I have nothing to do at my internship

A reader writes:

Three weeks ago, I started a new internship at a large design office, and so far I have not been assigned any real work. I have been asked to do small tasks like cleaning a shelf or compiling information that takes me less than an hour to complete.

I’ve brought up that I don’t yet have work to do and that I’m happy to help on any project to the person in charge of staffing my office many times, talking to her every day she’s in the office in person and emailing her as well. (My coworkers recommended this and said it’s completely normal to let her know when I don’t have any work to do.) She always says, “OK, I’ll let you know if anything comes up,” and has yet to assign me work. She has also repeatedly said many times that interns should not go around asking for work themselves from other people and must go through her (though I have to admit that, at this point, I’ve been asking people who I know are busy to please let me know if they need any help, because I’m desperate).

Part of me wonders if maybe they don’t think I have the skill set to do the work they hired me for, but I don’t know how they could judge that, since I haven’t been given the opportunity to work on something and prove myself, even though I’m already a quarter through my time here. I’m really frustrated and starting to regret not taking one of the other internship offers this year.

It’s surprisingly common for companies to hire interns without fully thinking through whether the amount of intern-level work they have will truly keep someone busy or not. Or they underestimate how much time it takes to train and supervise someone brand-new to the work world, and by the time they realize it, it’s too late—you’ve already been hired. It’s incredibly disappointing to interns when this happens… and it should be really embarrassing to the employer, who should work to make it right, although they don’t always do that.

The next step here is to talk with your manager about what’s going on. I know you’ve been asking her for projects, and so you might assume that she’s already well aware of the problem—but the piece you haven’t done yet is the piece where you tell her that you’re concerned about the situation and not getting what you’d signed up for out of the internship. You might figure that’s been implicit in your repeated requests for work, but weirdly enough, people in her shoes don’t always connect those dots. She might not have paid enough attention to realize just how little work you’ve been given or, who knows, she may think you’re perfectly happy to watch YouTube videos all day.

So schedule a meeting with her and say something like this: “I wanted to talk with you about how my internship is going. When I was hired, we discussed my working on projects like X, Y, and Z. We’re about a quarter of the way into my internship, and, so far, I haven’t been assigned much at all. I’ve been given the occasional small task like cleaning a shelf or spending under an hour compiling info, but 80 percent of my time [or whatever percentage is accurate] has been unfilled. It’s really important to me to come away with the sort of experience we talked about during the hiring process, and also to earn a good reference here. I’m not expecting high-level work, of course; I understand that I’m an intern. But I do want to make sure I’m busy and contributing. Are there a few longer-term projects I could work on for the remainder of my time here?”

This should nudge her to realize that the organization isn’t meeting its end of the bargain, and, ideally, should pay off in more work. But if that doesn’t happen—and sometimes it won’t—your best bet is to propose work of your own. This can be tough as an intern; you often won’t be in a position to see what would be most useful and can’t do much without stepping on someone else’s turf. But if they’re truly leaving you with nothing to do, see if there’s an unattended problem you can solve, a proposal you can write, or a project you can start. (Don’t touch anything official without approval, though! For example, it’s fine to write up a proposed social media plan, but it wouldn’t be OK to commandeer their Twitter account without permission.) You’ve got to do this with the understanding that they may not use it, but it’ll at least give you something to do, and possibly something to put on your resume too. You can also ask if you can sit in on meetings, invite coworkers to get coffee and talk about their career paths, or even spend your time on some kind of independent study. That way, you’ll still get something useful out of your time there, even if it’s not what you signed up for.

First published on Vice.com.

{ 169 comments… read them below }

  1. G*

    “It’s surprisingly common for companies to hire interns without fully thinking through whether the amount of intern-level work they have will truly keep someone busy or not. It’s incredibly disappointing to interns when this happens… and it should be really embarrassing to the employer, who should work to make it right, although they don’t always do that.”
    As a recent graduate I can say that this is absolutely endemic!!! I get that it’s hard for employers, but I lost count of how many friends I know who had this issue.

    1. pleaset AKA cheap rolls*

      I’ll add that I stopped having interns when I couldn’t provide enough educational work for them to do.

      And when I did have interns, certainly there would be times when they were not that busy – which is why I also had them do some sort of overall “capstone-style” project, largely self-directed, to take up slack.

      1. Stacy Sloan Smith*

        Ugh I wish we could do that. We have pushed back on management so many times saying we don’t have the capacity to take on interns – they take too much hand-holding and training (fruitless training, since they are by definition leaving) to be of use to us, and we don’t have enough for them to do that they can jump in on, except for maybe some kind of filing or something. Management insists that we need to take these interns and sends us two a quarter. We never have any openings so it’s not like we’re recruiting future employees that way. It stinks.

        1. Works in IT*

          We have a related problem. Interns are very much welcome in departments related to my department. Not so much in my department, because while they’d be welcome to help install and fix hardware, interns are not typically given network accounts, and ALL the stuff my department does requires a network account. And yet, the interns keep asking to rotate to our department in the hopes that we will give them something to do. We never have anything to give them, but they keep coming back in the hopes that they will be given more.

        2. whingedrinking*

          It sounds like it would be worth asking management what they see as the purpose of their internship programme. In my region an internship is supposed to benefit the intern, not the organization, at least in the short run – you’re not allowed to use it as an unpaid training period or an extended interview for a specific job, let alone to get free labor for necessary but unskilled tasks that can be done with minimal supervision (like filing). They’re there to get their hands held. So if the hand-holding is seriously impacting your ability to get work done, or interfering too much with the day-to-day running of things, maybe check in with the higher ups.

      2. TootsNYC*

        My job has changed, and I couldn’t have an intern now; I don’t have enough freedom to teach them, nor enough material to use.

        Because I see an internship as a training opportunity.

    2. DC/NY*

      If it’s a paid or for-credit internship, does it honestly matter the amount of work to do? I was bored plenty as an intern but even when I didnt have actual work to do, I was still learning, especially corporate norms.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        I’d say yes — because interns are there as a resume builder, and they need stuff to put on their resume/speak to in interviews, and it’s not right to sell them on an internship that won’t give them that (especially when they may have turned down others that would have).

        1. Diahann Carroll*

          Agreed. For many interns, these internships are the only jobs they’ll have to put on their resume when they graduate to show work experience (a lot of undergrads don’t work while in school – I did, but my roommates didn’t for example). If all they did was file away some papers for thirty minutes and cleaned a shelf one time, they have no accomplishments to put down, which will make their post-grad job search very difficult.

        2. Daisy-dog*

          Exactly! Even for minimum wage & slightly above retail jobs, I was asked situational interview questions. Thankfully, I had experience from another retail job as well as leadership roles in my college clubs because my internships didn’t teach me much of anything.

        3. Ella bee bee*

          This happened to me! I had an internship in grad school (for 20 hours a week) that advertised to be all kinds of things, and then all I did was laminate and make photo copies for about 5 hours a week and then just sit around for the 15 other hours. It was terrible. I took the internship based on what was advertised because I thought it would be good on my resume after I graduated, but I didn’t even end up including it because, “made copies and laminated them” didn’t add anything to my application. What really gets me is that they had a grant that paid for this internship (so the plus side is at least I got paid) and had to resubmit the grant application every year. How was this grant being approved? And why did they keep applying for it when there was nothing for me to do all day? I’ll never know.

          1. Ella bee bee*

            Forgot to mention that they also had about 5 undergrad student workers in the same department who also had nothing to do. My supervisor asked me to assign them some of my work if I needed any help, and I was very honest that I didn’t have any work. The student workers all sat around too.

      2. The Man, Becky Lynch*

        I agree with Alison.

        I’ve had a couple people who only had internships on their resumes that we’ve interviewed, it was clear they didn’t get much if any experience while working there and would require way too much training and attention. So we couldn’t use them…because we wanted someone with at least a little basic experience to draw on for the roles we were looking for.

          1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

            If we wanted someone who could clean off shelves, reserve a hotel room or two and get us all coffee, we’d just hire a PA for the office *sobs* [We’d also get to pay a fraction of the cost!]

      3. Manon*

        It absolutely matters. There’s an opportunity cost to anything, and the time this intern is wasting without anything to do could be better spent at another position wherein they actually get to learn/build up their resume.

      4. Ophelia*

        Also, if it’s a for-credit internship, that means the student is PAYING to attend it. Forcing students to pay the school while they’re left twiddling their thumbs all day is, well, llama crap.

        1. DC/NY*

          I appreciate the other perspectives here. I always did for credit internships because they never meant homework and if they were slow, I could get my work done for other classes while getting some resume building in.

        2. Leisel*

          That’s what happened to me. I HAD to take an unpaid internship in 2008 right after the bottom fell out of the economy. The credit for the internship was required, so if I didn’t complete it couldn’t graduate on time…or maybe even at all – the college program had a weird chronological order and your internship had to be completed the summer between junior and senior year, no exceptions. Several people dropped out of the program and switched majors because they couldn’t find any kind of internship, paid or unpaid.

          I found an unpaid position in the next town over. I basically paid $1k in tuition to work, on top of commuting 70 miles round trip 4 days a week to get there. And that summer the gas was extremely expensive! Luckily I actually enjoyed the internship, but man…that was a really tough time. If I didn’t have anything to do while I was there 32 hours a week, after spending all that money and time to be there, I would have been LIVID. I was barely scraping by waiting tables the 3 days a week I wasn’t at that internship.

          Llam crap indeed!

          1. MsChanandlerBong*

            I flunked my internship because I had it right when gas went to $4 a gallon (I know it’s that much in some places now, but back when it first happened, it was a big shock). My college was in a rural town, so I had to commute 70 mins. per day, three days per week. I couldn’t afford the gas and had to drop it, but it was after the initial drop period, so I got an F and had to pay the $1,200 in tuition for it anyway.

            1. Leisel*

              Ugh, that makes my heart hurt for you. That’s about how much gas was for me that summer as well, which added up real quick. The main campus was in a small town about an hour drive from the nearest city, but luckily I found a position closer. A lot of classmates had to go to bigger cities and figure out short-term living situations, which was pretty expensive. Some of them got paid, but most didn’t. I was lucky in the sense that I could keep my apartment with my roommate and commute. I was also able to keep my job at a restaurant and cut my availability to 3 days a week.

              The cherry on top of the cake was that some genius classified the credit as an “on-campus course” so we had to pay campus fees on top of the class tuition. Even though most of us were out of town for the whole summer, we still had to pay fees for facilities at the main campus location, such as the rec center. The actual tuition for the class alone was $400, but the fees were an additional $600. I never even had time to set foot on campus that summer! Plus, I didn’t get any financial assistance that summer because I only had 4 credit hours and didn’t qualify as a full-time student for the term.

      5. Marny*

        It matters. I’m currently in a full-time paid job situation where I’m doing virtually nothing and it sucks. It sucks feeling like you’re wasting your time, learning nothing about the work, and gaining no usable experience. That’s how I’d feel as an intern too. (Yes, I’ve been looking for a new job.)

        1. Diahann Carroll*

          Yup, I was about to make this comment too. Sadly, this kind of thing doesn’t only happen to interns – it can happen when you’re well into your career. I left a job last year after 17 months of inconsistent work as a proposal manager. When I interviewed with the company in 2017, they swore they were a fast-paced environment that would have a ton of work for me – I was lucky if I had one proposal a month to work on. (For those unaware, a good PM can handle up to four proposals a month.) When one of my coworkers went on maternity leave and I was assigned five projects, I was in heaven and thought, “Okay, maybe it’s finally turning around and they’ll keep me busy.”

          They didn’t. It was soul sucking and it was also offensive because, like the OP, I kept wondering why the hell they hired me if they weren’t going to give me anything to do? Did my boss think I was incompetent and couldn’t handle anything? I’m a published author and long-time editor – I could do that job in my sleep. My proposals were always well-done and client feedback backed that up. I was very annoyed, so I left and am much busier more often and much happier.

          1. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

            Nobody ever says “we are slower than mud and people are fighting each other for work assignments”. Everyone wants to be a fast-paced and dynamic environment. So they just tell the candidates that they are.

            1. Diahann Carroll*

              They really should say that though, lol. By saying that they’re fast-paced when they’re not, they’re hiring people who thrive in those settings and those same people will eventually leave when they realize they’ve been duped. It’s a stupid risk to take because they wind up right back where they started in the first place, and the cost of recruitment is not cheap.

              1. That Girl from Quinn's House*

                But on the contrary, most of the place I’ve worked where everyone was running around with their hair on fire, would say, “Oh we’re a pretty moderate, laid back sort of place, the workload isn’t too bad, maybe 45 hours in a bad week?” Meanwhile everyone is working 60 hours spread out over 6-7 days a week and they’re so busy putting out fires they don’t have time to eat, go to the doctor, or do laundry.

            2. PollyQ*

              You have to wonder why they’re not saying, to themselves, “Hey, do we really need another employee? Should we maybe just not replace Wakeen now that he’s left?”

            3. lemon*

              Well, no one ever admits, “we’re slow,” but IME, hiring managers try to warn applicants of this in other ways, like talking up how much they value work-life balance. Every job I’ve had where the hiring manager went on about how much they value work-life balance was painfully slow (and also had limited opportunities for growth).

          2. Junior Assistant Peon*

            This can also happen in a busy company. New guy/gal’s boss is too busy to manage them, everyone else is too busy to help them (or thinks it’s someone else’s job to help the new person), and the new employee is stuck twiddling his/her thumbs all day long.

          3. JustaTech*

            One of my coworkers was like that: her boss (in my group but not my boss) hired her under the delusion that a specific program would be re-started. It was never going to be re-started, everyone knew that, and yet he hired someone with a very specific skill set anyway. And then did no training, no orientation, nothing, just had her sit around all day.

            Eventually we managed to be allowed to train her for the project that was actually happening, but we were specifically told “you can’t assign Coworker work”.
            But no one told her this so she just thought we hated her. And then we we hired a new person to our group and I did a bunch of orientation Coworker was really pissed because I hadn’t done the same for her (because I thought her boss had done all of that like he was supposed to).

            It was awful for her to have nothing to do, it was annoying to the rest of us to have these random barriers, and even years later I’m still trying to mend our collective work expectations. (Oh, and her boss? He quit after yet another reorg.)

      6. Anonymous Higher Ed Professional*

        If it’s a for-credit internship then the amount of work absolutely matters, because the university granting the credit runs the risk of running afoul of policies (either their own or those set externally as part of accreditation) that define credits conferred as a function of workload. It would be difficult to impossible to ensure that every single internship undertaken by every single student is a robust and meaningful learning experience (there’s always going to be a few duds in there), but a pattern of empty internships at a certain host will raise warning flags. Departments/institutions conferring credit almost always have a formal means of approving the placement, learning objectives, and tasks performed before the student begins and evaluating the placement at the end, so empty/contentless internships will not escape notice for long.

        (Also, there has to be something for the faculty member/department supervising the credit-granting portion to assess or grade, but that’s a separate issue.)

      7. Rayray*

        Some people want actual experience vs. Going into an office to do free slave labor like cleaning and making coffee.

      8. MsMaryMary*

        In order to get credit for my internship, I had to provide weekly updates on what I was learning and write a summary of my experiences at the end. I could have gotten away with learning professional norms for a week or two, but not a whole summer.

        That being said, I suspect our internship coordinator required the weekly updates so she could contact the employer if an intern had absoutely nothing to do

    3. Entry-level Marcus*

      Yep! And it is super discouraging to be in a position like that as an intern.

      I had an internship like this. They hired on two interns to work 20 hours a week, but in reality they had maybe 10 hours of real work per week to split between us. When I asked for more work, they gave me super vague responses like “oh, why don’t you research X” (without telling me why we need to research X, or what the information would be used for) or “oh, why don’t you explore software Y that we just bought” (again, without telling me what they projects or questions they wanted to use the program for). As intern who was new to the working world and that particular industry, this was not enough directive for me to produce any work of meaningful value. I flailed around for awhile trying to do these vague non-projects, but I eventually realized that these weren’t real projects. Rather, they were ad hoc tasks thought up on the fly so that they could give me *something* to do.

      The people were nice and the work they did have me do was interesting, but it was super depressing to go into that internship and spend most of the day just browsing the internet. It made me feel useless and frustrated.

    4. Sharkie*

      Yep. I graduated 5 years ago and failed my capstone project because my internship put me in a closet and made me go through old files. Thank god I was able to appeal.

    5. KayDeeAye*

      OP, please stop thinking “maybe they don’t think I have the skill set to do the work they hired me for,” because I’m pretty confident that the problem in this situation is your company, or at least your supervisor, not you. There are many places and/or supervisors who just don’t handle interns very well. My own department does OK – not perfect, but pretty good – but one of the other departments here has a pretty…mixed record.That department has had some intern experiences that were good for both the department and the intern, but it’s had some mediocre ones, too, and it’s had a few pretty lousy ones. I mean, there was one guy who spent 75-80% of every day copying things, and the rest of the time assembling all those things he’d just copied. (We called him Eric the Copy Guy.)

    6. Anon for this*

      My employer just had its first batch of interns last summer. We had no idea this was in the works. The initiative seemed to come from one person in the leadership who had a very vague idea of what everyone was working on (this person is no longer with the company, so hopefully no interns this coming year?) A group of us suddenly got an email one day “we are having X interns starting in two weeks, here’s the list of Y candidates coming in for interviews next week, here’s the list of which of the candidates each of you will be interviewing…” that was how we all found out we had 15-20 interns starting soon. No one had any plans or any work prepared for the interns. We were running low on work ourselves. I have no good explanation for this, but once I saw a candidate sitting in front of me in a 1:1, something clicked inside my head and I heard myself giving the candidate the absolute best-case scenario of what they’d be doing (“and then we’ll have you help us with Cutting-Edge App”) They were excited! Our group ended up getting one intern. The intern sat in a shared conference room on the opposite end of the building from the rest of our group, crammed around a small table with six other people. The intern had an extremely locked-down desktop computer. So they could not come to our offices for training and knowledge transfer, and we couldn’t do it at their desk very efficiently, because there wasn’t a “their desk” – there was a conference room that was packed with people interning for other teams. It was a mess. I am not sure that the intern did any work at all during their tenure with us. I am pleased to report that our intern ended up leaving the internship early due to finding an actual job in the field – I hope that having our internship on the resume helped somehow! It seemed like absolutely no advance planning had gone into the whole thing. It’s like someone up on top woke up one day and went, “Here’s an idea, why don’t we get us some interns? say, next week?”

      1. KayDeeAye*

        I am *sure* that’s exactly how it works some places. I know that’s happened here (though not in my department, thank goodness). People think “Interns! Helping the next generation! Helping our company! It’s a win-win!”…

        …and then they go out and get some, and find out that dang it, supervising people is work and supervising people new to the working world is a LOT of work.

        Actually, around here (though, again, not my department, thank goodness), we’ve ended up with a few interns because although we hadn’t actually planned on one, a student called and said, “Hi, I’m interested in ___(something we’re interested in)___. Do you have any internships available?” Somebody gives, I’d estimate, maybe 20 minutes’ thought to the concept, and then says “Sure. You’re hired.”

      2. That Girl from Quinn's House*

        This used to happen when I worked somewhere that would sign up to be a Summer Job Corps site. Basically, it was a program that used grant funding to pay the wages of teens from low-income neighborhoods to have a summer job. They’d work for us, but the grant would pay them.

        Whoever signed us up for the program, would sign us up for ALL the teens. So we easily had four times as many teens as we had work. They’d get assigned awful make-work jobs, like washing the walls, because we had nothing meaningful for them to do. Of course not. It is hugely demoralizing to spend all morning washing the walls, then hear from your friend that the afternoon shift also had to wash the walls, and then turn up the next morning and be told to wash the walls again. (Note: The walls did not need to be washed. At all. They were perfectly clean. The last job corps kid would wash the walls in late August and they’d go completely ignored until early July when next year’s program started.)

        The teens who had a good work ethic would do their work, then turn up and make us stop working to invent more pointless tasks for them to do. The teens who had a bad work ethic figured out they’d get paid no matter what, and would go “to the bathroom” or “on break” or “help out in Other Department” and then disappear to the fast food restaurants across the street with the other teens whose bosses had nothing for them to do.

        It was terrible for everyone.

    7. WellRed*

      I think its especially true for some sort of design position. They may want something for their portfolio.

    8. TootsNYC*

      I was fortunate to have an internship through my industry’s top professional organization, and in my year, there was an intern who, after his first or second week, had only done a little retyping and some filing.
      The director called around and got him a different assignment, and scolded the editor of that publication.

  2. animaniactoo*

    I would also check in about shadowing people while they work. It’s not the same as doing stuff yourself, but it can still be extremely useful in terms of seeing what goes into projects and how different people approach them.

    1. Blisskrieg*

      This. I thought that was an excellent suggestion on Alison’s and your parts. If they let you do this, it may actually be one of the most valuable parts of the internship. If they would let you shadow while they do some interviews, that might be extremely worthwhile as well.

      I’ve had temp jobs (not internships) like this, and after a certain amount of time, I just had to reconcile myself that they were OK with me reading a personal book in the long lull between answering phones. however, as Alison points out, with an internship it’s not just one-sided (what they get out of you), they also need to be providing you with the educational components that (should) come with an internship.

      1. Leisel*

        Not an internship, but I once had a summer job answering phones for a restaurant. I would sit in the manger’s office from 10am to 4pm (when the restaurant opened) and take reservations. The manager got mad at me one day when she came in and I was reading a book. I was really confused about why she was mad…I mean, I’m sitting there for 6 hours a day in someone else’s office and trying to be respectful and not touch anything. What else am I supposed to do? I quit pretty soon after that, I wasn’t about to sit there all day and stare at the wall.

        1. Elizabeth Proctor*

          She probably comes from the school of restaurant thought “if you can lean, you can clean.” Which can’t actually apply to someone tethered to the phone, but…

        2. Blisskrieg*

          Ha! sometimes you can’t win :). In my situation I believe I had badgered them to death asking them for something to do. I was filling in for a month for a receptionist who apparently was not good. I read a book in between answering and transferring 10 calls a day, and was absolutely astounded when they gave me flowers for a job well done at the end of the gig.

    2. Washi*

      And by shadowing, sometimes you’ll see something you can work on – like that there’s no documentation for a particular process, or that something is a huge messy table in Word that would work better in Excel. I work fast and often needed stuff to keep myself busy, so sometimes I wouldn’t even ask, I would just present my shiny new Excel sheet and say something like “I had a little downtime so I put this together, do you think it might be useful?”
      (You’ll have to read the culture re: asking, I found that sometimes if I asked, it made the other person feel like they should give me instructions, etc and became another item on their to do list, whereas when I just presented them with a mockup they were delighted that this new tool fell in their laps.)

    3. Lynn Whitehat*

      When I was a bored intern, shadowing was suggested as almost a threat. Having someone follow you around all day asking questions is really unnerving. Suddenly people became much more motivated to think of something I could do.

      1. steve*

        huh, really? I always found having someone shadowing to be kinda enjoyable, it can be fun to explain what you do to someone who’s actually interested (as opposed to just blathering on to your partner or whoever).

        1. TootsNYC*

          I love it!

          It makes me feel like an expert, and I like attention.
          It’s very ego-stroking for me.

          It’s also a fun way to see my job, and my tasks, as if through an outsider’s eyes. It freshens my appreciation for my job, and it sometimes helps me see stuff I should simplify or improve.

    4. TootsNYC*


      I’m one of the employees here who would absolutely be willing to have someone shadow me and who could explain the why behind the what.

      In addition to that, keep an eye on what’s happening in the department (meetings, a project that’s underway). Then try to get time with other people and interview them.
      -What’s the big goal of this project?
      -What was the point of the meeting; what will our team do with the info, and what with other departments do?
      -What’s the hardest part of this? What makes it easy?
      -Why are we passing this off to X department?
      -Can you explain how this works, and how it interacts with Marketing, etc.?

      1. TechWorker*

        I would like this *in principle* if I had a bunch of spare time or a day where I didn’t really need to get any work done. Unfortunately that happens basically never :P so the idea of shadowing fills me with dread…

  3. Quill*

    From my own intern days, is it possible that every person in the office thinks you’re training? Or that no one knows who’s in charge of giving you tasks?

    If they truly can’t come up with anything, offer to shadow someone, take notes for a meeting, or something like that to remind people that you’re around, and actually get at least that amount of engagement ready.

    1. A*

      This is a good point. And it’s also possible that OP’s co-workers have been instructed in some manner they are unaware of. At my last employer we brought on summer interns (paid graduate students) for the first time in many years, and HR sent out a brief email along the lines of ‘how to interact with interns 101’. The main point of it was to say that *no one* other than the reporting manager can delegate to them. No doubt this was to minimize abuse or confusion, but I could see that coming into play in a situation like this.

      1. Quill*

        When I was an intern I had to be formally “lent” to other groups in R&D if they had a task for me… unless it involved scanning less than 30 pages of documents, I guess the rationale there was that I could just squeeze that in… except our scanner was a cranky beast. :)

  4. A*

    I would be curious to know if it is a paid internship. I’ve seen it happen where unpaid interns are brought on, but when people realize they can’t use any output from that individual they end up being ignored (from a workflow perspective, not ignored in conversation etc). Has mostly been an issue at companies that have been struggling in an extreme manner to keep the lights on. How HR thought it would play out throwing unpaid interns into the mix of people running around like chickens with their heads cut off just trying to keep the lights on is beyond me.

    1. Minocho*

      Yes, I had this once. I was at a small company, and I was the Programmer. I did all the database programming, website updates and management, integration programming, internal web application development, and all support and maintenance. I was…overloaded. Just a bit.

      My manager brought in two interns to “help”. I explained that he should not expect two college students coming in for a summer as interns to increase my productivity. He nodded and said he understood (newsflash: he didn’t) and threw them at me.

      One was driven and eager to learn. I found out what he liked, what he knew, and was able to give him some stuff to work on. It took a lot of time away from me to explain where things were and define the problem and expected finished product to him, and he had to come to me for help and advice, but I would estimate that his productivity and my invested time was a wash at the least, maybe even a slight bonus for the company.

      The other was…well, needed a lot more time and management than I had bandwidth to give. I gave him a small project that would take me about two hours to do. I would expect it would take an intern with no experience a few days, as there’s a lot of institutional knowledge he would have to learn, and some learning curve there. Two weeks later, I had to do the entire thing over myself, after many many hours spent assisting with the work. I had to make the decision to cut my losses, as my boss was demanding increased output because of the “help” I was getting, so I assigned him something that had no importance or urgency, with the expectation that I would have to redo it all myself later and it would be a total waste of time, and I spend almost no time trying to make it work – I simply didn’t have the bandwidth, and figured the best I could do for the company was make his time no more costly than his salary.

      It wasn’t fair to the guy. It wasn’t fair to me. But it was what I had to do to keep my own job and avoid disciplinary action against myself.

      1. MCMonkeyBean*

        I think A meant that *legally* they can’t give unpaid interns real work that normal employees would usually do. Lots of companies do anyway, but usually the work has to be for the benefit of teaching the intern rather than for the benefit of the company.

        1. Derjungerludendorff*

          From how I read it, I think A meant something like Minocho (keeping the lights on and everything).

          Anything more than basic menial work needs a certain amount of training and experience to get decent results, and interns often have neither (which is why they’re interns). Initially they cost more time and work than they deliver. So when nobody has time to train or supervise, the interns basically can’t do anything besides flounder and try to develop their skills on their own in time to do something worthwhile.

      2. Ella bee bee*

        I’m in a similar situation right now. Someone was assigned to help me with some work as I’ve been overwhelmed with my workload and struggling to get everything done. I appreciate them doing this and the woman helping me is really nice and working hard, but she is also brand new to the field (and the workforce in general) and has no experience with the type of work I do. This means it takes me longer to explain what I need and how to do it, than it takes for me to do it on my own. Plus we only have one computer between us, so we really can’t work at the same time anyway.

  5. Artemesia*

    If this is a college program can your campus supervisor meet with you and your manager around this? If you are getting college credit then there should be some measurement system in place around your work and your evaluation of your experience and this might be a point of leverage especially if this organization often takes interns.

    Shadowing and letting the person you shadow know you are happy to do work for them is another option. If they can’t hand you work (your manager) then she needs to make sure you are having useful experience e.g. sitting in on meetings, shadowing various people in their work etc etc. Not great, but better than nothing and may lead to someone figuring out how to hand off work to you.

    Discuss changing placements if this is being actively managed by your college.

    1. Jean Ralphio*

      I was coming here to say something similar. I run the internship program at my company, and we spend a ton of resources ensuring that our interns have a positive experience. If the company you’re interning for hasn’t spent the time necessary to do that, it’s worth talking to your school’s career services or internship coordinator. There’s a chance that little can be done at this point, but someone should follow up with the company and confirm that they are providing an opportunity that is beneficial to students. If they’re not, then they shouldn’t get interns. Hope it turns around for you and you look back on the experience fondly!

    2. Rock Prof*

      I was coming to add this exact suggestion. I think at some universities for-credit internships were kind of a free-for-all (I knew they were at my school), but there’s definitely been a push to better establish that they need to tie into curriculum/pedagogy somehow. It can be skill, knowledge, or professional norms based, but a company have an intern sit around all day and not do anything, or even having the student do stuff like only stapling materials all day, would definitely earn a second look at whether that company can be getting interns that earn credit and university support.

    3. Tzeitel*

      Even if this wasn’t an official college program I might talk to someone in career services at your institution. They might be able to give the company a nudge, because otherwise the school may never send interns there at all ever again!

  6. Threeve*

    I like the suggestion to write proposals. One of the writing samples I use on job applications is an outline for a project that I knew had like a 2% chance of going anywhere. So 98% of the reason I wrote it was to use it as a professional writing sample when I wanted to start job hunting.

    1. Smithy*

      Just coming here to add that research or mapping projects – such as literature reviews or surveys – are options in case “real work” truly doesn’t come up. Depending on the work/career track the OP is pursuing – what can be helpful is taking essentially a university skill around research and figuring out how it can apply to a specific company and be presented.

      I used to worked for a legal nonprofit that had a very strict “only one intern per six months” rule because they knew any more and there’d wouldn’t be enough attention. However, interns were also told that their work would essentially be a legal research topic connected to ongoing case(s) to be agreed upon before the intern committed. Ultimately, the intern would work largely solo and meet with their boss once a week to discuss the research and guide where it continued.

      While it may end up not being the most fruitful internship ever – it will at least serve to give a solid description of something you achieved during the time.

  7. Katie*

    When I was an intern, I’d get so annoyed at having nothing to do most days. Now that I’m establish in my career, I realize what a pain it is to train someone else to do things. What would take me 30 minutes can take many hours to teach (and I’m always on a deadline). I’m an engineer, so things quickly get technical, but I’m sure most jobs run into this problem. The one time I had an intern, it took me and another engineer 10 hours each to assist the intern, who was working 20 hours a week. And those 10 hours I spent was on top of the already full schedule of work I have. Which is the main reason I don’t sign up for an intern any more (and it sounds like these people shouldn’t have interns either). And probably one of the main reasons it’s so hard to find a good internship. Good luck OP, I hope things pick up.

    1. DC/NY*

      Seconding this. I think sometimes the people signing up for interns aren’t the people actually doing the projects, so they might see the overall need, but arent involved in the day to day work..or training for that work. Training an intern for a task will often take me 8-10 hours in addition to still having to review their work. For someone whos only there for 8-12 weeks, the return on time is frustrating.

    2. Entry-level Marcus*

      I hear these complaints, and I think the obvious solution is for companies to be willing to hire and train fresh grads who don’t have internships rather than expecting entry-level candidates to have 2-3 internships before even being considered.

      If companies are going to require internship experience to get entry-level roles, though, I think they’re obligated to hire interns themselves. Otherwise it’s hypocritical.

      1. Entry-level Marcus*

        To expand, then the training is actually worth the cost, because they would be staying on for years, potentially, rather than leaving in 3-5 months.

        1. TechWorker*

          Our company works exactly on this basis – we require more experience for internships than we do for grad roles because grad roles do ~month of solid training when they start.

    3. Fikly*

      If it’s too hard, the company shouldn’t be offering an internship! It’s essentially false advertising.

    4. Tzeitel*

      But taking on an intern means a commitment to providing an educational experience. I think the highlight of your statement is “I don’t sign up for an intern anymore.” Neither should this company!

      1. Oh No She Di'int*

        Right. My staff was eager to have interns starting a few years ago (f0r some reason). It took a couple of cycles before they understood that their responsibility was essentially to replicate an almost school-like environment. (Our internship does pay a stipend, but it works out to right around minimum wage.) For the first year or two, they often came with the expectation that this person was there to “help us out.” But an internship–particularly a minimally paying or non-paying internship–exists for the benefit of the intern, not for the benefit of the staff.

        1. Sleepy*

          It has to be a two-way street, otherwise no one will hire interns. We offer internships paid by stipend to move specific tasks off of our overworked staff. Of course they have to be carefully selected projects that an intern would be capable of, which might be difficult to come up with in some fields. The interns get work experience and staff get some relief.

          I’ve definitely noticed that with my company, the interns who have a good experience are those who are paid, meaning that we have an incentive to use their time well, and who also commit for at least 9 months part-time. Any shorter than that and there’s no point in investing in the person.

          1. TootsNYC*

            but how on earth does a young person commit for 9 months of an internship, and part-time at that? You pay, but part-time isn’t enough to live on.

            Who can afford it? That’s an entire school year.
            I suppose if they were at a college in your same city, they could do school and the internship.

        2. TootsNYC*

          the expectation that this person was there to “help us out.”

          My company eliminated internships completely because existing staff couldn’t comprehend this.

          I still remember one person saying that she’d said to HR, “We need an intern to help with this,” and HR replied, “Nobody needs an intern. If this is work that must get done, it should be done by staff.”

          1. Oh No She Di'int*

            Right. And these things are actually bound by law. Among the many regulations is the stipulation that if the intern is doing work that under normal circumstances would be conducted by a regular staff person, that is in fact not an internship but a job.

    5. Samwise*

      Yep. My boss from a few years ago used to say, you have so much to do, let’s get an intern to help. I had to keep pointing out that the sorts of things an intern could do easily were a very small part of my workload (and I could do them even more quickly than an intern could), while the things I did need help with an intern would not be able to do without a fair amount of training and supervision by me — if she wanted me to do that, O.K., but then something else was going to come off my work load. I really like working with young people, I like training and mentoring, so I have enjoyed having an intern…but it would have been A lot of work on my part and very little of the assistance my boss thought she was offering.

  8. Chronic Overthinker*

    Depending on what kind of industry this is, I’m guessing there may be a database or library of files that they can search. I would check with the manager and see if it would be alright to do some internal investigating in those files (within reason) to learn a little bit more about the company/industry you are interning with. Couple this with shadowing and sitting in on appropriate meetings might be just the thing to kick start this internship.

  9. SomebodyElse*

    Here’s what I’ve seen from the intern program at my company that might help explain this.

    1. A manager is assigned an intern without needing or asking for one. This happened to a coworker, he suddenly found himself with an intern with no desire for one, no time to plan anything for them, and realistically no work that was appropriate for them. My team got wind of this and appropriated the intern’s time since we had plenty for them to do.

    2. Mismatch skills needed/skills possessed. When the intern starts, it’s found they’ve either grossly inflated their abilities and/or skills or the manager overestimated what was realistic of an intern. This is hard to address in the usual short duration for the intern’s employment.

    3. No time to train. This is probably the most common. Interns usually take more training and explanation than a regular FTE, so it can be a daunting task to carve out time and effort.

    I tell my managers that they should have a running list of projects in the “Want to do” category that can be pulled out and assigned to our interns. I always aim to have a balance of the following; Daily work, project work, and time killer work.

    Daily work is something that will help the team but can be picked back up by a regular team member if needed. Project work is the resume builder for the intern that is their’s to own, typically this is from the ‘want to do’ list so it’s not mission critical if something doesn’t work out. The time killer work is generally assigned on day one. It’s the boring stuff that is putzy, needs to get done, anyone can do it, and no special skills are needed. It’s ideal to be picked up and set aside as other work is assigned to the intern and can be used for those times when nobody else has time to train or work with the intern.

    We generally do ok with filling time on a meaningful basis, but it’s not always easy. And can definitely be a challenge depending on the people involved.

      1. Derjungerludendorff*

        Mindnumbingly boring $ too.
        Being paid to sit around bored all day isn’t the worst job, but it’s not exactly good for your mental health either.

        1. Sally*

          In this situation right now and my mental health is suffering every day. I often wonder why I am doing a hour commute twice a day to work for maybe 30 min in a 8 hour work day. I am searching for another job

    1. Fake Old Converse Shoes (not in the US)*

      So was mine, back when I started in the tech industry. Six months without a single task to do, and then they dumped a bunch of stuff on me with no guidance at all. Add an absent manager, a misogynistic team, and a stalking mentor… To say it didn’t go well is a gross understatement.

  10. Elephant*

    Ugh I’m in a similar situation, however my program is a year long and I’m a 1/3 of the way through it. Recently, I had a meeting with my supervisor to let her know I really need more work to do. She reassured me that feeling is normal because…..they usually don’t give people in my position much work until 4-5 months to make sure they can handle the basic day to day things (answering the phone, sending out a few pieces of mail, small amounts of data entry, etc.) So frustrating. I would definitely had made a different choice taking this position if I knew I would be twiddling my thumbs for this long.

    1. PollyQ*

      4-5 months? That’s bonkers. You should be able to tell if someone can handle that kind of work in just a few weeks, maybe a month, tops.

    2. Derjungerludendorff*

      How much training or experience could you possibly need for that? They’re being ridiculous right now.

      Maybe you can do some learning on your own during the downtime?

    3. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      4-5 months to do things that the majority of people who are going to succeed master in 4-6 weeks is blowing my mind right now.

      I’m all for easing people in. I always start people off with email support before using the phones because that’s easier to research and gives you more time to find the answers for sometimes impatient people. But wow, just wow.


  11. Ophelia*

    From a practical perspective, OP, one option is to work with other staff, but be clear with them that *they* need to request your time from the person who is managing you. That gets you past the “only your manager can assign work” issue (which, as someone else noted up-thread, is probably to avoid having everyone dump their admin tasks on you), lets you build productive relationships with other staff, and gives you an avenue to get some interesting tasks to do while you’re there.

  12. Safely Retired*

    Too often internships are push, not pull. Internships are commonly handed down from on high. Someone decides the company is getting some number of interns to be allocated across various departments. The departments are told they are getting an intern rather than asked if they have a need for one. Then someone in the department is given responsibility for the intern. Sometimes they can find something for them, but too often things just don’t work out that way.

    My granddaughter got her first internship the summer after her sophomore year, very unusual. More unusual, she actually was given useful work to do. She had a different internship after junior year, one that was extended part time during senior year and made full time after she graduated. Now, about 18 months later, she has moved back to the the first company full time. When only a small percentage of internships do more than add a line to a resume I think she has totally skewed the statistics.

    1. Mill Miker*

      I would argue the departments never need an intern. When you’re training an intern properly they probably should feel like a bit of a burden (a worthwhile one though). If the company is pulling them in to help the teams do more faster, instead of to help train the next generation, then they’re just setting everyone up for disapointment.

      1. CRM*

        I would disagree. At my last job, we had a couple of projects that would have been perfect for an intern. They were big, time-consuming tasks which involved lots of online research and manual data entry. The tasks were easy, yet important enough to provide a resume boost and a good learning opportunity for the right person. When I left they were trying to get approval for an intern to take over those projects, I hope they succeeded.

        1. Leisel*

          Not an internship, but I had a summer job once working for a court clerk’s office. It was the county office where the marriage licenses were granted and filed. They had gone to a digital system years before that, but never had the time to have anyone catalog the decades of marriage licenses from before. They outsourced a company to scan all the books and documents, but then someone had to manually put in all the information into the database. That’s where I came in. Day after day after day of just reading old documents and inputting the names, birth dates, wedding dates, witnesses, etc.

          It was actually kind of cool to run across people I knew – I found my grandparents’ license! It was also kind of neat to see what names were trending each decade. FYI – in turn-of-the-century rural Oklahoma, just about every man born was either named Charles or William. Lots of guys named Charlie, Chas, Chaz, Bill, Billy, Billy Bob… I had to find ways to entertain myself since the actual work was so boring.

          1. Quill*

            That sounds like it would have been the ideal summer job for me when I could barely walk. Give me an audiobook and I can and will enter data all day and play name trend bingo.

      2. Anonymous Higher Ed Professional*

        Why would an intern feeling like a burden be a sign of training them “properly”? Yes, they should be aware that the time their trainer is investing is valuable and limited, but giving any indication that an intern is a burden is poor and inappropriate leadership.

        1. A Social Worker*

          I took this to mean that training the intern should feel like a burden to the trainer, not that the intern should be made to feel like a burden.

        2. Mill Miker*

          I didn’t mean burden in any negative sense, just that an intern should be increasing someone’s workload, and if they’re not then it might be a sign the company could be doing more to give the intern a proper experience.

          1. TootsNYC*

            I agree wholeheartedly.

            Having an intern is a separate work task–it IS extra work, and if you do it right, you will notice that you have extra work.

            And your company needs to recognize that they’ve added extra work to your workload.

          2. Sally*

            I agree. During my first internship in college, my internship supervisor allocated time daily to train me and give me tasks. He did regular meetings to review my work & provide feedback, made me join the professional organisation in my industry etc. I learned so many things from that mentor; one thing that continues to help me in my career is keeping a weekly/biweekly journal where I quickly jot down what I did at work – any challenges, accomplishments etc. It seemed quite silly when I started but I can’t overstate how much it has helped me build resumes, craft answers to interview questions etc. I am pretty sure this mentor’s benefits from my internship was minuscule compared to mine. Because of the positive internship experience, I started working with them after graduation; albeit at a different location.
            What Mill said is absolutely right; being a good internship supervisor is actual effort and the company should tell the supervisors to expect that and give an opportunity to be frank if they are not happy about the extra work.

        3. Oh No She Di'int*

          I’m not sure. Training is hard work, whether the trainee is an intern or a regular employee. If that’s what Mill Miker means by “burden” then I’d actually agree. If you’re doing it right, it often does feel like heavy lifting, particularly if you are training someone with quite literally no skills or experience. Mill Miker doesn’t say anywhere that the person is a burden, much less that you should “give any indication” of such. Simply that the act of training someone definitely feels like work, not a break from work.

        4. Mill Miker*

          Looking at the rest of these comments I guess I did word that a bit ambiguously. I meant “having an intern should feel like having a burden” not “someone who is an intern should feel like someone who is a burden

    2. TootsNYC*

      Then someone in the department is given responsibility for the intern. Sometimes they can find something for them, but too often things just don’t work out that way.

      And I would say that this employee is then not doing their job well. They’ve been assigned a task, they need to prioritize it.

      If they don’t know how to fit it in, they need to consult with other people to find creative ways to do it. And their company is screwing up, because they should be training people in how to have an intern.

      EVERYONE can have an intern sit at their elbow while they work, and offer a running narrative of their tasks along with explanations of it.

      Sure, it slows you down. But not as much as you think.

  13. Manon*

    I would seriously consider looking for another internship. Depending on the industry, you may be able to find positions hiring for the spring semester (January-May) or spring-summer (January-August).

  14. What's with Today, today?*

    We have two private universities in town and would love to have an intern. However, whenever we have hired interns from the universities, they have been terrible. Mostly, the schools don’t oversee them well, and they never show up when scheduled. We’ve reached out to the programs who tell us they leave it to the students and employer to work out the schedule, and the students tell us they can’t come in at designated times (they agreed with) because of school. We’d have interns just show up when they want, and we can’t work that way. We gave up having them after the last two just quit coming in, but still wanted us to fill out the paperwork that they completed the internship (we filled it out honestly).

    1. Fikly*

      That’s a problem with the students, not the school. It’s not the school’s job to tell adults when to show up to work, and enforce it.

      1. Anonymous Higher Ed Professional*

        It’s also not the school’s responsibility to “oversee” the interns in their placements. That’s for the host institution to do. Schools may have some mechanism for checking in with both parties for a mid-internship evaluation that allows them to intervene if needed, but for the day-to-day, it’s on the host organization to have those conversations about expectations and to provide oversight.

        1. Leisel*

          Exactly. When I did my for-credit internship all I had to do was give a description of the position to my adviser, have them confirm it met the requirements for the internship credit, go to work, then have my boss sign off that I had completed all the hours when the internship was finished. I’m sure if there had been some kind of problem I could have gone back to my adviser for help, but no one ever checked up on me, nor did I expect them to.

          Sounds like those college students have never had a real job and don’t know how to behave. That’s on them.

    2. Entry-level Marcus*

      Were you very clear about expectations with those interns from the start? You might think it’s obvious that interns need to come in consistently when scheduled, but it might not be obvious to them, especially if they are receiving messages from the school/professors that “school comes first”. They might mistakenly view the internship as more like another class than a job, and therefore see it as no big deal to not show up occasionally when there are other priorities like you would with a lecture.

  15. Automated*

    Intern manager here!

    A few suggestions:
    Informational interviews. Ask your manager if you can be connected with staff on roles you would like in the future. Give her a list of questions you would like to ask them such as “whats a typical day” “whats something you wish you knew about this career at the start” etc. My interns and the interviewees loved this.

    Work suggestions:
    Is there a client system or similar? If so then it most definitely needs updated. Offer to scour the client list for outdated or incomplete entrys. This sort of clean up work is important but time consuming.

    Ask to shadow people for the day and watch them work.

    Ask your managet what are some easy tasks that no one has time for? That might jog her memory for work.

    Offer to do a mock design on a customer waiting. If there is a design in “queue” maybe you can start a design for your manager to review.

    Good luck!

  16. so many resumes, so little time*

    One of the things we do with interns if there are fallow times is to try to foster other sorts of learning/experiences. We tell interns that they can approach members of staff with questions and we ask staffers to talk to interns about their jobs and our business in general. We have the interns sit in on some of our meetings, to see how different departments interact.

  17. Cobol*

    Companies need to understand that bringing in an intern adds to the workload. That’s fine, but internship recs need to be built with that in mind.
    That being said, I think not enough to do, they aren’t taking advantage of my skills is a common intern complaint, but I wouldn’t trust somebody fresh out of school (intern or entry level) top fo anything important.

  18. CRM*

    Some people expect interns to be proactive in finding ways to contribute. During my last semester of college, I interned at a small local non-profit. I wasn’t paid, but received a class credit since their mission was adjacent to my major. They gave me NOTHING to do. I mean, absolutely nothing. There were days when I walked into the office and they just sent me home. Fast forward two years later at my first job post-college, and my boss informs me that they gave me a bad reference (I know it’s not a good practice to share what was discussed in reference checks, but she wanted me to know because she thought I was a great employee and didn’t want their reference holding me back in the future). They said I didn’t have any initiative or drive.

    They should have made it more clear that they were expecting me to make my own contributions (which feels like an unfair burden to place on someone who is unfamiliar with the organization and may have little to no working experience), but it was a good lesson. If you have nothing to do, try to make yourself useful in any way possible, even if your work ultimately goes unused.

    1. Kiki*

      I think, though, that places who do stuff like this don’t really understand what it is to be an intern. You have to give interns *something* to work with for them to start showing initiative. It is an uncomfortable experience to come into a strange environment, without experience, and just be expected to start contributing. That’s how you end up with weird, half-finished projects that don’t actually help anyone or “help” that actually creates new problems. It makes me mad when businesses do stuff like this. Sure, every so often there is a brilliant shining star intern who “just gets it,” but most people need some training and guidance!

      1. CRM*

        Actually, that’s a really good point! With little experience of the working world and no experience in their organization, I didn’t really know how I could start contributing, which was definitely a big part of the problem.

      2. lemon*

        Agreed. I imagine at a place like this, if you did show up as an intern with a bunch of new ideas/projects, and absolutely no business context, they’d then balk at all the gumption, and then give a bad reference for being “entitled” and “out-of-touch.” Darned if you do, darned if you don’t.

      3. Oh No She Di'int*

        What they did to you was wrong and ludicrous. If a person with 5 or 10 years experience in whatever industry walked through the front door and received no assignments, no materials to begin working with, nothing at all, even that person would have a tough time making a meaningful contribution. How on earth is a young adult (almost still a child) with no experience supposed to do any better?

    2. ThatGirl*

      I posted my own experience in brief below, but yes – I didn’t have quite that bad of a time, but I was told I’d been a disappointing intern because I hadn’t taken initiative, asked questions or asked for work. And while I understood where he was coming from, I also thought — why didn’t you invite me to shadow you, or ask what I was interested in doing, or say “hey, when you’re done filing, let me know and we’ll find something for you to do”?

      1. Junior Assistant Peon*

        Asking for more work and taking initiative would have gotten you labeled as a PITA intern somewhere else. They should have used their words if you weren’t meeting expectations.

    3. Smithy*

      I’d take a slightly different read on your situation – and that is basically that as an intern, I think it’s fair to ask your manager close to the end of your time, how to close down the relationship. During such a meeting, you can ask for feedback on your time – but also ask for future jobs whether you’d be able to list someone as a reference. While the your manager might say that you did enough for class credit, that they would give xyz kind of personal reference based on abc.

      In schooling – there are grades that can give insight on which teachers might provide good references. However, for an internship that’s pass/fail – I think it behooves interns to request feedback to determine whether a positive reference would be coming.

      1. Daisy-dog*

        I don’t know if that’s a fair assessment of young people. Or even most people of any age. What would Alison write about if everyone knew that they should ask for feedback?

      2. CRM*

        At that age, I definitely did not have that kind of wherewithal about the working world. Back then, I was thinking that that a non-academic reference closely related to the field that I was trying to break into would be really useful for me (and that probably would have been true if the internship had gone better!). Now, thanks to experience, I understand how a short-term job where I accomplished very little would not make for a good reference.

  19. CupcakeCounter*

    Both times my work had successful intern experiences there was a common thread…preparation!
    The first time was for my maternity leave. The higher level stuff was assigned to other FTE’s but some of the daily tasks and pie in the sky projects were ideal for an intern. The key was good process documentation for the daily tasks which I was already preparing due to my maternity leave.
    The second time was similar except no maternity leave – just a decent quantity of daily/weekly reports to compile with good documentation and a couple of time consuming projects that didn’t require a lot of training or high level skills. One of the projects was helping convert the office to paper free in preparation for a move.

  20. we're basically gods*

    I could have written this letter myself during my days as an intern! I wound up volunteering for some of the work that the other employees didn’t want to deal with– digging through FDA documentation to figure out what they wanted out of our product, investigating a potential software service and writing an internal wiki page about it, etc. But it was…a lot of nothing.

  21. MechanicalPencil*

    Alison, how would your advice change if this were a full time employee with a new boss? I’ve been in my position for several years and my supervisor recently changed. My work is heavily driven by incoming projects. If I don’t know what the projects are and what the needs are in terms of my role, I literally have no work to do. I’ve asked my direct boss for things to do several times, and at an EOY meeting brought it up with grandboss and nothing’s changed.

    1. Hello It's Me*

      Some jobs are just like that. Good luck looking like you’re working while doing nothing.

      I posted below about a NPR podcast on this.

  22. RC Rascal*

    A had 2 classmates in B School who quit their summer internships. One did it for personal reasons, the other because the work was not what she thought it was going to be. The issue was neither was able to replace the internship for the summer & both had a challenge with fall recruiting. The one who quit for personal reasons was able to talk her way past it & graduated with an offer from a major corporation. The one who quit over work content graduated without a job.

  23. Staja*

    My internship was at a contemporary arts museum with a really good intern program – for people in the arts or who wanted to work in museums. I was their first Development intern. They literally had not thought at all about what they would want an intern to work on in the Development Office. I did end up creating a database for them and writing my first grant, but the majority of my time was surfing 2002 internet and wandering the galleries. (There’s a soft spot in my heart for Sol LeWitt and fat cars to this day)

    I didn’t get a lot of experience in Development that summer, but I still recommend the program now (18!) years later, because the program was good for other disciplines and there were a lot of other learning opportunities open to us students (free concerts, plays, and artist talks).

  24. ThatGirl*

    Back in college, I spent a semester in Manhattan and did two internships – one at a major magazine, one at a small creative agency. In retrospect I didn’t handle either of them well – I wish I had asked to sit in on meetings at the magazine and get a better sense of their editorial process; at the agency I sat around waiting for work to be assigned to me and never took any initiative – and was told toward the end of my time there that I’d been disappointing. (To which I thought, well geez, you’re the owner, you could’ve taken some initiative too! I was shy! But anyway.)

    The point being – good for you for realizing that you’re not getting much out of it. And I’m wondering if you could just shadow people, too – see what designers are working on, maybe sit in on meetings, see what the process looks like even if you’re not doing the work yourself.

  25. Sylvia Moon*

    At the start of my career I worked in a badly-managed hellhole. One day the big boss dropped a young woman off at my office and told me she was our company intern. I was a technical editor, and lucky her, she got to watch me edit. There weren’t many projects she could watch or help on though because they were DOE projects that required a special clearance. After talking to her, I found out that she wasn’t actually sure what she wanted to go into, but that this was more of a career exploration internship and her mom was a friend of the big boss. Okay.

    I wanted to teach her something useful and related to technical writing, so I taught her how to code a basic HTML page (this was the early 2000’s), showed her where to look up more code, and then let her work on one of our extra computers. She created a nice website about her internship experience to show her class.

    So I had a couple of months to feel proud about that, and then the extra-special middle manager commented that he had seen the simple HTML code that I taught this high school student and decided not to assign a certain project to me because my HTML skills were so basic–it never occurred to him that I may have chosen simple code because she was a beginner.
    (That manager was an idiot of epic proportions–he believed himself the Sherlock Holmes of human nature, frequently observing people and making ridiculous conclusions from “clues” he had pieced together. In reality, he had a very hard time keeping friends for more than three months because he was so paranoid and constantly misread people .)

    1. Nom de Plume*

      Aw, you did that intern a real service! I’m laughing at your last paragraph, though. I’ve found that the people who like to talk about how well they read people, are actually crap at reading people.

  26. Nom de Plume*

    Are there any training manuals or videos you can get your hands on that you can read/watch? That would be a great way to fill time. Even if a topic doesn’t seem to be relevant, you’ll still be learning something, and it may come in handy in the future.

  27. Sleepy*

    Unfortunately, I have seen my office do similar things to a lot of interns.

    One reason is that we’re a common placement site for a local university in courses where students need an internship to get course credit. This has resulted in us getting some interns who were really incompetent, to the point where having them do something actually made the situation harder for staff to fix and resulted in a general distrust of interns. Most interns we get have to show they can get small tasks done before anyone will trust them with bigger tasks.

    Another common reason we don’t bother giving interns interesting tasks is that they aren’t putting in many hours with us. Someone who wants to do an internship that’s only 30 hours total across a quarter isn’t going to have time to dive into projects.

    The biggest reason is that if I assign something to someone, I’m relying on them to get it done, and it takes time to know if interns can be relied on.

    My advice would be: 1) Ask if there’s any tasks others don’t want to do. If no one can think of any, ask if there’s any staff meetings you could sit in on (quietly) to get a sense of what tasks need to be done. Something may come up that you could volunteer to do. 2) Make sure you’re putting in enough hours at your internship to make it worthwhile for them to give you meaningful tasks eventually. 3) Do a really good job with whatever task you’re given. That will build trust if they’ve been burned by interns before. OR 4) Look for a different internship. Some of the folks who’ve interned with us probably shouldn’t have been kept on, to be honest.

    1. Diahann Carroll*

      30 hours total?! Yeah, that’s a waste of time for everybody. I thought you were going to say 30 hours a week, which is what I think I did back in the day for 20 weeks.

      1. Sleepy*

        Haha. Yup, 30 hours total. They end up doing some filing and counting money when people pay us in quarters. But some of them can’t even manage these basic tasks.

      2. Emelle*

        I just dropped a class that had a 50 hours max /semester long internship/practicum. That is just getting in someone’s way.

  28. Hello It's Me*

    Well, OP… you might discover all jobs you take are like that.

    I thought it was unique to one or two jobs, but in some fields, your job exists to make other people feel important for having an assistant.

    Check out the NPR podcast Hidden Brain and search for b***s*** jobs (with the actual word — without the asterisks).

    It’s more common than you think.

    1. Sally*

      Thank you for this recommendation, I had never heard of this podcast.
      For anyone else searching for this episode; try ‘BS’ instead of the full word.

  29. Tzeitel*

    OP, I would let your school career center know. They might a) push your company to actually give you stuff or else they will never recommend students go there; b) connect you with a last minute internship. You *can* leave and leave it off your resume! That might even be better than needing to make up something you did when you never did anything. Are you really making connections with people that are worthwhile in your career if you did no work for them? It’s a last resort, but it’s always an option to leave.

  30. CheeryO*

    LW, I’m positive that this has nothing to do with you personally. This is just a company that didn’t think things through before taking on an intern. We don’t have anyone in my department who’s willing to train interns on substantive tasks, and it’s unfair to give an intern nothing but grunt work, so we don’t take on interns.

    Next time you talk with your supervisor, I would definitely mention the timeline, as Alison suggests. Three weeks can go by in the blink of an eye when you’re in the middle of a bunch of stuff at work, even though you probably feel like you’ve aged a decade in that time. If she is unable to give you anything bigger to work on at this point, she needs to release you to the rest of the department.

    I had an internship where my supervisor wanted nothing to do with me and practically bit my hand off the second time I asked for work. I had to beg the rest of the office for work (I think things were too slow to support the number of interns that they had taken on), and I did eventually get some real work that I was able to talk about in later interviews. It was a struggle, though, and it totally soured me on that company.

  31. Confused*

    This happened to me in my last job, except I was not an intern and was being paid quite a large salary to schedule meetings, since my colleague refused to share the workload with me, because God forbid I get any credit for the work. I truly wondered if something was wrong with me, or if I was doing something wrong, but I got nothing but great feedback. It SUCKED because this was work I really wanted to be doing.

    I quit after six months and I’m now in my current role, which has given me interesting and stimulating work since the first day. Workplaces are just weird sometimes.

    1. Enginear*

      Where is this large salary job that you speak of?! The colleague can take all the credit they want. Asking for a friend.

  32. Delta Delta*

    For the intern – ask the intern coordinator/boss/leader/whatever who to go to for assignments. Sometimes businesses have interns and don’t know how to use them. Or people in the business have things the intern could do, but aren’t sure if they can “borrow” the intern, etc. It ends up with an intern who has nothing to do, which isn’t the point of the internship.

    For the company – have a plan and a backup plan and a reporting structure. I used to work in a law firm that frequently had interns. It somehow got communicated that only Boss could give out intern assignments. Boss denied this. Other attorneys would ask for help and the interns would always say they thought they could only work for Boss. After this got ironed out, it became clear it would also be helpful to have a running list of intern assignments. That way if I had an intern project, I’d also know if Alpha, Beta, and Gamma also had the intern working on things. It smoothed communication quite a bit.

  33. Enginear*

    Sometimes we just don’t have any work at the moment to give the interns to do. Easy $$$$ and you still get to put the company name down on your resume.

    1. Entry-level Marcus*

      The name doesn’t mean much if you don’t have any meaningful accomplishments or duties to list. Besides, being chained to a desk for hours a day with nothing to do, even if you’re being paid (which interns aren’t always) is very boring and can even be depressing, in my experience.

  34. Seifer*

    We have this problem with our interns every summer. I do government adjacent work that requires a clearance and a couple of summers ago we were at a point where we were focusing almost exclusively on the work that requires a clearance to even know it exists, and what do the higher ups do? Here, have an int–no, have two interns! We literally could not give them anything to do, nor could we take time out of our regular schedules to train them, and while part of me felt bad, the majority of me was buried in work and did not have the time or the inclination to assess and then train an intern… to do nothing.

  35. Krabby*

    Seconding the, “suggest a project” advice. Before my time, when our internship program was brand new, we had a similar issue with boring our interns. That is, until one of them proposed making an app to track purchases in our cafeteria. Before then we kept a log and admin had to track purchases to charge to people’s payroll at the end of each month. It was a mess. Now we have a really elegant little app that our interns created and we have an ongoing list of requested updates to that app for interns to work on when they have nothing else to do.

  36. 1234*

    While I’ve been very lucky that for the most part, my internships were enriching (as much as an internship can be anyways), my advice to any company hiring interns is to think through the following:

    – What role/tasks will they have? You wouldn’t hire an employee without having this defined. Same goes for interns.
    – Ask another department if they would like an intern rather than simply dumping an intern onto them. While you may think they need an intern, they might not have any work that an intern can do. You wouldn’t dump an employee on another department, right?
    – Some tasks that I had while interning: Compiling lists/Excel sheets, checking over proposals/client-facing documents, coffee runs, creating shipping labels, faxing/photocopying, filling out forms that had to be approved by the manager/assisting the entry level person with his/her tasks as those will resemble what the intern would be able to do.
    – If you don’t have something for the intern, make it clear to other departments that it is ok to “borrow” him or her. The goal is for the intern to learn!

  37. NotaTempAnymore*

    This isn’t only true for interns, it used to be the case for temps, too. Problem was, if you asked for more work as a temp in an office, then they’d lay you off because they’d realize they didn’t really need you. So you either got very, very good at looking busy in order to keep getting paid, or if you were lucky, found another job. I’m so glad I’m not a temp anymore.

  38. StephThePM*

    I like AAM advice here.

    I’d also add that OP should NOT internalize the thought process of “they don’t think I can do anything” into their line of thinking. This is on the boss, not you :)

    OP could ALSO consider setting up their own 30 min learning sessions with people around the organization to learn about their jobs. Maybe start a list – sounds like you have time to review a company directory or org chart – of people that you want to learn more about. Take the list to your boss (or not), and propose that you meet with them to learn about their jobs, their recommendations for skill areas to focus on, pain points of the industry, etc. (I mean, come up with legit stuff to talk about!) Then…talk to them about their daily jobs. I’ve found, people love to give advice to people starting out. You can also do this informally with people you establish a rapport with.

    Listen for anything repetitive, low level, anything that fits in a skill that you have, etc., that they complain about or seems like it could be something that you could offer to take on temporarily “to learn” and help them out. Think things like documentation (“could I sit in your mtgs with X and take summary notes for you?” and then be awesome at it. Couple of tricks – during the mtg, “ok, who owns that next step?” and at the end, “these are the 12 action items that came out….did I get everything?”. (Trust, it’s a needed skill in the corporate world). Think about data collection and analysis (“can I develop a questionnaire, review with you, and then reach out to these groups and collect and collate this information for you?”)

    …Then say, “could I propose to Boss that I help you with this temporarily?”

    Then to Boss, “hey, I was talking to Sally and it sounds like she could use some help with X. I think the scope is this, and she’s OK if I help with this. OK with you?”

    My thinking here, is not to go around your boss. However, it’s an educated guess that your boss isn’t coming up with her own plan but if you propose one to her – which you, as an intern, really, really shouldn’t have to do – it might work ok. It, to me, would also show initiative, which I’ve ALSO found to be regularly lacking in the corporate world. You could also consider taking the tactic of, “I would like to sit in this type of meeting, are Bob and Sally the right people to alert that I’m interested in this space?”

    Other ideas – If they’re designing a widget, maybe you can write some specs or ask for an old “design” to play around with in whatever tool they used to create it (hone skills, teach yourself a tool).
    Ask for templates that they use that you can review (like software requirements document templates). You could also consider finding out who runs a program management/project management office and see if THEY can give you something to do, have you sit in on mtgs, etc. [I’d die to have an intern :) and am a PM at a huge company!]

    If none of this works, I’d look at your computer and find software programs that are installed by default and look for (free) training manuals and online courses to do. The company may also have their own learning center / training courses that you can take advantage of by connecting with their learning and development department.

  39. TootsNYC*

    ooh, I have strong feelings about internships.

    I think interns shouldn’t necessarily do “work.” I mean, you can have them do tasks, but they are there to learn. They are not professionals and shouldn’t be relied on as such. (especially not an unpaid intern)

    When I had an intern, I did what I’d experienced on MY internship: I took my intern with me everywhere. She essentially shadowed me.

    She went to every meeting, and on the way, I told her who would be in it, what its purpose was, what I personally was hoping to come away with, what OTHER departments would be looking to get out of it, and what interesting things to watch for.
    On the way back, we talked about how it had gone, whether we’d gotten the info we needed, what tasks we would do based on the meeting, and what OTHER departments would do based on it.

    If I had a task to do (I’m an editor, so editing a story; or if I had a form to fill out; or if I needed to review the list of all headlines to make sure there weren’t any reps), I set her up to do it first, and then I did it after her, and gave her feedback (this was a great change; this is something you missed and here’s why it was wrong; this was a nice catch but here’s a smoother fix; this was a fine change, but I have a preferred wording, so I’m going to change it, but you should just think I’m being self-indulgent, and not that you are wrong in any way).

    1. Daisy-dog*

      This is great! I see so many people who generally just come up with a list of “busywork” for an intern. I love your approach.

  40. vballrocker*

    this totally happened to me one summer during undergrad, i scored a paid internship ($3k per month + housing) reporting to a global marketing manager. the only problem was that he was always traveling and/or on PTO since it was summer. after 2 – 3 week of asking for projects and “interviewing” others on the marketing team, i finally decided to enjoy my free time (3 months total) to get paid to watch youtube and hang out with the other interns in other departments.

    i’d encourage undergrads to make sure its clear with both HR and the hiring manager the expectations, so that you don’t feel like you’re doing nothing all summer. in retrospect, i should have approached HR and found another department who could “borrow me” so i could have worked on real projects with the other interns.

  41. queen b*

    When I was an intern at a Fortune 500 company, I angled myself so you couldn’t see my screen if you walked by and watched Netflix. This advice would have been VERY helpful a few years back!

  42. Marie*

    This happened to me twice, once in undergrad and the second in grad school. I floundered and hated the job during my undergrad. For my grad school experience, after relaxing they would not give me any work, I used my office time as “free time” and did research for a professor instead. I left the internship off my resume, and added the research. It was disappointing the internship was a bust, but the research project allowed me to grow a relationship with that professor, who later helped me get a post grad job!

  43. Orange You Glad*

    Another thing to add to the intern dynamic for the FTEs – I’ve been lobbying for a (much needed) additional full time hire for 2 years now. Every time the response is that it doesn’t fit in the budget, but then they throw another intern at me. I don’t have enough intern-level work for multiple interns so they end up bored. I need a full time person with some experience and who will be here more than a few months.

  44. Mbarr*

    This happened to me as a co-op student once. I was hired to help out with summer vacations, but when I arrived at the company, it turns out they couldn’t use me due to union rules (I’d be taking away a union job).

    That summer was brutally boring. I’d only get jobs to clean shelves and binders, etc. After awhile I gave up and asked my supervisor if I could study in an empty meeting room because I was also doing a distance education course. Eventually the company sent me to the mail room to help reorganize it and try to email companies to remove us from their mailing lists.

    The garbage part of it all? I *WAS* a member of the union! The union required all students to join. It wasn’t worth fighting about though.

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