how to save your summer internship from sucking

With summer internships now in full swing, what should you do if your internship is starting to feel like a dud – if you’re bored, or doing different work than you were promised, or struggling to make ends meet on intern pay?

Here are five of the most common ways that internships go awry and what you can do if it happens to you.

1. Your internship is turning out to be mostly clerical tasks, when you were expecting more substantive work.

What do do: Some amount of clerical work is normal in most internships, and it’s not uncommon for interns to come in expecting to do more glamorous work than what they end up with. The reality is that many internships offer you the chance to get work experience and exposure to your field in exchange for what can be, yes, drudgery. After all, you haven’t proven yourself in the work world yet, but ideally if you excel at those boring tasks and do them cheerfully, you may be given more interesting work.

However, if you were promised types of projects that you aren’t getting, or if you’re just going stir-crazy from too much filing and coffee-fetching, talk with your manager. Say that you understand the need to do the work you’ve been doing, but that you also want to ensure that the summer is a learning experience for you, and that you’re hoping for the opportunity for exposure to more substantive work as well. (And if you discussed specific projects during the hiring process, now is the time to mention those.) Ask if it’s possible to carve out time to learn about and contribute to other projects your team is working on.

2. You’re not getting enough assignments, and you’re bored.

What to do: Talk to your manager. Tell her that you have a lot of down time and ask what additional projects you can take on to keep you busy. Some managers take on interns without considering the time investment they’ll need to make in generating and overseeing projects for them, and you might have one of those, so ask whether there are longer-term projects you can take on that will keep you busy for a good chunk of time and won’t require you to keep checking back for additional work.

You can also ask if you can offer to help others in the office when you have down time–if you get permission to do that, you might find that others are happy to fill up your plate when your manager won’t.

3. You’re not getting much feedback or guidance on your work.

What to do: Be clear about what you need! When you’re given an assignment that’s unclear, ask questions. For example, you could ask if there are samples of similar work that has been done in the past that you could look at, or for a clear description of what a successful end product would look like.

You could also consider having a big-picture conversation with your boss and explain that you’re not always sure how to tackle your assignments. You could suggest having a weekly check-in meeting so that you have a set time to talk about what you’re working on, ask questions, and get feedback.

4. You’re not included in meetings and discussions around the office and wish you could be part of them.

What to do: In order to keep meetings short and focused, managers will often try to keep meeting participants to a low number, often including only those with a deeper background in the issues being discussed or those with decision-making authority. So it isn’t always appropriate to include extra participants – but including observers is another thing. Try framing your request as a desire to sit in and observe, rather than as a participant. For example, you could say, “Would it be possible for me to observe some of the website strategy meetings? I’d love to sit in to get more exposure to that work, just as an observer.”

5. You receive an internship stipend but it’s not even covering your travel to and from work.

What to do: It’s not unreasonable to ask for some assistance with expenses. It may or may not be in your team’s budget to cover it, but it’s not outrageous to inquire about it. Try saying something like this: “I’m finding that my stipend isn’t fully covering my expenses getting to and from work each day. Would it be possible to get some assistance with those expenses so that I don’t lose money by coming to work?”

(One caveat here: It’s always better to negotiate this kind of thing before you accept an internship offer. It’s usually harder – not impossible, but harder – to change the terms a job offer once you’ve already begun work.)

I originally published this at U.S. News & World Report.

{ 25 comments… read them below }

  1. Ad Astra*

    This is all really good advice, as usual. I hope, though, that companies aren’t trying to use interns to replace support staff. Even the boring, clerical-type work you give interns should be aimed at teaching them something about how the profession works. If your intern’s duties are limited to making coffee, fetching lunch, answering phones, and working the front desk, you don’t need an intern; you need an admin assistant.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Eh, as long as it’s a paid internship and they’re clear up-front about what it will entail, I don’t have a problem with that. It’s often worth the trade-off to get exposure to the field and start building a network (assuming that you really are given opportunities for exposure to the field, like attending meetings, etc.).

      1. Ad Astra*

        One of the few benefits of virtually all newsrooms being understaffed is that news interns get real experience from the get go. And as publications have increasingly less space in print, there are fewer and fewer grunt-work tasks like “person on the street” surveys or proofreading the horoscope.

        In high school, I had an “internship” that involved returning submitted photos and archiving old editions of the newspaper. I don’t even put it on my resume now because the experience is worth so little.

        I get that not every industry is like that, but I would hope the interns who aren’t building their portfolios are at least attending those meetings and observing professionals in action. I’d be interested to know how much hands-on experience is normal for interns in other fields.

    2. Chinook*

      I am working with my boss’ engineering summer student (fully paid) and she is doing only clerical work at this point. I know she was disappointed when she was assigned the task of typing up notes so I took her aside to point out that this was an opportunity to see how the other engineers work, if she chose to look at it that way. Doing clerical work is a great way to learn the ins and outs of a department and a job if you take the initiative. Proof of that is how knowledgeable your average Admin. Asst. is about what goes on with the positions they support. I also pointed out that she was in a unique position to refine the documents she was working on because the people in our department are open to well-thought out feedback and she is looking at these documents without any baggage. She brightened at this and has done a bang up job on these.

      BTW, when we don’t have summer students, their tasks become mine (for consistency from year to year) and would be assigns the same whether male or female.

    3. Ashley the Nonprofit Exec*

      I actually have an admin assistant intern right now. She’s studying “office systems management” sothis is appropriate for her field. So that kind of thing can be a fantastic internship for the right person.

      I also think that some interns don’t initially realize that, in many, many organizations, nearly everyone does some amount of admin work. I have an admin who I don’t share, but there are plenty of time that I end up needing to make copies, file, etc. Those skills might be basic, but they are essential.

  2. Sassy Intern*

    This is all really, really good advice, but I want to highlight one piece I received from a classmate, “If you like working there, ask about transitioning to a full-time position!”

    In my line of work (communications/PR) it’s really common to have multiple internships for different facets of the field. But, if you really like a place, absolutely let them know! I know a lot of people my age who really enjoyed their internship, but after it ended, they just went on to a different company. Even if they can’t hire you right away, starting that conversation after you’ve established your work ethic, but before you’ve left is really important.

    1. Nxg7+ Kd8 22. Qf6+!*

      Definitely and for sure. I can only speak for my own company, but summer interns are one of (if not *the*) primary source of full-time new hires. It is possible to get hired other ways, but if you’re an intern and you do well, you’ll get a job offer. (My company = very old Fortune 50 IT firm)

  3. Lily in NYC*

    Our interns are as impressive as they always are except for one dud. But the dud is so entertaining! He is clueless and talked in a meeting about all the drinking he did during his study abroad and how he never went to class. My boss looked mortified. Then he slept through the rest of the meeting and is a total clock-watcher. I feel slightly vindicated because I was the only one who didn’t want to choose him when we were going over the candidates because he was rude to me when I called him about something during the interview stage (before he realized where I was calling from). The other interns are slightly intimidating – they are all high-achieving types and are way more “together” than I was at that time in my life. I’m also amazed at the level of work we give them and how well most of them handle it.

  4. Dana*

    There are so many things from my college life that I wish I could change. Knowing that I’m supposed to do an internship is at the top of the list. (Sigh) In my next life, then.

    1. anonanonanon*

      I never did any internships in college because I couldn’t afford to do them, and it didn’t negatively impact me in any way. I still got a job in publishing. I have friends in TV, marketing, and other industries who also got jobs without internship experience. I know people who did have internships and never got jobs in those fields after they graduated.

      Internships can help with networking and may lead to a job offer, but I don’t personally think they’re necessary for every career field. A reasonable hiring manager is going to understand if you couldn’t get a coveted internship spot that hundreds others were applying for or that you had to work a paying job over summer holidays instead of an unpaid internship.

      1. Anx*

        I think what gets really tricky, is when you can’t afford an unpaid internship, but you also can’t find a survival job.

        So you end up in a position where you could have just taken the unpaid internship, but at the time it would have been irresponsible.

  5. Ash (the other one)*

    At one of my first internships in college I was told to “surf the web” when I finished my assignments early. Not sure that was the best use of my time, but I was being paid (at least!).

    My best advice for interns is to speak up if a project interests you… having been on both sides of things, I think this makes it easier for supervisors to know what tasks interns want to take on, and for interns it helps give you better control of your experience

  6. Ashley the Nonprofit Exec*

    I like the advice about clarifying that you want to observe a meeting, vs. participating. I had a brand new intern – on her very first morning – do her best to dominate a conversation about strategy. As in, there were 20 people in the room, an she was speaking after nearly every comment by someone else. Let me tell you, she had nothing useful to add since she had ZERO context and it took up valuable time. That’s not the way to prove your value. I did manage to facilitate the conversation away from her in the moment (and spoke to her later), but I wish her supervisor had explained her role in the meeting before it started.

  7. FD*

    Also, managers–remember that you’re getting inexpensive or sometimes free labor in exchange for teaching your interns how to be professional! They won’t always understand professional norms and it’s your job to teach them.

    I will always remember the intern manager who, after I made a mistake in professional norms, completely reamed me out and kept asking how I could make a mistake, and continued even after I had apologized extensively and was sobbing in her office.

    (For context, the mistake I made was that we were all paired with a supervisor, who we directly reported to and worked with. There was a very high level of interaction with that supervisor–you didn’t have ongoing tasks at all, just what that supervisor gave you for the day. Therefore, other interns had been told by their supervisors not to come in on days that their supervisors were out. When mine was out, I assumed the rules were the same, since I literally wouldn’t have any work to do for the day. I should have asked, but it was a very innocent mistake.)

    1. Ashley the Nonprofit Exec*

      This is super important, and it’s been hard for me to learn to articulate this kind of thing. We don’t really have entry-level positions and hardly ever hire someone without at least 3 years of professional experience, and interns have made me realize that I haven’t completely thought through some of the norms that everyone else seems to get automatically. Things like how long you can stay in the bathroom (I’d rather not ever address this, but it was really past the point of letting it go), when it is and isn’t okay to take a quick personal phone call, what kind of personal phone call content is okay at your desk vs. the kind where you need to go outside, etc.

      We also don’t really have spoken or written rules about a lot of things – like when you’re going to be more than x minutes late you should call and tell someone (normally people just use their judgement depending on what they are late for). We don’t have rules about how long lunch lasts. There is no written dress code. There’s no need, because none of this is a problem.

      We’ve remedied some of this by articulating some of these rules on paper for all interns (although they don’t necessarily apply to staff, which can be confusing to the interns).

      1. FD*


        One of the hardest things for me when I transitioned to an office job was figuring these things out. And then, it changes from office to office too, so IMO it’s as important to learn how to figure out the rules of any office as it is to know the rules of your current office.

      2. FD*

        Hit enter too soon…

        And yes, the fact that different rules apply to different people can also be confusing and frustrating to people new to the workforce. Jane may get to take 2 hour lunches, but what you don’t know is that she works five hours from home every night, and gets a longer lunch as a trade-off. Wakeen isn’t in the office that often, but that’s because he works in a client-facing job and a lot of the time, he has to go out and schmooze with possible leads.

    2. Ad Astra*

      Yes, that’s a huge overreaction for a completely innocent mistake that could be easily fixed. All the manager had to say was, “Actually, you should have asked how to proceed. I need you hear even if your supervisor isn’t in the office.” Presumably, you would have had no problem adapting to that expectation in the future. There was no need for anyone to yell or cry in this situation. I’m just stunned.

      1. FD*

        She was a bit of a piece of work…

        I *did* mess up, no arguments, but the reaction was rather excessive. However, this was also the manager who wouldn’t let female interns stand in front of the microwave when it was running because “It would destroy our uteruses”…

        This was a public policy internship, by the way. Gives one hope for the people who are influencing America, right?

  8. Anx*

    I must say that I feel like I’m getting a lot out of my internship.

    It’s sort of bittersweet, though, because I’d really like to do this work later on for pay. I don’t feel as though my work is being exploited (in part because I’m taking time away from supervisor’s regular work, in part because I don’t work in a for-profit organization). I’m worried that even when the people you work directly under are supportive and providing you with a quality internship experience, that unpaid internships are replacing entry-level and low-level work. I do hope I can translate this work into a paycheck one day, but I’m not so sure.

  9. hayling*

    Attending meetings was one of the most interesting things at both of the internships I had!

  10. Grad*

    I really do love my internship and have been tackling all the assignments with zeal (however small.) The problem I’ve been having is a number of coworkers see the “intern” label and assume I’m an undergrad with absolutely no experience. I’ve literally had someone try to “help” me write a short email and been given many extremely easy clerical tasks that I would trust any high schooler with. (I make sure to finish them quickly and accurately to prove this point which always surprises the task assigner!)

    The problem with all this is that I’m an MBA student who graduated from my undergrad program 5 years ago. While I have an admittedly short work history compared to people with 20-25 years of experience, I was in charge of a $65,000 budget and a number of volunteers before returning to school to get my MBA. It feels SO odd to go from extreme anonymity to pre-school like hand holding.

    I’m taking it all with a smile and have been given increasingly challenging tasks. My boss has obviously seen my resume and does treat me like an MBA intern. It’s really just many of my coworkers who are treating me like a child. I’ve been making sure to drop mentions of my previous experience and education where possible and that has helped. Normally, I would also dress to the nines to help the perception but I happen to be working in a setting where business casual is almost too dressy let alone business formal.

    Things are improving thanks to my efforts and this is more of a rant than an ask for advice. It was just incredibly weird to feel like I was suddenly back in my undergrad internship from 6 years ago!!

    1. Ad Astra*

      Do you look young? Maybe the coworkers are doing a bad job of judging your age, so they assume you have a lot less experience. If that’s the case, dressing a little more formally could help.

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