how to get the most of out your internship

A reader writes:

I’m going to be starting a 3-month summer internship in the management consulting field for a reasonably small (~30 employees) boutique consultancy. I see it as the first step in my career goal to become a management consultant. My goals from this internship are:
1) To obtain a bunch of great contacts who will hopefully help me as my career progresses.
2) To start to build my reputation in the industry.
3) To learn as much as possible.
4) To obtain an offer for part time work for the rest of my university degree (something I know they’ve offered others in the past).

So, if possible, could you provide me some tips and advice to achieve the above goals? The main challenge is that this internship will really be throwing me in the deep end, so it’s likely that I’ll have to ask a lot of questions.

Oh, I love this question. I hope others will chime in with advice too. Here’s my advice for all interns hoping to make a good impression and achieve the types of goals you listed:

1. Understand what to expect from an internship. The main point is to give you some basic exposure to day-to-day work in your field. In the vast majority of cases, you will not be doing glamorous, substantive work; you will be there to make other people’s lives easier. This means you may get stuck doing things like photocopying, filing, arranging meetings, and other things that may strike you as drudgery. In exchange, you get exposure to the field and work experience to put on your resume.

2. However, if you excel at these boring tasks and do them cheerfully, you may be given more interesting work. Trust me on this. Many interns don’t grasp this concept — after all, what does being good at photocopying have to do with your ability to, say, do independent research? Here’s why there’s a connection: When you come in as an intern, you haven’t proven yourself. (You can have a stellar academic record, but it still doesn’t count as proving yourself in the work world.) But if you do a great job on the boring work — yes, making the best photocopies you can make; odd as it sounds, there are ways to do that well and ways to do it badly — you’ll show that you pay attention to detail, follow instructions, and care about quality. Keep up a sustained track record of that, and eventually someone is likely to let you try your hand at something more interesting. But do a bad job on the basic stuff, and no one is going to trust you with anything more advanced. So go into it feeling that nothing is beneath you.

3. Don’t worry that you’ll need to ask lots of questions. Internships are designed to be learning experiences. However, to whatever extent you can, save up your questions and ask them in bunches. (This way, you’re interrupting less but still getting the information you need.)

4. Ask for feedback. Every so often, ask your boss how you’re doing. What could you be doing differently? Make it easy for her to give you the input that will help you grow.

5. One you get settled in and start to get to know people, ask them about themselves. How did they get into the field? What do they like about it? What do they find challenging? What advice do they have for you? Most people love to talk about themselves and will be flattered that you’re asking for their advice. And it will make them want to help you.

6. You don’t need to pretend to be older than you are, but do observe how others in the office act and roughly mirror it. For instance, if people modulate their voices when others are on the phone, modulate yours. If people are compulsively on-time for meetings, you should be compulsively on-time too. There are lots of little things like this that will help you appear professional by simply observing and mirroring what you see. And while these things may sound small, they will make you stand out compared to other interns they’ve had.

7. Toward the end of the internship, tell them you’ve loved working with them (assuming that’s true) and how much you’ve learned. Ask if there are any possibilities of continuing to work there. And if that doesn’t work out, ask if you can stay in touch. (They will say yes.) Then do it — once the internship is over, check in with an email every so often, tell them how school is going, talk about what you’re hoping to do next, ask if they have any leads or advice for you.

8. Oh, and don’t wear flip flops.

Good luck! Just the fact that you’re thinking about these questions puts you ahead of the game.

{ 3 comments… read them below }

  1. HR Wench*

    Basically, it’s like going to kindergarten for the first time. LEARN TO CONFORM!! :)

  2. Careerguyd*

    Excellent advice. I couldn’t have said it better myself. I would recommend also to establish learning objectives at the start of an internship. That way, the expectations on both sides are clear. In regards to expectations, never make assumptions. Major slip-ups can be averted or reconciled with open communication–so don’t be afraid to discuss anything that you are uncertain about.

  3. J.T. O'Donnell*

    Definitely all great points.

    I’d also clarify that asking for feedback means asking for ‘critical’ feedback.

    Many new professionals make the mistake of saying they want lots of feedback, when in reality they want to hear a lot of positive reinforcement and praise. However, the term ‘feedback’ to a seasoned professional translates into specifics about what you could be doing better. So, just brace yourself for the reality that you can’t do a perfect job and that constructive feedback isn’t always easy to hear, but usually the most valuable to consider.

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