” (News flash: they’re not thinking that.) Luckily, I haven’t made any devastatingly catastrophic mistakes yet (*knocks on wood*) but everyone slips up from time to time, even if it’s a tiny typo in an email. Just yesterday I sent an email to a coworker about an event and realized that I had typed the wrong date…RIGHT as I pushed send (bonus tip: proofread!). I immediately sent another message clarifying the date and apologizing for the error. When you mess up, acknowledge it as soon as possible and do what you can to help make things right. It’s not always easy to admit when you’re wrong, but doing so will save you a lot of trouble down the road compared to not saying anything and letting someone else notice the mistake when it’s too late.
- Show what you know. I’m in a pretty unique position as a marketing/communications intern at a research and development organization. I have one of the few non-scientific roles in a very science-based company. As someone who definitely has more right-brained tendencies, this means that I have to make a greater effort than more scientifically inclined individuals when it comes to understanding various projects that my company does.
I found myself in an interesting situation earlier this week, when the HR department organized a special luncheon for the interns with our CEO. We ate and chatted and he gave a little speech about the company – most of which related to our scientific work. There was some time for questions at the end, and I was in a tough spot because I wanted to ask a question (speaking up and taking initiative and all that) but because I only understood the scientific concepts he talked about in very basic terms, I didn’t think I could come up with a well-thought-out question regarding any of that. I finally thought of a question related to one of the points he’d talked about, but gave it more of a marketing/communications angle. He told me it was a great question, which made me feel good knowing that even though I haven’t done anything scientific since I handed in my AP Chem exam senior year of high school, that doesn’t mean that my role in this very, very scientific company isn’t important as well.
Just because you rank at the bottom of the professional hierarchy doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be taken seriously. Interns are part of a mutually beneficial professional relationship, providing the company with valuable service while gaining experience for their future career in a professional setting. Think of your internship as the first step on your path to a long and fulfilling career, with the network of industry professionals you work with serving as your guides to help you along the way.