my intern is way too passive

A reader writes:

I am currently supervising an intern, Lauren, who is completing a postgrad professional degree in my field. The placement with my organization is a mandatory part of her course, and she is here to learn high-level skills with an emphasis on critical thinking and creativity. My field is one that most people enter out of a passion for the work (there’s not much money in it!).

Lauren has been with us for a few months now and she is still just … completely passive. She will complete concrete tasks (to a pretty uninspiring standard — sometimes seeming to give up if her first attempt doesn’t work) if I assign them to her, and she watches me do my work, and that’s about it. When I ask about her learning goals or interests, she has none or seems to make up a generic answer on the spot. When I ask her to keep me updated on her workload and let me know when she wants a new project, she says nothing (which makes me wonder if she’s just slacking off; we’re working mostly remotely so I don’t have a lot of oversight). When I ask her to choose which of a few projects she’d like to be involved in, she just says she’ll do whatever I need her to do. I’ve tried explaining to her that she’s here to learn and not to be my assistant (frankly, she’s not very helpful anyway) to no avail. I’ve explained the importance of being proactive, creativity, critical thinking, etc. I’ve done everything I can think of to allow her to feel safe asking questions and expressing opinions. If things don’t change soon, I can’t give her a passing grade (I haven’t said this to her yet, but I plan to this week).

What would you do? I’ve never been in this situation before — all of my previous students have been thrilled to be here and constantly asking questions — so I’m stuck!

I think it will help to think of it this way: the internship is supposed to be a learning experience for Lauren and you have an opportunity to teach her things that could really help her professionally … just not in the way you’re used to. Your previous interns might have needed to learn field-specific skills; what Lauren needs to learn is how to communicate in an office, how to take initiative (and that she needs to, and what that looks like), and how to engage with the people guiding her work.

If she doesn’t learn those things now, it’s likely to cause her real problems in future jobs. You have an opportunity to help teach them to her!

There’s no guarantee that your efforts will work, of course. She might not be in a place where she’s receptive to what you’re trying to teach. But you should give it a shot.

Since she needs to make significant changes in order to get a passing grade, that gives you a really easy framework to use. You can sit down with her and say something like this, “I want to talk about some concerns I have with your work. Right now, as things stand, I would not be able to give you a passing grade for your internship. But there is time for us to change that, and I think you can succeed here if you’re open to making these changes. What I need to see is…”

And then be really specific — more specific than you probably think you need to be. For example, don’t just say “be proactive” because she probably doesn’t know what that should look like. Explain the broad principle you want (which could be “be proactive”) but then give multiple concrete examples of what that should look like (“for example, when we meet about the taco campaign on Friday, I want you to bring three ideas for social media promotion — here are some social media ideas interns generated in the past, so you can see the format and nature of what I’m looking for”).

Also, be explicit about the things you have asked her to do that she’s not doing — “I have asked you to keep me updated on your workload but haven’t heard anything after that. I’d like you to send me an email every Monday morning listing your priorities for the week, things you completed the previous week, and any questions or things you’re getting stuck on. We’ll plan to meet every Monday at 2, so I’d like the email no later than noon.” (Or whatever.) I’m guessing this is a lot more prescriptive than you had to be with previous interns — and you might not want to be this prescriptive — but it sounds like Lauren doesn’t know what it means when you ask her to keep you updated, and you’ll be doing her a favor if you paint a clear picture of what it looks like to do it successfully. (Then do the same for all the other most important things you want to see her do.)

And then say this: “Without you making these changes, I can’t give you a passing grade. But I’m confident you can do this, and the support I can offer to help is ___.” (Fill in some ideas there, because I would bet significant amounts of money that she doesn’t know what she could ask for.)

From there, it’s up to her. But you’ll have set her up for success as much as you could, by spelling out really clearly what she needs to pass, and offering her help to get there. If she doesn’t meet the bar you laid out, then you’ll have made the consequences clear. But if it does help her learn how to navigate work, it might have even more of an impact on her future than what your previous interns learned.

{ 237 comments… read them below }

  1. Alton Brown's Evil Twin*

    Whenever I see this mandatory internship with college credit things, I am always curious about what the university is providing the employer and the student with. Do they really explain to the student what the point of the internship is, to the point of writing a 1-page syllabus-equivalent document? Do they give the employers grading or pass/fail standards?

    I would be so concerned that different students would have wildly different experiences to the point that the success criteria would be incompatible from one internship to another.

    1. Jane Bingley*

      My program operated on an honours/pass/fail system. For each semester’s class of 25 or so, 1-3 students failed, 1-3 students got honours, and most got a pass. But these were also crucial as references, and that was emphasized to us often – even though most students got a pass, we should expect that employers in our tiny field will call their contacts and hear about us through the grapevine, so doing the bare minimum to get a pass would still have consequences compared to a student who worked hard but didn’t quite snag honours.

    2. Crumbs*

      I work at a research state university and oversee a for-credit internship class. Students are required to take an entire 3-credit class about internships and professionalism before starting their internship. However, the student has to find their own internship. We have our usual suspects that have robust intern programs, but not everyone does. We have the student’s supervisor sign a letter of expectations and a legal agreement, but there’s nothing done to check in on them or make sure it’s happening unless the student complains, and experiences differ a lot.

      1. Hlao-roo*

        I went through a similar program at my university as a student/intern. The credits were earned during the professionalism class (here’s how to write a resume and cover letter, here are some baseline expectations of an internship, etc.) and during a post-internship wrap-up “class” that was mostly just writing a short report about what I learned on my internship. My manager at my internship was also asked to fill out a brief survey that basically boiled down to “did Hlao-roo do an acceptable job as an intern?”

        I agree that experiences differ a lot. Some companies are more prepared to have interns and some interns are more prepared for their internships. (There were also students in my degree program who were not in the internship program who did internships for experience, without earning class credit.)

    3. Wordnerd*

      At our university in one of the programs with a required internship, the department requires the student to provide a job description of the internship and then write a pretty-sternly-graded narrative about how the internship relates to their classes, career goals, etc, and makes them write SMART goals for the internship itself. So the students have a lot of prep on the university side, but I’m not sure what all the department tells/requires of the company/org (I work with helping students write that narrative).

    4. Michelle Smith*

      I went to college in the mid 00s, so things may have changed. In my experience there was no training or preparation. You just found out what your assignment was and you showed up on Day 1 to learn the expectations directly from the employer. I was always a solo intern (I did this two semesters with two different orgs) so there was no training program or anything like that. I had done volunteer work in high school so I knew how offices generally worked and did not have trouble acclimating.

      1. Dust Bunny*

        I went in the late 1990s and internships weren’t particularly a thing at my school (they were definitely not required), but from what I hear from recent-er grads they are pretty standard now and the requirements/expectations are very clear.

    5. Moonlight*

      So I’ll add my 2 cents. I did a postgraduate certificate and then a masters degree both of which required internships but both of which had VASTLY different results.

      1) my postgraduate certificate was in an unregulated creative field. You could end up doing anything from, say, planning a fundraiser, doing a lot graphic design, being a social media manager, etc. (it was PR and integrated marketing if that matters). I had a terrible experience cause my internship boss was an unorganized disaster who ended up being fired within 6 months of my internship ending because she was unable to produce positive results for any of her projects and the organization has thrived since they replaced her. The main project I helped with was a huge failure, in large part because she made me do the research for it but she proceeded to totally disregard my recommendations because I laid out a really practical foundation with different targets and she wanted to shoot for the moon. The shitty thing was that the project achieved its financial goals in the centre of my recommended target, so had she listened to me, the project would have been considered successful but instead it looked like s massive failure. This is obviously a wildly different set of circumstances than what OP is describing. My point is mostly to affirm that a lot of creative field academic programs don’t necessarily have strict criteria for what must be accomplished in internships because the point is to get experience. And because there isn’t always a clear bare minimum laid out by the school, and the standards are based on your internship employer, it can mean that students assume that if they’re doing X amount of work that it’s good enough, when they really need to be doing Y but if that isn’t evident to them then they slack off — or you can get an internship like mine which is basically tanked by an incompetent ding dong.

      #2 my graduate degree was in a highly regulated and licensed field. In order for students to be awarded their degree and qualify for licensure, they needed to complete a minimum number of hours with clients (it was health care related), and needed to complete a minimum amount of supervision. There was quite a bit of flexibility in this – for example, let’s say I’m referencing nursing, to a certain extent you had to learn the foundational nursing skills and then you could specialise a bit, so it didn’t matter if you were largely attending to women during labour/birth or if you were attending to cancer patients, which would also mean that you could be learning about pregnancy interventions or chemo because the requirements for licensure also stipulate certain core competencies and then allow for specialization, so the core competencies must be met in the internships but that doesn’t preclude specialization at the same time. This made the internship much easier because there weee such clear expectations around X hours and Y competencies.

      All in all, I suspect that OPs intern might be a part of the 1st category. I’d honestly be more surprised if she was dealing with something closer to my 2nd example and that the intern inexplicably didn’t understand.

    6. rural academic*

      At the college where I work, yes, there is a syllabus for an internship, and there is a conversation between the student, the internship site supervisor, and the faculty advisor about the purpose of the internship and what the student will do before everyone signs on to the paperwork. But there can still be miscommunication, and students sometimes say “yes I understand” when they actually don’t.

      The thing that strikes me is that I think internships used to be less common, and the students who went for them might tend to be go-getters and high achievers. But when an internship is mandatory for a degree program, you are going to get students placed in internships who are not the most stellar students in their program. If there was preparatory coursework, a student might likely have just squeaked by and views the internship as just one more hoop to jump through.

      1. Sloanicota*

        I did wonder about OP’s comment that they would fail the intern. I would fail an intern who stopped showing up or who broke the office code of conduct but just not being a real go getter wouldn’t be a fail for me. It would be a C, average, passing.

        1. The Person from the Resume*

          This not an undergraduate internship, though. The student is enrolled in a “postgrad professional degree” program. It sounds like the intern is just showing up and not learning or doing much of anything.

          1. Happy*

            Yes! I feel like the stakes should be more higher for a post-grad than these instructions, which feel more geared towards an undergrad. By all means, educate them about the professional world, but this level of disinterest is pretty alarming.

        2. MsM*

          I think it depends whether the standard is “did the intern do the bare minimum assigned?” (which it unfortunately sounds like Lauren may not be, given how frequently she seems to just give up on tasks), or “is this someone I would have to say “no” to if they asked me for a more elaborate reference than “yes, she worked here”?”

        3. constant_craving*

          A C probably isn’t passing though. In most grad programs, passing starts at B. The expectation is that just average isn’t adequate for grad level work. OP likely understands the expectations of their field. In some fields it becomes a pretty serious ethical issue to pass people who aren’t up to standard (I’m in Psychology, but I imagine this applies in many other fields too).

          1. Burger Bob*

            I mean, C is passing even in a lot of healthcare-oriented degree programs, including MDs. Not all of them (depends on the school), but that old phrase “C = MD” didn’t come from nowhere. C was passing in my pharmacy program. And even for a post-grad program, I’m not sure a student who is otherwise turning in an acceptable performance should deserve to fail simply because a required internship that they didn’t choose and may not have been given clear expectations for thinks that they aren’t “proactive” enough.

        4. tamarack etc.*

          If the employer/manager is supposed to provide a grade, they should also have been provided with a grading rubric. And the student should have been made aware of the rubric from the outset. I hope this is happening now in a conversation.

        5. MCMonkeyBean*

          This is basically a class–just showing up and not breaking the rules is not enough to pass almost any class. The bar has got to be higher than that or else what is the point?

      2. Crumbs*

        This is exactly why we stopped making our internships mandatory. Putting unmotivated/bad students out there hurt our brand more than it hurt the students themselves.

    7. Artemesia*

      A good college internship program and I have run several, will have at minimum strong faculty leadership and clear guidelines for what the student will accomplish and very clear learning goals that are communicated to the site manager. Yes, interns can be expected to do their share of scutwork but they also need to be able to accomplish learning goals set by the program.

      For our undergrad full time internship we paired their field work with a seminar in which they did academic work processing their observations and experience and linking it to the subject matter on organizations and politics and group processes.

      Turning them loose with no structured expectations and with little campus supervision and unclear site supervision is the hallmark of a weak program.

      You should have a campus supervisor you can confer with about bringing this intern up to speed.

    8. Relentlessly Socratic*

      When I taught, we had an internship program (which roughly follows what others have said about syllabus, existing relationships in the community, etc.)

      What set our program apart is that the university has a high number of non-traditional students (working/commuters, returning students, etc.) as well as a very large number of students who are the first in their family to attend college. This latter population has a lot of challenges in academic settings and in traditional office settings as they have told me that they haven’t experienced a lot of the norms that students with a more…well…middle class background have. Factor in a possible job history that’s in retail/restaurant/fast food/etc, there is a very different way these students approach the work world where it is passive: Here’s your shift, make sure your register tallies when you cash out, etc (this is not fan fiction, these were my students), then there is a big leap from classwork in a reasonably supportive environment to an office setting. They needed more help to get their feet under them. Even the self-starters would sometimes flounder in the intern setting, and not all of them would realize they were floundering until close to the end of the semester when the Intern Supervisor would tell them that they hadn’t done enough. And, to be fair, some students weren’t invested for whatever reason and did poorly, but you aren’t going to know unless you check in with them.

      TL;DR–please meet with the intern and give them the feedback that Alison outlines.

    9. Designy*

      Though I went to a well known design school, they had 0 criteria for internships, other than the position had to be design related. I was always an A student and I got a C (I think specifically a C- which is more insulting) for my internship grade. They never had an intern, but I was interested in their company so they reached out. They didn’t know what to do with me, I didn’t know what I was supposed to do. Sometimes they asked me to organize the showroom, sometimes I worked on the computer with minimal training in the software they used. Mostly I sat around. I have serious social anxiety (especially at that age!) so this whole situation was an emotional disaster to me.

    10. Irish Teacher*

      I sort of did two, though I’m in Ireland, so the system is somewhat different.

      My degree programme had what was called a co-op year where we could choose from a year’s exchange with a university abroad (the US and Denmark were among the options), a year’s work experience or a semester of each. I did the year’s work experience, which was pass/fail and at the end of the year, we had to write a detailed assignment, with I think five? different sections, describing the company we were working for, its mission, our role there, what we learnt, etc. Our manager also had to give a report on us. I think it was pretty hard to fail really, so long as your write-up fulfilled the criteria and the boss’s report didn’t say anything really negative, though I honestly don’t know for sure. I never heard of anybody failing anyway.

      Then as a student teacher, I had to teach six classes a week (I actually taught 7 as the students had four classes of English each week and three of History and it wouldn’t make sense for another teacher to take them once a week). This was a lot more formal and we each had a supervisor/tutor from the college who visited us four times. There was also a “crossover” visit in the middle, when another lecturer visited. At the end of each of these, they would give us a long list of notes about what we were doing well and what they expected us to do better the next time. Our supervisor was the one who would decide our grade in the end, though there were also what were called internal and external advisors who would chose students, sometimes at random and sometimes if a student were borderline for a sixth visit after the others. This was generally to ensure everybody was marked fairly. Of course, I got one of those!

      In neither, did the employer decide whether to pass or fail us. I think that is different than the situation you are talking about, but for what it’s worth, that’s my experience.

    11. Snowy*

      A friend of mine quit her Masters program after failing a mandatory internship. She failed because of her boss’s (known to the school) misogyny, and the school was unwilling to revisit his assessment of her.

    12. Buffy will save us*

      We have developed an entire manual with assignments and a detailed timeline for our interns. It helps that these are very regulated for our profession with a midterm & final grade on a standardized eval.

      I will say in the 17+ years of taking interns, you have to be WAY more explicit than you think. Like literally spell things out for them. Things you think are intuitive are not.

    13. There You Are*

      We had the 1-page syllabus-equivalent plus two 2-hour lecture periods devoted exclusively to the internships in my grad-level class which required an internship.

      We interviewed with the companies who were working with our program (there’s usually the same core four, but the program is always recruiting new companies) and went through a mini-match process where we selected our top 2-3 companies, and the companies selected the top 3-4 students.

      We had to provide written weekly updates as part of our class assignments, so the prof and the TAs could see at a glance if we were actually doing any real work.

      It was emphasized throughout the semester that these internships were job interviews / future job references. These were business degree internships, so we were all there to land good jobs upon graduation.

      The people who failed did so spectacularly. If you told their stories to the average person on the street, 100% would agree that they needed to be given a failing grade.

    14. Burger Bob*

      Yeah, I’m thinking along similar lines. The intern did not witness any of the previous interns. She has no idea how her performance compares to them. She doesn’t know that the normal and expected thing is to be constantly asking questions, for instance. If this is presented by the school as a pretty basic, tic-the-boxes kind of degree requirement, she may have no idea that the employer mentoring her is expecting a meaningful degree of involvement beyond showing up and doing as she’s told. I did a similar sort of internship for a senior year requirement in undergrad, and I bet my mentor could have written a similar criticism of me. I didn’t really have a clear idea of what I was supposed to be accomplishing in the internship, and on top of that I’m a pretty introverted person. I’m not going to be constantly generating questions and input, but it doesn’t mean I’m engaged. (Side note: I have always really disliked the bias held by many, many instructors that a student who talks a lot must be more intelligent and engaged than a student who is generally pretty quiet. Not necessarily true!)

      LW, it’s entirely possible the intern just doesn’t have the same understanding of what this internship is supposed to be that you do. That’s correctable, and I don’t think it should be held against her. Like I said, she has no idea how her behavior compares to past interns. She probably thinks she’s being completely normal.

      1. Set999*

        Oof, I also had a similar experience in undergrad, but with working in a lab. Was told just to follow the one grad student around/see what he needed. This was more of a in-between and after classes sort of thing,so I would either have to text him or see if I could catch him to get more work. I…did not get a lot of work done this way.
        Realized after more undergrads joined that I was expected to just sit in the office all day and wait for instructions. (This really wouldn’t have worked since I worked full time as well, but I could have set aside at least one day a week if I had known)

    15. AnotherLibrarian*

      Honestly, it’s a total roll of the dice in my experience. I think for a lot of students and programs, it is not well organized. There’s exceptions, but I’ve seen schools that do detailed syllabuses and in-depth orientations for the students and schools where it is very much a “good luck” and then almost no support is offered. Of course, I am working with grad students who are assumed, I think, to have a bit more of a solid footing under them.

    16. Alex*

      My friend had one of these required internships. She also had a boyfriend who worked at a start up (and helped start it up) who signed off on her internship while she sat on her butt and played video games…

    17. MM*

      I think it’s important to note that OP said the intern is a postgraduate student, though. I find her passivity a lot more alarming in that context, and less explainable in terms of what instructions or expectations may have been set at the outset.

    18. Amanda*

      My college does not and it’s a real problem. Neither the student nor the placement facility are given guidelines or rules for what an intern is supposed to do or not do. As a result, we get placed at internship that use interns for free labor, giving us no real experiential learning activities. If you speak up about it to the professor, you are criticized. If you speak up at your placement, you are “complaining”.

  2. Peanut Hamper*

    If things don’t change soon, I can’t give her a passing grade (I haven’t said this to her yet, but I plan to this week).

    I think in general, a lot of people wait too long to get to this part of the conversation. It never hurts to remind people that their grade/continued employment may be on the line as soon as (or shortly thereafter) it occurs to you, as the manager, that this may indeed be the case. Otherwise, the person in question may feel like their failing grade/dismissal came out of the blue.

    1. Free Meerkats*

      Yes, this is part of the problem. The OP should have had this conversation early in the internship when it became obvious that she wasn’t doing what needed to be done. Instead they just let it fester.

    2. JustAnoning*

      I concur. Have this conversation tomorrow. She’s not going to improve on her own by next week.

    3. ThatGirl*

      Yes. I can sympathize from the part of the intern. Back in college I spent a semester in NYC through a program at my Midwestern liberal arts school. I was smart, but didn’t really know what taking initiative looked like. I split my internship between a small ad agency and a well-known magazine and frankly didn’t fully take advantage of either, but I only realize that now in hindsight. I waited for more direction, more guidance, and never got it.

      Toward the end of the semester, the director of the ad agency told me how disappointed he was that I’d never shown more interest in the work, and it really stung ecause I’d been waiting for HIM to come to ME. If he’d said something sooner maybe it would have gotten through my head that I needed to ask for work and show interest in what he was doing.

      1. ThatGirl*

        And for the record I did learn those skills eventually, but it took time and feeling comfortable and just … maturing.

      2. Peanut Hamper*

        but didn’t really know what taking initiative looked like

        This is a good point. Because there is a difference between taking initiative and having gumption, but if you don’t know the difference and are worried about over-stepping, you’re going to err on the side of caution. You didn’t completely redesign the customer database, but you still erred.

        1. Mac*

          During a student teaching role I had in college, my cooperating teacher (supervisor) would bring up examples of things I could’ve been doing to “be more proactive,” when I had no idea I had the authority to do those things. For example, she’d say something like,”While you were just standing around earlier, you could’ve been grading this stack of papers!” Student teaching works like a gradual increase in responsibility, starting with shadowing your cooperating teacher and ending the semester with running the class independently. So something like, “This week you’re going to start grading papers independently,” is something she should’ve explicitly said, rather than have me guess while she got all the more frustrated. She also held onto control of some things in the classroom way too tightly (which I knew from comparing notes with fellow student teachers in other classrooms), so I was constantly afraid to overstep while also constantly being told to take initiative. All this to say, please try to be specific about what taking initiative looks like, and what type of work they should feel comfortable doing freely vs. waiting for guidance on!

        2. DocVonMitte*

          This x1000. I was the intern taking too much “initiative” because I didn’t really understand what I could and could not do / what was a small deal vs. a big deal.

          Students typically end up on one side of that spectrum until they’ve had some experience and matured a bit. Spelling out very clearly what “initiative” looks like in the context of your internship is helpful to ALL of your student interns (not just the very passive ones).

          1. Bunny Lake Is Found*

            And man, the intern taking “too much initiative” is another whole problem especially when they don’t understand hierarchy at all. No, you are a law student, you don’t outrank anyone and certainly not the paralegals and secretaries. If they tell you this is how X is done, don’t do it some completely different way, without discussing it with them or anyone else, because they aren’t your literal supervisors and you think you are “showing initiative” by doing it a way that is “better”. Because even if your way is “better”, you don’t have the background to know that this is done a sub-optimal way because if it is done a different way Very Important Client will hit the roof.

      3. Fluffy Fish*

        I expect this is much more common than not. After all pretty much the entirety of US schooling is following explicit directions.

        It’s more strange to me that we seem to expect students to just know how to operate in a work environment.

        1. ThatGirl*

          Yeah – and I’d had jobs at that point, but they were retail/restaurant type stuff, where the tasks are well defined and you’re trained pretty thoroughly. Totally different from a professional office setting.

        2. Irish Teacher*

          Yes, my immediate thought was that it’s possible, even likely, that a lot of this is applying school norms to the workplace, especially if this intern either has had little or no work experience or all their work experience has been in areas where there isn’t much initiative required (and let’s be honest, that’s true of a lot of the types of part-time jobs students get, such as cashier in a supermarket).

          I wouldn’t necessarily assume she’s slacking off as the LW said. She might be but it’s also possible that she is still working on the school logic where your teacher gives you an assignment and it would often be quite odd to go to your teacher and ask for additional projects or tell them your learning goals. Now, this can change at college, but college programmes differ and some seem more school-like than others.

          It’s also possible that the intern is shy or from a rather authoritarian background and may feel that the manager is only asking her out of politeness and has a plan she’s going to give her anyway.

      4. Bast*

        This is so true! I was wondering if perhaps the student simply lacks experience in the work world and doesn’t yet understand professional norms. I was not the most successful at my first corporate job, (college age) because I spent a lot of time waiting for people to tell me what to do and when. I didn’t want to over step, or seem like I was “too big” to the certain tasks. The only job I had previously done was retail, and you did what you were told when you were told, or else you were a “problem” or “a complainer.” I did not want to be seen as a problem, and usually kept my head down and only did what I was told. I truly did not know any better; it wasn’t due to a lack of interest or care on my part.

        1. Kim*

          Exactly right . Most of us are influenced by our prior work experience and many of us were in jobs where we could only do what we were told before joining the professional world. Of course we wanted to do a great job, we didn’t know how. In my first corporate job ( in late 1970’s) I went to my manager when I had finished my work and asked if there was something else I could do. I thought that was initiative . He literally exploded at me in annoyance , saying I shouldn’t wait for him to tell me what to do. Kind of tough response from him . I would not meet a thoughtful manager who understood how employees are conditioned by prior managers and jobs until my final job in 2012. He understood that and knew how to turn situations around in a diplomatic way that preserved the employees’ dignity. In my field executives with both outstanding technical skills and people skills were a rare breed and I was finally lucky to meet them (but late in my career!)

      5. please take your time*

        as someone who has always been a real go-getter, that mindset of just waiting for someone to come grant you learning and experiences always mystified me in others in my various cohorts, but I don’t mind it since I’ve always looked better in comparison

          1. Gerry Keay*

            In addition to innate tendencies, it’s also true that not all of us grow up in environments where taking initiative is encouraged or fostered. Some people grow up in environments where, because of their gender or other identities, they’re punished for taking initiative and acting on their needs/wants!

        1. Irish Teacher*

          I don’t think that’s how most people are thinking though. Some, sure, but in most cases, it’s more likely to be an assumption from school or the part-time jobs that they have had previously or from the sort of parenting they have had, that to do otherwise is the sort of GUMPTION we complain about here and will make you look bad.

          School often rewards “sit down, stay quiet, do what you are told, study hard and ace your exams” so a lot of people who are very success-oriented assume that that is the way to success and…it doesn’t work at school. Not saying that those who have a better understanding of the workplace are not equally success-oriented, just that it can go either way. As a teacher, I would say the most ambitious students tend to go towards one extreme or the other. Some tend to get involved in everything, have plans, etc. Others tend to very much follow the rules, assuming that things like extra-curricular activities are a waste of time when they should be focussing on their goals. I suspect the latter, while they often come out with top grades, may well struggle to adjust to this aspect of the workplace. These aren’t people who waifr for learning. They study hard and without adult involvement, but they stick to following the textbook, study sheets, etc.

          Then there are also things like neurodivergence. The question of when it’s a good thing to go looking for new learning experiences and when it is overstepping is a pretty complex social rule and even people who are neurotypical and don’t have any prior toxic experiences can struggle with it. For somebody who is neurodivergent or who has experienced harmful control, it’s likely to be more difficult.

          1. Heather*

            “sit down, stay quiet, do what you are told, study hard and ace your exams”

            That might still be the case in some high schools (although I doubt it’s that common anymore), but at the college and certainly at the graduate levels class engagement and project work has been the norm for several decades now. This intern is a graduate student and really shouldn’t just be sitting back and waiting to be spoon fed individual tasks.

        2. Emma*

          A lot of this is shaped by how your initiative has been received in the past, especially when you’re young. Did people acknowledge your ideas and questions, and encourage you to come up with more even when they weren’t great? Or were you dismissed, ridiculed, or shut out?

        3. sally*

          I think it’s also more the mindset that it’s rude to put yourself out there, that speaking up will be bothering people, that calling attention to yourself may mean that you will get criticized or punished, and that asking for things may result in being seen as rude or greedy. And not knowing what the norms are enough to know what is within the range of “normal” to ask for and what is being rude or overstepping. There are huge class markers to this kind of behavior, whether you are expected to be silent as a sign of respect, and wait for someone with more authority to speak first, or talk to authority figures with confidence and as closer to equals.

          1. My Cabbages!*

            “the mindset that it’s rude to put yourself out there, that speaking up will be bothering people, that calling attention to yourself may mean that you will get criticized or punished, and that asking for things may result in being seen as rude or greedy.”

            Ah, I see you have met my childhood.

          2. iliketoknit*

            I should have waited to comment until I read this comment, because it’s exactly what I was thinking.

          3. Heather*

            This intern is a grad student. She’s been graded on participation for years. Of course LW should be more explicit but some of it is on her too.

          4. Salsa Verde*

            Very much agree on the class markers part of this. Engagement and project work and participation might have been a normal part of college, but you can do those without calling attention to yourself, and the instructions and expectations are usually much more clear in college (I remember being there being specific expectations around online participation in my grad school classes ~2010 – “to get full participation, you must start one conversation topic a week and respond to at least 3 topics per week, responses can’t just be “agree”, they need to show that you did the reading”). So you can still be a very successful student without showing gumption/iniative.

            And if you have parents or family who work blue collar jobs, how would you know that you are supposed to ask for more work? It’s very clear in many of those jobs that you should do ONLY what you are told. Add an authoritative parent into the mix, and I can totally see someone not realizing that there is a way to ask for more work or show initiative without being rude or annoying.

        4. iliketoknit*

          One of the central principles of my upbringing was to bother more important people as little as possible. It doesn’t exactly foster initiative or go-getter-ism.

        5. Kim*

          You don’t understand people and that will be a detriment to your career. Also, you don’t know what you don’t know , also deterimental to your career.

      6. Dust Bunny*

        Lauren, who is completing a postgrad professional degree in my field

        Lauren had initiative enough to apply to a grad program, though. She’s not an undergrad.

        1. badger*

          I don’t know that that’s necessarily the achievement one might think. I went back to school for law school at 30 and a lot of my classmates had come straight through from undergrad and had done the LSAT and law school application because they didn’t know what else to do and/or parental pressure. I have an intern right now, two months shy of graduation, who’s struggling with the fact that she went to law school because it’s what her parents wanted and because her sister did and so she was expected to too, and she’s very young and is struggling with some of these same issues that LW points out (which has been a huge learning opportunity for me as a first-time supervisor, too, to make sure that she is getting what she needs out of this experience). She’s about to have to start making all of her own decisions for what she wants out of her life (including deciding whether she actually wants to be a lawyer), and when all of the anxiety is just sitting there looming, it can make “taking initiative” for *anything* darn near impossible.

          Might not be what’s happening with LW’s intern, idk.

      7. Janey-jane*

        Me too, almost word for word. I’m embarrassed now by my lack of initiative but I also didn’t know how to ask and put things out there.

    4. Falling Diphthong*

      I am always impressed at the absolute dime some people can flip on when they stop hearing “blah di concerns blah” and suddenly register that this week’s version was “you will be fired” or “you will fail” or “I will break up with you.”

      Not everyone. But enough people that it usually makes sense to allow for the option.

      1. Gerry Kaey*

        I mean yeah, when consequences are made clear, people are more likely to act in a way that will avoid those consequences. Changing behavior is hard, and if there’s not already intrinsic motivation to change said behavior, consequences are often a necessary motivator. I think that’s pretty rational behavior tbh.

      2. There You Are*

        My ex is in the “not everyone” category. After years of couples’ therapy and trying everything I could think of to make the relationship workable for both of us, I sat him down and said, “I need to see these three concrete things change or I cannot stay in a relationship with you.”

        I reminded him regularly that they were my deal-breakers, because I know change is hard and because I needed him to understand how serious I was. I offered to help with external supports to make the changes easier and sustainable.

        And when he literally did nothing toward any of the three concrete things, he was shocked — shocked! — when I said, “The relationship is over. Please move out.”

        I’m guessing he’s the kind of person who wails “This came out of nowhere! I had no idea!” when, at the end of the PIP period in which he made no changes, he is fired.

    5. Butterfly Counter*


      OP, I know it feels like breaking terrible news to them and the instinct is to put it off and see if the issue self-corrects, but that’s honestly the worst thing teachers can do. And in this internship, you are a teacher.

      A LOT of my students want to just pass. They’d like a B but would take a C if it meant they never have to take the class again. So when I see students on the path to failure, I flag it as soon as I can. A lot of times, I then get context (my mother is sick and I’m helping, my SO is dealing with addiction, etc.) which can help me adjust their schedules and mine. But many just realize that they have to put in more effort than they have been to get that C and just do it.

      Communication is key on both sides. You have the authority of grading this student. Use it responsibly and let her know she needs to do better or she’s wasted her time.

  3. ecnaseener*

    With the proactive part, I think if you just give concrete examples like in the answer it’ll be taken as a specific assignment – if you want that to translate into actual proactivity, maybe follow it with “that’s one example of the type of thing you should be doing with all your projects, not just when you’re explicitly asked to do it.”

    1. Fluffy Fish*

      Agreed I think everything Alison said is part one, and part two is explaining like you said and perhaps actually spelling out the skill its an example of – proactiveness, critical thinking, etc.

      Then maybe part three is on the next assignment spelling out the expectation that she needs to demonstrate the specific skill(s) on her own.

    2. Lavender*

      I agree with this. And if/when she shows initiative in the way you’re looking for, you might want to say something like, “This is the kind of proactivity that I’m looking for. Going forward, I want to see this consistently.” And then maybe be specific about why it’s important and what “consistently” looks like: “It’s very useful for me to know that you’re interested in teapot design, because that will help me assign projects that will help you develop your skills. From now on, whenever you finish a project, I want you to let me know what parts interested you the most or what aspects of the work you felt like you were missing out on.”

    3. GammaGirl1908*

      Moreover, I would encourage LW to ask for what they actually want to see, instead of saying something like “bring three ideas” but expecting her to know that three is good, but five is better and eight is great. Tell her that! Spell out what it looks like to exceed expectations.

      No one likes having to guess how many pieces of flair to wear.

      1. Bella*

        A big difference with most professional jobs though is that intuiting that kind of thing actually is mandatory to the role.

        1. new year, new name*

          Right but… you have to learn how to do that! And this is the scenario where you’re supposed to be doing that learning! So giving specific direction seems extremely appropriate.

          1. GammaGirl1908*

            This! There are times when more is more, there are times when less is more, and there are times when you’re supposed to hit the target, and sometimes you do have to guess which is which in order to exceed expectations.

            BUT it sounds like this intern needs to be told that. LW needs to point out when more is more and when less is more, so that she’ll have a better idea about it in the future.

            (I am thinking of the letters we’ve seen here involving employees who work unnecessary extra hours in an effort to show dedication, or the ones who do their work and their colleagues’ because they “got on a roll,” or the guy who came to a virtual interview in person with his whole family. Those are people who need to learn that sometimes more is not more.)

        2. Bunny Lake Is Found*

          It is, but the whole POINT of an internship is learn this. You only develop that kind of intuition with experience and helpful feedback, not by what the LW is doing which is telling Lauren to “be proactive” without telling her WHAT proactive looks like TO LW.

    4. Buffy will save us*

      In my 17+ years of working with interns, I have learned you have to take way you think is explicit and then make it even more so. With very concrete examples. We have a very detailed program, but one of the things we have students do is literally create goals for themselves. We have them do it in the beginning and then again a midterm. We usually do 1-3 long term goals with 1-2 short term underneath that making clear, measurable steps. Like:
      LT: Student will demonstrate initiative by developing and completing x task(s) per week with no cuing by week 5.
      ST1: Student will with minimal assistance from staff create a list of common/weekly tasks that student can complete independently.
      ST2: Student will study staff’s workload and create a list of possible new (not part of ST1) tasks that student can complete and present list to staff 1x/week.

      Obviously these can be more specific to the job in question but when you are in the workforce it’s common to develop annual goals for yourself in conjunction with your supervisor. These are a more specific version of that and gives the student guidance.

    5. NotAnotherManager!*

      This is such great advice – I work with a lot of recent college graduates, and we have found this sort of explicit instruction to be valuable on both sides. They know what we expect and what that should look like, and we don’t have to wonder if they know what they should be doing. It makes orientation take a little longer, but it’s been worth it in the time we save not having to play guessing/figure-it-out games with new hires.

  4. OrigCassandra*

    Please get in touch with whoever runs the internship program in Lauren’s department, OP. They will want to know what’s going on with Lauren, and they should also back you up in communicating with her that her work is subpar.

    I’m sorry this is happening; I’m sure it’s frustrating. Speaking as someone who teaches in a postgrad program quite similar to the one you’re describing (quite possibly the same field, even)… people seem to think we can toss students out on their ear on a whim because they’re not yet socialized to the work, and for obvious reasons we can’t actually do that!

    It definitely happens that a student does fine (or well enough, at least) in the very structured class environment but falls apart without that guidance. These students (in my experience) also have trouble with the job-search process, so the sooner we know about them, the more (and more easily) we can intervene.

    Not that intervention always works… sigh… but we can and do turn some of them around.

    1. AngryOctopus*

      Yes, this reads to me like 1-Lauren is unsure how to act in a real work environment because she hasn’t been in one before, so 2-Lauren is nervous and has no idea what she can ask for and what she has to do so 3-Lauren could benefit immensely from Alison’s suggestions. Maybe she has no idea she’s supposed to bring ideas for the taco campaign, because you’ve just said “we’re going to meet about the taco campaign on Friday”, and to her that means you’re going to explain how it works or what the company is doing. Maybe she doesn’t realize she can tell you “I’m not super interested in the taco campaign but I am interested in the drama llama campaign, which is closer to things I’d like to do when I graduate, and I’d love to be able to give input on that, is that available to me?”
      OP I realize this can feel frustrating, but not everyone in a postgraduate course has actually worked before, so if you take Alison’s suggestions, you may find that she blossoms out and does well.

      1. Observer*

        OP I realize this can feel frustrating, but not everyone in a postgraduate course has actually worked before, so if you take Alison’s suggestions, you may find that she blossoms out and does well.

        Or they may have worked in environments where taking initiative is not rewarded – or where it’s punished, especially if you’re not part of the dominant group. (eg many women in male dominated industries.)

    2. Bumblebee*

      This is good advice! The internship coordinator should want to work with you and with your student to make the experience more beneficial for all involved.

    3. aedixon*

      Yes!! The internship placement office will be better equipped to help with this. In fact, they could’ve even decided to urgently place her in a different company as soon as this came up. I almost feel like LW needs to commit to giving a DNF grade rather than an F because it’s taken too long to decide this warrants a conversation and that’s not fair to the intern. It could be any number of things going on here from just a lack of real world experience bc of a sheltered upbringing to a health issue like depression or anxiety.

    4. TheMonkeyShuffle*

      Wholeheartedly agree! I have had many interns over the years, and a couple who were similar to the OP’s. Each time I pulled in the field liaison to explain what I was seeing & what I had tried to correct it, then we were able to tackle the situation together. I felt supported as a supervisor, and the intern was ultimately able to experience some growth during their internship

    5. Observer*

      Please get in touch with whoever runs the internship program in Lauren’s department, OP. They will want to know what’s going on with Lauren, and they should also back you up in communicating with her that her work is subpar.

      Yes. Also, it might be useful for them to think about what kind of preparation they are giving / not giving students. If they have changed the system this term, this could be related to what you are seeing as well.

      You can’t know from where you sit, of course. But this really could be relevant information for them in terms of how they run the program.

  5. Volunteer Enforcer*

    Oof. This intern could have been me. I have autism and a decade of work experience, but mostly in volunteer and casual jobs. So my current job has been an intense ramping up in navigating the social pieces of work. I had just about got by but needed explicit, detailed instructions on how to be proactive etc. in an appropriate way without formal structure. Please do this intern the favour of explicit details.

    1. Juniper*

      I have autism and ADHD, so I also totally understand what Lauren might be dealing with. If she’s taking courses at the time time, or just generally overwhelmed with learning, it’s hard to explain the shit down that happens. I went through grad school honestly feeling like I wasn’t retaining everything – like enough to get by, but I was constantly in a state of overload. That I had a supervisor who’d give me extremely explicit direction helped. I feel like a lot of people soften it cause they don’t want to be mean. And yeah, if it involves a bunch of criticism it might sting but will ultimately help me cause at least I can’t work with it. It’s harder for me when someone is not spelling it out because I don’t know what to do with the information. I’m like “uh ok and… what am I supposed to do with that?” Sometimes it’s like I see 5 possibilities and genuinely don’t know what to choose OR it’s something about, idk, how I engage in meetings… well, social interactions aren’t my strong suit. Telling me to reflect on it is not going to help; just tell me what I did and what you want to see different.

      1. Stuckinacrazyjob*

        nod. sometimes I’m quiet because I have an idea but have no idea how to translate it into corporate speak! A newbie might have just worked retail where nobody cares about your ideas…

      2. Kay Wham*

        I agree. I find that this type of feedback is not helpful, and I think this comes back to strong management/supervision skills where being able to quantify what you need to see from a worker is a skill that many in leadership/supervision roles don’t have.

        1. Kay Wham*

          To be clearer, I mean that the “reflect on how you are coming across in social interactions” feedback is not helpful. While I don’t have any diagnosis in the ASD/ADHD domain, it puzzles me how anyone could make sense of this sort of feedback.

          On the receiving end, at least to me, this feedback sounds like “guess what is in the minds of your team-mates/work colleagues and adjust your behaviour accordingly.” Like, okay? Given that we are having this conversation, please give me the benefit of the doubt that I have tried to do this and it isn’t working? I want to do what is expected but that’s going to be a lot harder and inefficient if I do not have a clearer sense of how I am not meeting your expectations.

          I’ve had very limited management experience, and most was in an academic setting (its own country unlike many businesses) so I do not know how well I’ve performed as a manager for others…mostly I have tried to use what I appreciated from other bosses. But I like Alison’s advice here to be much more explicit and concrete about what needs to happen for this student to improve their performance.

          1. Juniper*

            I think you’re right that feedback like “reflect on how you’re coming across on social interactions” is awful advice regardless of diagnosis. It sort of assumes we’re all holding the same criteria for what’s normal or that we realized that we accidentally dominated a meeting for too long; like let’s assume that the person didn’t realize they were committing a snafu and just spell it out!

    2. L*

      I feel this. My anxiety and ADHD don’t help, either. It was so much easier for me early in my career to just duck my head and do the work I was assigned but little else, because the thought of doing more made me panic because I thought I wouldn’t be able to follow the process or improvise. I still struggle with this and would rather work like a robot: program me with the details and directions necessary, and I will comply without protest. The only thing that’s helped me is experience and very slowly using the details I have to work out the bigger picture stuff. Once I get that, I’m able to contribute more ideas to the group.

    3. Sloanicota*

      I admit, I thought “I was probably exactly this kind of intern.” I was working multiple jobs, some for pay and some for credit, I was caught up in personal drama, and I was sick of being in school. I wouldn’t say it was OP’s fault or even that there’s so much OP could do for this intern. I realized the office environment wasn’t for me and I needed to shift gears to field research for a while, that’s what I gained from my internship.

    4. MumtoASD*

      I was wondering about that, as my oldest is on the spectrum. He will do whatever he is told to do, thoroughly and well. He’s incredibly conscientious and reliable – when he knows what to do. But he CANNOT extrapolate to what else he should do, once the assigned work is done. If you spell out to him what the expectations are and it’s concrete, he can succeed. He’s intellectually brilliant, but his ability to take initiative is very lacking – simply because he thinks entirely in specifics, and can’t generalize.

      1. MumtoASD*

        ETA – if you have an example of what SUCCESS looks like, by all means use that. I used to tell my son’s teachers to give him examples of what GREAT looks like, so that he would know what standard to aim for.

        Eg. if you’re expecting the intern to come up with a project idea, give her some topics to start with and an example of what a good project proposal looks like, so she can model her work on that.

    5. Pdweasel*

      Same. I spent a lot of time in medical school and residency being reprimanded for “not taking initiative” and “not showing ownership” of my casework…but whenever I’d decide to go ahead with something (even if I’d seen it done hundreds of times before), inevitably this would be the ONE TIME that whatever test or stain I’d ordered wasn’t actually needed. Can’t win for losing.

    6. It Actually Takes a Village*

      Late-diagnosed Autistic with ADHD here and I also cringed reading this. Currently in tears reliving all the times I failed all these unspoken, unwritten expectations in school and work despite my intelligence, skills, education, and talent. Always that person never living up to her “full potential”.

      Please, please, please be explicit but kind about what you expect and realize that this person likely has skills that most don’t, that will be constantly disregarded because she doesn’t have the skill of being able to “take initiative”.

    7. AnneSurely*

      Same. Some of the most frustrating feedback I’ve received in the past from supervisors is wishing I’d be more proactive. I’m specifically thinking about one former job where I was an objectively high performer, often helping other co-workers with their work if I was caught up and they were behind. I’m still not sure what was meant by suggesting I could be more proactive, and didn’t have the confidence or insight at the time to ask for specific examples where I could have done better. I have my suspicion now about things that would have counted as being “more proactive”, but they were things that I had never been trained or instructed to do, and didn’t know could have been improved because nobody told me directly. I’m so frustrated for past-me, because the people who wanted me to do those things differently could have also been proactive and addressed it before an annual evaluation?! (I also think it might have been one of those things where supervisors were expected to have some sort of constructive criticism / areas for improvement on the evals of their employees, and that it wasn’t a big deal but literally just something vague they could think of to put in that spot. I wish I had been reading AAM back then, so I could have had the perspective I do now.)

  6. Gunther Centralperk*

    Have you tried to teach her how to come up with objectives or given her examples or the types of work she can ask for? Early in my career, I remember saying that I was fine with whatever my manager wanted me to do. This was a combination of being too afraid to want/ask for something and not knowing what was within the realm of possibility. What if I failed? What if my ask was unreasonable and made me look unprofessional? I also just didn’t understand my own strengths – I needed a lot of help from managers to say to me “you seem to be good at X, so I’m going to assign you to Y to develop these skills”.

    1. JMals*

      YES, THIS.
      I had a retail background and didn’t have much of an idea of what was actually open to me or what types of things I could tackle in my first internship. For me, it wasn’t so much about taking on too much – I just didn’t know what to do and needed some steering to open my eyes as to what was available.

      1. Ally*

        Yes, this, exactly.

        Lauren is probably just nervous and, and she’s not sure what she’s ALLOWED to take initiative on. Or she’s assuming she’s not allowed to take initiative on anything.

        She probably thinks staying back and being unobtrusive (so, not annoying) is the best way to quietly observe and learn while not being a burden. This is the way some of us are taught our whole lives to act!

        I had a similar situation as a student nurse, and my trainer kept getting exasperated and saying things like “look, you’re going to be registered nurse soon!!” but I had absolutely zero clue what she was actually asking me to do (which I now think was, “take more initiative, push more.”)

        I like Alison’s advice- it’s not saying she needs to work harder, it’s giving her the confidence to know she’s ALLOWED to work and to think independently and to take responsibility for things.

        But please don’t say this like you’re telling her off for “slacking”, I really don’t think she is. She is probably trying her hardest. She just needs help to mentally reframe her position and to gain some confidence.

    2. The New Wanderer*

      I think this would help her out a lot. It sounds like the types of things the OP seems to be looking for are really open-ended. Give her examples of learning goals that make sense for your field – she probably just has no idea where to start. The more examples the better. She might not be asking the right questions because she simply doesn’t know what she doesn’t know.

      Same thing with “you should be proactive” – I can make a lot of work for myself being proactive (and have done) but if I don’t know that it’ll be useful to anyone then that’s not always a great use of my time. If I were an intern, I’d definitely need help to understand where and when it makes sense to be proactive and like Alison says, explain what proactive or creative looks like.

    3. Lavender*

      I agree with this! This might the first job she’s had where she has any agency over what work she’s assigned, so she may be used to just doing what her manager says. The first time I had an opportunity in my career to say, “Actually, I’d really like to work on [x],” it felt like an overstep even though it wasn’t.

    4. CRM*

      Same for me! I was conditioned to think that taking initiative and asking for stuff (especially career development) was almost disrespectful. It takes a while to be conditioned out of that, and I think many internship supervisors don’t understand that you need to demonstrate what that looks like instead of just expecting it. Initiative in the workplace isn’t always inherent, but it can be a learned skill!

  7. Daisy-dog*

    I think you may be too open-ended in your questions. I know that has worked for past interns, but that is just not how Lauren thinks! Give choices/examples of answers to your questions. I am the worst when it comes to answering open-ended questions when I don’t really know what the answer is supposed to be.

    I am also not great at expressing enthusiasm in ways that others sometimes expect.

  8. T.N.H.*

    This is why internships are such an important part of the transition from higher education to work. In school, you mostly aren’t taught to be proactive. I wonder too if Lauren is different from other interns in more ways than this, like if she’s a first gen student etc. Family of origin teaches so much of these “soft” skills that she may have had no opportunity to learn (or she could struggle with picking them up for another reason, such as neurodiversity). Being overly explicit could really help her.

    1. Hannah Lee*

      It wasn’t internship related, but years after I graduated from undergrad, it finally dawned on me that I could have reached out to my professors a lot more than I did, like I could have dropped by to their office hours or scheduled a time to meet with them to ask questions, get direction on a project, bounce ideas off them … not just about the class, subject, but about my college, education, career path in general. I was like, “oh, man, that would have helped … a lot!”

      I knew how to be a good “heads down” get the work done student, to show up to class and participate in class. I just had no idea I could reach out, and that it was actually expected that I would touch base with my instructors outside of class hours … I felt that I was somehow imposing on or bothering them if I stopped by their office hours. If someone had explicitly said “this is what’s expected, this is what you should be doing, this is what most students will be doing, and this is the kind of support you might get if needed” it would have made a world of difference.

      Something similar may be at play in some internships.

      1. Stacey Day*

        This was me too, but I think a big part of this was being a first generation college student and just not knowing what the norms of college were—that there were so many opportunities that I was not aware of.

      2. My Cabbages!*

        I missed out on so many opportunities because I always thought if you were deserving of an opportunity someone would tell you so, so if nobody told you to apply you obviously weren’t worthy of it.

        1. KTB*

          Oh…I don’t think I ever expressed that sentiment in words, but that’s certainly how I felt (and still try not to feel) about it!

      3. Ally*

        Yes! this is so true when you look back at all kind of situations (study, early jobs, different clubs and groups and connections etc).

        This letter is honestly making me reflect on my whole life. Are other “passive” people having the same thoughts?!

        (It’s barely breakfast time here, too early to be reassessing my whole youth!! The coffee hasn’t even kicked in).

  9. Cobol*

    I just love this advice, but can I add that LE didn’t actually give any evidence that Lauren isn’t passionate about the cause. Based on everything else she may just be not demonstrative. A quiet burning passion is just as much of a passion as anything else.

    1. ecnaseener*

      I don’t see this letter as about how Lauren does or doesn’t emote, more about how she doesn’t demonstrate a commitment through her work. The reason people look for “passion” is because it can translate into behaviors like taking initiative, caring enough to try again if your first attempt fails, generally doing more than the bare minimum – none of which Lauren is doing. So it doesn’t matter if she has a quiet burning passion or not.

    2. Peanut Hamper*

      Except the letter isn’t about passion. It’s about not taking initiative. You can take initiative without being passionate (that’s most jobs, in fact), and you can be completely passionate without getting the job done at all.

      passion ≠ passive

      1. Cobol*

        Except that LW writes “ My field is one that most people enter out of a passion for the work” “allow her to feel safe asking questions and expressing opinions” “all of my previous students have been thrilled to be here”

        The indication is that’s not how they view Lauren. It’s a very common way for “extroverts” to describe “introverts”

        1. ecnaseener*

          Asking questions and expressing opinions aren’t the purview of extroverts. They’re essential behaviors in all but the most mindless worker-bee jobs (which I think we can assume is not the job in the letter)

          1. Burger Bob*

            Yes, of course. But this is something introverts often experience with their instructors (speaking as an introvert myself). The instructor views them as less engaged, less driven, less proactive, less whatever, simply because the introvert is quieter and not asking as many questions. I have had former professors even say that this is a lesson they had to unlearn when they started teaching. They started out thinking that the students who were really smart and interested were the ones who were talking a lot in class, but they came to realize that many of the quiet students had just as many engaged thoughts going on in their minds. They simply weren’t vocalizing all of them.

            1. ecnaseener*

              So maybe Lauren needs to learn how work and school are different. Because I really don’t think this translates to a work environment. If she’s not contributing, she’s not doing the work, doesn’t matter how much she’s absorbed.

              1. Cobol*

                But you’re saying introverts need to fight their nature to become more extroverted. I’m not going to argue in comments, but this simply isn’t true

                1. Celeste*

                  As an introvert, I would say that it is true, in certain situations.
                  And this is probably one of those situations (if introversion is in fact part of the intern’s issue – we don’t really know.)

                2. ecnaseener*

                  No, what I’m saying is what I already said: Asking questions and expressing opinions aren’t the purview of extroverts. If a person has to “fight their nature” to ask a question at work, that doesn’t make them introverted, it makes them painfully shy. We aren’t talking about public speaking like in the previous letter, we’re talking about an intern failing to contribute ideas or take any initiative.

                  So yes, if Lauren is failing to do these things because she’s painfully shy, regardless of whatever quiet burning passion or secret genius she has bubbling under the surface, she needs to push past that shyness and contribute in order to pass the internship.

        2. Peanut Hamper*

          “most people” does not indicate that passion is a requirement. It’s simply something that most people exhibit. You don’t need passion to take initiative.

          It’s clear from the rest of the letter that this intern is waiting to be told what to do, when that is the opposite of what they need to be doing. Passion is irrelevant. You don’t need passion to get the TPS reports out if that’s part of your job.

          1. Cobol*

            Correct, and that’s what Alison said, and the advice I loved. What I also noticed is that the letter writer made reference of Lauren not being passionate, and I commented that part may not be true. Lauren does need to be proactive. Does need to ask questions.

        3. DisgruntledPelican*

          Only if they don’t know what an introvert is (and from your comments, I don’t really think that you do either)

          1. Cobol*

            I’m not sure I understand this feedback. I was using shorthand for introverts and extroverts, hence the quotes.

  10. Michelle Smith*

    Make sure she brings pen and paper to the meeting to write these expectations down so they can be referred back to once she’s back at her desk. Some interns don’t know that you should bring stuff to write down things to every meeting, so I’d warn her in advance if it’s not something she normally does. Good time to learn this too.

    1. Take notes*

      Such excellent advice.

      The number of times U’ve had mertings with interns who didn’t bring a pen and paper to the meeting…

  11. I should really pick a name*

    Please be very clear about what is required for a passing grade.

    Is she getting the work that you assign to her done?
    Are there specific things she is supposed to learn, and is she learning those things?

    You’ve mentioned a number of things that might warrant a low grade, but not a failing one:
    – Completing tasks to an uninspiring standard. Is it still an acceptable standard?
    – Not telling you her learning goals and interests
    – Not having a preference of projects

    You say the focus is learning creativity and critical thinking skills, and the things listed above don’t really seem to be a part of that.

    The only potential failing issue I see is that she’s not keeping you up to date on her workload which means she might not be getting as much done as she should be.

    1. Gerry Kaey*

      I agree with this. I’m honestly a bit perplexed how these issues rise to the level of failing her, especially when it seems like she’s never been told these less tangible/harder to define qualities are an essential part of passing her internship. To me, this scenario reads more like the LW seriously dropped the ball on the education component of the internship than any massive failure of the intern herself.

      1. Falling Diphthong*

        I would view it along the lines “an unmotivated but grudgingly obedient high school student, placed in the internship because their parent insisted, would produce similar work.” Someone doing post-graduate work should be distinguishable from that standard.

        1. I should really pick a name*

          I missed that it was post-grad degree they were working on. I’d hold to a higher standard in that case, though I’d still have consideration if they hadn’t done any internships/jobs before this.

        2. Gerry Keay*

          yeah I guess I’m just not really picking up on that “grudgingly” part that other people seem to be responding to — to me, the letter indicates someone who’s pretty agreeable while generally pretty apathetic.

          I also think that since this internship is mandatory, there’s every likelihood the intern didn’t get to choose their placement is genuinely unhappy with it for any number of reasons and is just doing their best to get through it. I guess that doesn’t really change the advice, just more reason for the LW to be incredibly explicit about expectations.

        3. Lorac*

          Master degree programs can still be very similar to Bachelor programs, just with classes focusing on more advanced subjects. Not all of them are independent research heavy either; for some it’s just more memorization.

          Of course if they’re a PhD student, that’s another thing.

          1. allathian*

            Yes, indeed. It does depend on where you are. I have a Master’s degree, but no Bachelor’s, because I applied directly to a Master’s program. When I wanted to study abroad in my third year, I got an intermediate certificate that I’d passed enough courses for the Bachelor’s degree that my university didn’t offer. They changed the system in the early 00s so that you do a Bachelor’s degree first, and only the most motivated students with good grades continue to do the Master’s.

            My only internship with study credit I did when I’d completed all my courses and only had to write my Master’s thesis. I had to write a paper on my internship and get it signed by my manager, which I then handed in for study credits.

    2. LCH*

      If you never have (since there was no interview process for this internship), I would talk to Lauren about WHY she wants to go into this field. Since it requires passion or at least interest beyond money, she must have an answer. So why is she in the field, what does she want to do in the future. How does she think she is going to achieve getting there?

      Like, it really sounds like she doesn’t understand that you don’t just get the degree, then have a career. There are some more steps in between. This can help direct what to focus on during the rest of the internship.

      1. WoodswomanWrites*

        This is a fantastic suggestion. The letter writer already did “ask about her learning goals or interests” and “she has none or seems to make up a generic answer on the spot.” By instead asking Lauren why she is pursuing this field and what career she wants to have after grad school, then you can work backwards about what activities and goals in the internship will build her skills for that outcome.

  12. Anonymous Koala*

    I’m not sure if it’s something you can actively encourage as a manager (and it’s doubly hard when you’re remote), but I learned how to be a successful intern by watching other interns and how they interacted with managers and staff. Is it possible to introduce Lauren to some other current interns who are doing well in your environment?

    1. Lorac*

      Yes, sometimes interns might be too intimidated to ask the manager questions, especially if they’re worried about bothering them/wasting their time. If they have a peer they can ask “dumb” questions to, or someone they can mimic while picking up norms, it can be very helpful.

    2. Shirley Keeldar*

      Yes, this! I noticed OP mentioned working remotely and I wondered if that meant Lauren didn’t have other interns to observe and learn from (so useful!). If she’s intimated about asking her boss questions, somebody more at her level might be invaluable. Is there any peer mentorship kind of thing that might help her? Even if it’s just “Feel free to ask so-and-so questions if you’re not sure what to do; she’s been here a while.”

  13. Artemesia*

    My first GA was a doctoral student who was amazing. I was tasked with developing a new applied psych course for doctoral professional students and it was a field where I was generally qualified, but needed to do a lot of specific boning up myself. So it was a big job to develop a weekend course for professionals that was academically strong and usefully applied. This Grad Assistant would research the material I gave her and come back with vetted resources, summaries and identify the strongest ones — it made it so easy for me to use what she did. And when I was developing the syllabus and the lessons (weekend course require a lot of curriculum construction — you can’t lecture for 8 hours straight and have it be productive for anyone) she was great at providing feedback.

    Then I got my second GA and although the tasks I needed help with were much less daunting, she consistently produced shoddy work. It was as if her thermostat was set to mediocre rather than excellent. With an intern of GA you want their best work as a jumping off place to refine. It took me awhile to adjust my management to use people who were not as amazing as my first GA. They often took more trouble than they were worth.

    I agree with Alison that your job here is to teach this intern to be professional and what it means to take responsibility and produce good work. Not that fun.

    1. Ally*

      Yes, a lot of work and probably not fun, but kind of rewarding if you can show someone how the working world can work, right?

  14. Lavender*

    You mentioned that when you ask her what her goals are, she hasn’t been able to give you a concrete answer. Speaking from personal experience, I often have a hard time answering those sorts of questions on the spot—even if I do have an answer in my head, for whatever reason I always start second-guessing myself in the moment. It may be a good idea to give her more time to think about her answer and articulate her ideas. You could say something like, “In order to get the most out of this internship, it’s really important that I know what your goals are so I can help you achieve them. Before our next meeting, I want you to come up with three (or however many) concrete and specific learning goals, and three specific things you can do here that will help you reach those goals.” It might help to give examples of what concrete/specific goals look like: “I want to learn more about the teapot industry” is too vague, but “I want to eventually work in a role that involves designing and assembling teapots” or “I’d like to work on a project here that will help me improve my teapot painting technique” are actionable.

  15. animaniactoo*

    I disagree with a few pieces of this. Specifically:

    • Don’t give her a time to do the update. That is taking all the management of it off the intern’s plate. DO tell her what an update looks like, and how often you expect to receive one. “Once a week, I expect you to give me this info.” “When you finish a project or have hit a roadblock on another project and are waiting for more info, I expect you to reach out and let me know that.” and so on. “I may sometimes ask you for the status of a project if I need more current info than what you last gave to me. But I shouldn’t have to regularly ask you or chase that information from you, it should be flowing to me, regularly, so that I have a general idea of that status at any particular moment.”

    • “It’s great that you want to be a team player and do whatever I need you to do. Part of what I need you to understand is that doing the work that you like the best or are most interested in is part of what I need you to do. If I give you a choice of three projects, I need you to pick the one you want to work on. If I just needed you to work on one project, I would assign that project to you, not give you a choice.”

    • “You don’t seem to have much in the way of goals, and this industry is very self-motivated. It’s okay not to have specific goals, but you definitely need to have specific skills you want to develop, and types of jobs that you want to be working on. ”

    “Given the lack of this kind of initiative on your part, I am wondering if you actually want to be doing this kind of work. That’s a question I’d like you to think about and get back to me on in a week or so.”

    1. Fluffy Fish*

      I think this might be a bit harsh for an intern. Especially since OP hasn’t been very direct to date.

      The last two would probably make me cry especially if I was given no real indication that I wasn’t passing muster.

      This is someone who is floundering at functioning to a high standard in a workplace. Work is very different than school and I think more people need to have some sensitivity to that. Just expecting all students, regardless of background or how their brain works, will understand what initiative, proactiveness, inspiring level of work doesn’t seem fair.

      There’s a lot of letter that come in about problems with interns and new employees and they usually boil down to employers having expectations that they haven’t explained.

      1. coffee*

        Yeah, also for the last question, what actually happens if the intern comes back and says they don’t want to be doing that type of work? Probably nothing good in terms of them passing with a good grade, right, or at least that’s what could be assumed, and they will have to pay in time and money to redo their internship if they fail.

        So then what you’ve actually said is “In a week, I will expect you to perform enthusiasm to my satisfaction, or there will be negative consequences.” How does that help? Is that the best way to teach them?

        1. DocVonMitte*

          I had the same thought. As an autistic person, I’ve been told a bazillion times that I don’t seem happy or enthusiastic or dedicated, etc (into infinity) because I’m not PERFORMING those things “correctly”. I’m feeling those things but can’t convey them. Those IMO are the wrong aspects of this to focus on.

    2. MsM*

      Yeah, I’m also wondering if there needs to be some kind of broader, nonjudgmental conversation about whether Lauren actually wants to be here/in this field. There must have been something in her application materials/interview that got her the position over other enthusiastic candidates, so has something changed, or has she been going through the motions for a while now and isn’t really sure how to get herself off this path when she’s already sunk so much time and education into it?

    3. Lavender*

      I think the specific time for the update could be useful, at least at first. It seems like Lauren needs very, very specific goals right now, because she doesn’t seem to have a strong enough understanding of professional norms to make even a minor judgment call on her own. If she starts to show improvement, then at that point it might be worth dropping the weekly deadline and giving her a bit more flexibility over when she sends updates. Make sure she understands what kind of content needs to go into the update and why it’s important, and then start giving her a bit more agency over how she manages her time.

    4. It Actually Takes a Village*

      This is so harsh. We’re talking about interns. A lot of what you’re describing are skills that people learn over the course of their work experience, not stuff that people are just born with!

      Especially if they’ve never worked that specific kind of job before, or maybe with different kinds of people. School especially can be very rigid and prescriptive and not necessarily a great place to develop initiative and proactivity.

    5. Little Dog*

      “Given the lack of this kind of initiative on your part, I am wondering if you actually want to be doing this kind of work.”

      I don’t know if there is as straight a line there as you are assuming. Doing a job, any job, involves technical skills and non-technical skills. Even if you love folding scarves, a technical skill, you may not love having to stay on top of who needs scarves folded, which is a non-technical skill. You might prefer that someone else comes by and says, “Let’s fold scarves.”

    6. Ally*

      I think this is a bit harsh!! On my read, Lauren is just nervous, and unsure of what she’s allowed to do, and unsure of what “initiative” can even look like.

  16. Julie*

    This could’ve been me when I was an intern. I remember getting horrible anxiety around my supervisor. I remember one criticism I got was that I wasn’t passionate about the field. That one really hurt me. I couldn’t think of future goals because I was so focused and so anxious about finishing the school year. This was a first time supervisor, and she really needed a lot of guidance around what was expected of an intern. There were things she needed to teach, but she never did. I felt like she didn’t care and that I couldn’t ask her for help. It helped that there were other interns I could turn to, and the school had to step in near the end of the year. Im not saying this is your situation, LW. I’m wondering if you asked your intern questions about other things and shared something about yourself, if that would make you seem less scary and more personable. Maybe you could point out that you’ve noticed how they don’t respond to something and you’re wondering how you can support them.

  17. Aspiring Chicken Lady*

    Ask her what her goals are for the internship. Does she even know why she’s doing it? There are three parties involved with this partnership and she’s a crucial player.

    Pull out the school’s description of internship expectations, and whatever would be as close to a job description for what she’s doing now (or would be doing after graduation), then talk to her about how the internship is designed to get her to point X.

    And then explain how she’s being measured, and where she stands.

    Internship needs to aim the participant toward professionalism. If she’s still in “what’s my homework assignment” mode, she’s not there yet.

    1. Angrytreespirit*

      Agree 100%. It seems like students are just being told “this is how you pump up your resume” and the student treats it like a homework assignment, just as you say, and then everything they do for the internship is like a paper. Do it, turn it in, and sit back till the next one comes along.
      I don’t accept interns anymore for this reason. I can’t work with people who need the most basic things explained to them. My last and final intern did not understand that “enter the data” meant “into an excel spreadsheet”. A college student! In a special program!! I can’t keep up with my own workload – retraining intern after intern to complete a small part of that workload (poorly) does not help me at all.

      1. VinnyVinnie*

        It might be true that some students are doing internships for resume building only, but it doesn’t seem true in this case; after all, this is a postgraduate student in a mandatory internship as part of her program. It’s usually well known when you join those programs that internships are a part of it. OP didn’t say in what field they work in, but Masters in social work (to use an example that I’m familiar with) require internships, and it’s clear from the outset that this is a requirement of the program. You cannot graduate or get licensed (if you are doing clinical SW) without successfully doing these internships.

        Now, I do think students in mandatory internships don’t always realize they can fail–to stick with the social work example, a friend is an LICSW and often supervises interns as part of her role. The one intern she’s failed in her almost 10 years of doing it was shocked when it happened (despite many warnings) because he didn’t think she’d actually go through with it as it would mean he couldn’t graduate school.

        It’s my impression from friends/loved ones supervising interns in the social work field that since so many people join SW to follow their passion for a specific issue in public health, it can be jarring when you have to supervise a graduate school intern who lacks the initiative and passion to do effective work, and has no stated goals or passions when it comes to the work. I think something similar to this is what’s happening here: the OP is not used to having to motivate an intern even if she is used to correcting/skill-teaching, and the intern seems to lack the motivation to engage with the internship in a meaningful way. And depending on what field the OP is in, being that passive is probably a quality that would keep the intern from succeeding. At least in community health, that type of passivity will definitely keep you from being able to advocate for patients in the ways that are needed to actually serve them.

      2. Irish Teacher*

        To be fair, I am a college educated profession and that “enter the data” instruction is one I could well get confused by. It’s the sort of thing I overthink and if I am nervous (which a new intern probably would be), I would be very likely to get confused by something like that.

        1. Burger Bob*

          Yeah, maybe there’s some important context missing there, but I would never personally just KNOW that “enter the data” meant “into an Excel spreadsheet.” O_o

          1. Pierrot*

            Same! I have lost track of the number of data entry platforms I have used in various jobs and internships. Most of these roles had multiple different data entry platforms for different purposes. If I was told “enter this data”, I would probably ask for clarification unless I was told at some point “We enter all of our data onto Excel.”
            And I’m assuming that at some point the commenter was told this too. I agree with the gist of the comment in that if a person does not have the capacity to give some explicit instructions to interns, either due to their work load or patience level, it’s best to not work with them.

            1. Ally*

              I was thinking the same thing, I have two college degrees and didn’t even use excel until a couple of years ago (10 years after graduating). I guess this person was in a field where it was more obvious, maybe?

              But I think we blame students too much- you can’t know what you don’t know.

            2. Emmy Noether*

              Yes! Usually just opening a new empty spreadsheet and thinking up some way to enter data is not that useful. I’d expect there to be at least some kind of template, or a format or example to follow if there isn’t a dedicated program. Else every intern will come up with their own way of entering data, every file will be different, and that’s not efficient or all that useful in the long run.

            3. rusty*

              Same here! I’ve entered data into any number of spreadsheets, databases and systems. ‘Enter the data’ means zip without any context. You do, in fact, have to be clear about where in the heck you want that data to go.

  18. Jane*

    I’m guessing there are college professors reading this post who are not surprised at all to hear what is happening with this intern because they see this attitude in a small (not so small??) proportion of their students all the time. I’m not a professor at all, but I’ve overseen interns at my company a number of times, and I think some of the not-so-great ones ones bring their college mentality to the workplace. What I mean is that a proportion of them try to do the bare minimum on their internship, similar to their approach to their studies. That means they don’t really care about improving or trying to be a stellar performer. As a workplace manager, that is hard to understand because most of us are used to employees trying hard and wanting to do well. I still totally agree with Alison’s advice about laying it all out and being blunt, but at the end of the day, there’s a decent chance someone like this might not improve to a satisfactory level.

  19. Lorac*

    I was that intern and it didn’t help that I came from both an immigrant and blue-collar background and my school successes came from being studious and receiving good grades on assignments with clear grading rubrics. I absolutely floundered elsewhere because I had no guide or background knowledge to draw on.

    It would help to give lots of examples and show them what previous interns have done. When you talk about setting goals, you can mention what past some interns did and show them their work if possible. It might even help to show them example email reports from previous interns wrote just so they can orient themselves and get an idea. They might start of blatantly emulating, but over time as they grow comfortable, they’ll start asserting themselves.

    Sometimes when you enter a new situation, you have no idea what is normal, what is expected or reasonable. Especially it that awkward situation when you’re a student who’s still used to being lectured at and told what to do, and you are acutely aware that any work you turn out will be sub-par or worse than an actual professional. It helps to see that you aren’t expecting perfection, and you’re not being set up to fail.

    1. Stuckinacrazyjob*

      nod. my parents went to college but are boomers so you just got a job. That paid you money. And they trained you. I’m sure the management had secret expectations at those jobs but still!

  20. Ursula Vernon*

    Consider formatting it in a rubric. I realize that’s more academically formatted than a workplace thing but as a student I loved rubrics and was very thrown off when they suddenly disappeared from my life. I went from being a very good student to being a not very good worker but felt like I was thrown in the deep end without any floaties. Throw her a floatie.

  21. chellie*

    I remember a time that I was Lauren. I was in a graduate program with lots of professional experience and still. Looking back, the challenge was that I used to providing or managing direct healthcare/social services and was interning on a grant in a university type environment. The academic program involved a lot of critical thinking and I did well. In hindsight, the problem was that working with this program/this grant funding involved swallowing a large serving of “this grant is SO innovative! our work is SO important!we are so (much) smart(er than you)” Koolaid and I just couldn’t stop seeing how that broke down. The actual project I was doing was totally unnecessary…it was replicating something that was already being done (well) and pretending it was innovative or even possible. It was a followup to another project which, while well intentioned and had some initial good outcomes, disappeared with never another word due to lack of funding. I knew enough to know that these were Things That Must Not Be Said, but I just never could work through the absolute lack of insight that all of those people seemed to exhibit about their work.

  22. Scottish Teapot*

    I really think you need to cut kids a bit of slack. Most of the kids doing internships at the moment were in senior school during Covid. For at least two years they have had to navigate school/ early college years with little or no interaction with others. So for me, mentors have to be really clear about expectations and understand that they haven’t had the same opportunities to learn about office and work norms

      1. Devo Forevo*

        Yes, there’s a huge difference between an undergrad and graduate internship and I think that’s getting lost in a lot of the comments. You are in the program because of the real world experience you’ll be getting through the internship!

        1. Bunny Lake Is Found*

          Right, but the issue then is not “cut Lauren slack and pass her despite her current performance” it’s “cut Lauren slack and provide her with an actual learning experience on the professional expectations of the field, not just bemoan that she isn’t as proactive as she needs to be.” Even at the graduate level, the internship is meant to bridge the gap between the classroom and the work environment and it seems like LW is expecting Lauren to already have the professional instincts she is specifically in an internship to learn.

  23. used to supervise student teachers*

    This sounds a lot like student teaching rather than an office. I used to supervise student teachers, and a lot of them acted this way. They didn’t always realize that this was the time for them to become more hands-on. They needed to be told.

    1. Irish Teacher*

      I think the school culture makes a huge difference here too. In the school I am working in, we tend not to have this issue at all. Most of our student teachers show a lot of initiative, including doing stuff like signing up to do a demonstration on our open night (had I been teaching in a city school where open nights are a big thing when I was a student teacher, it would never have even occurred to me that student teachers would be allowed to do such a thing!), organising extra-curricular activities, etc.

      This has not been the case in most other schools I have worked in and I think a lot of it is down to the degree to which student teachers are integrated as a part of our staff and encouraged to make suggestions.

      This probably isn’t the case in the LW’s intern’s situation as other interns don’t seem to have had a problem taking initiative but it might be worth considering whether there are any aspects of the culture that might be inhibiting the intern.

  24. Little Dog*

    I’ve been through two graduate programs and in the workforce for well over a decade, and frankly, I don’t have goals. For example, I’m working on designing teapots right now and I’m good with the transition into assembly, but if a rice sculpture opportunity came along that I thought was cool, I’d jump on it. You’re the boss. You know what the work is. I don’t. Tell me what the needs are, and I’ll tell you which ones I’m competent to take on.

    Maybe LW needs to give up on this whole “tell me your goals” line of inquiry and start handing out assignments. An intern might not have the experience or judgement to know what she can take on, so just give her something and start teaching her critical thinking within the framework of whatever assignment you pick.

    1. cosmicgorilla*

      Right? It’s a mandatory placement. Her goal is to complete the placement.

      Sounds like LW expects the intern to just have boundless enthusiasm for this role. I’m thinking of my early days of professional working, when I would not have had any ideal of goals, or the enthusiasm LW want. My goal was to get the job done. My goal was to get a paycheck. I didn’t have any idea of learning goals until I was better established in my career.

      Some folks are proactive, initiative takers. Some are not.

      1. Madame X*

        This is really unfair to the letter writer. Nowhere in their letter did they say they expect boundless enthusiasm from the intern. They expect the intern to show an interest and to produce good work, that would allow them to pass this internship. They are invested in this, intern, being successful in this internship. However, it seems like this intern, is not interested in wanting to learn the skills needed to actually be successful. Or perhaps the intern is floundering and they don’t know how to communicate that. The letter writer would be doing them as service by providing more detailed guidelines for how to approach this internship so that they can get the most out of it.

        1. Little Dog*

          However, it seems like this intern, is not interested in wanting to learn the skills needed to actually be successful.

          I think that’s kind of unfair to the intern. It might be true, but from what the LW shared, it doesn’t sound like LW has had the conversation regarding what those skills are. What does being proactive look like, for example? I don’t see where LW spelled that out for her intern. How does critical thinking apply, where in the creative process, what are the questions the intern should be asking? I don’t see any mention of that conversation, either.

          It’s like Alison said, some interns need technical guidance, some interns need non-technical guidance. Maybe LW isn’t equipped as a manager to give non-technical coaching, idk. But before we conclude anything one way or another about the intern, the LW should try out some coaching on goal setting, maybe lead the intern through a goal setting exercise so they come up with something together instead of just saying, hey, tell me your goals, and waiting.

      2. Storm in a teacup*

        However it seems from what the LW has written, successful interns before have been proactive initiative takers and that is what she is looking for. This intern is not meeting that spec.
        To a degree this could be coached / trained but I don’t think it’s a bad thing to want this trait if it’s something the role / organisation requires.

        1. allathian*

          Yes, and if that’s true, the intern hiring process needs to be fine-tuned at the very least, to eliminate candidates like this intern.

    2. Little Dog*

      Just for clarification, I’m not bragging, nor am I lacking in ambition (or salary). I just … don’t set goals. When people ask, I make something up that sounds good bc I know how to play the game.

      For people who do have really specific goals, what do you do if your employer decides there is no business need for you to learn that software or that other person’s job? What happens if some opportunity that isn’t on your goal list comes up? Just sounds like a recipe for frustration to me. Maybe it’s specific to my industry, but I like the flexibility that being open to whatever opportunity comes along gives me. I probably wouldn’t even be doing what I am doing right now if I were stuck on some goal that somebody made me write down.

      For example, I never set painting teapots as a goal, it just happens to be the work that I found when I was looking for work. Assembling teapots is not a goal of mine, either. It just happens to be that transition to production is the next step after design. If my company prefers to assign the transition to production to someone else, that’s ok, too. I don’t have rice sculpture as a goal, but it’s a thing that we do at my company in addition to teapot design that I find cool and that I have the skills to work on. If I do some rice sculpture, cool. If not, that’s also cool, there’s also llama grooming, porridge programming, or any number of other things. It’s all good.

      And we just finished our review cycle, and I got a raise and bonus, so, ya know, I’d say my approach is working pretty well. YMMV.

      1. allathian*

        Yeah, I hear you. I take this a step further, I don’t even make detailed to-do lists, because if I do, I get frustrated when I have to reprioritize. We have a ticket queue, so when I’m done with one task, I take another from the queue. Which task I pick depends on several factors, the main one’s urgency, and sometimes just on which task I most feel like doing at that particular moment and what my coworker’s working on. Sometimes I’ll take a quick, less urgent task at the end of the day because I do my best work in the morning and don’t like leaving things half done if I can help it. But we trust each other not to cherry-pick, both of us do both simpler and more complex tasks. Thankfully our preferences also don’t align exactly, he loves doing some of my least favorite tasks, and vice versa. We try to accommodate that as far as possible. Luckily we have a hands-off management culture, our manager couldn’t care less who does what, as long as everything gets done on time.

        If something urgent comes up, I can pause a lower-priority task for a while to get the urgent one done, and it’s been working well for me so far. I’ve received excellent feedback from my internal clients and I’ve just completed my performance evaluation with flying colors.

        That said, I’m not particularly ambitious. I’ve been working for my current employer (government) for 15 years, and I have another 15-20 years to go before retirement, and as long as my working conditions don’t deteriorate to the point of being unrecognizable, I’d rather like to stay where I am. So far I’ve advanced from IC to senior IC, and there’s no room for further advancement unless I’m willing to go into management. I might consider being a team lead if a position like that opens up, but I’m not interested in being a manager.

    3. Burger Bob*

      Agree. I wouldn’t even know what to say if someone in a mentor role to me started asking me what my goals were. I don’t have any particular goals. I just want to know the expectations for the job and come in and do it. And yeah, it seems a little over-optimistic to me to expect that all the interns who come through a school-mandated internship are going to have a good idea of what the work is like, what the culture is there, and what the expectation is for them. Some people want interns to basically function more or less as an independent employee, a full-functioning member of the team (who just happens to not be earning as much for their work). Others expect interns to mostly sit back and learn through observation. Lauren has no idea what the other interns before her have been like or what exactly LW is wanting from her. It seems like LW is flabbergasted that Lauren hasn’t just intuited these things, but it’s not strange at all to just honestly not know what is being expected of you as an intern or how you’re even allowed to engage.

    4. Alanna*

      I agree with this. (My grandboss asked me for my hopes and dreams recently and I basically said, I have a great job, I want to be really good at it, and then if I get bored, I’ll figure out the next step.) Some people have a 10-year plan, but lots don’t, and not everyone has a clear understanding of what skills they need in order to achieve even shorter-term goals. This is true of talented and seasoned professionals, let alone students.

  25. CRM*

    This was seriously me as an intern. The biggest criticism I received after my first internship was that I never took initiative and I wasn’t proactive enough. But they never once asked me to be proactive or explained what that looked like, they just expected it of me.

    The first issue was that I had no idea what it meant to take initiative in the workplace. Before my first internship I worked as a farmhand, cashier, and research assistant. Those are extremely task-based jobs where your performance is evaluated solely on how well you can do exactly what your boss tells you to do, and any type of initiative was generally met with disinterest and “just do your job”. So I thought it wasn’t something you were supposed to do.

    The other issue was subject matter expertise. My degree was in environmental science and my internship was for an environmental conservation organization. I knew a ton about environmental conservation – to the point where I designed and completed my own entirely independent research project for my senior thesis (which, by the way, required a ton of initiative and discipline!!). I deeply understood the organization’s mission and the area they served. But I knew absolutely nothing about running a volunteer program, how to develop fundraising materials geared towards specific donor groups, or grant writing – the subjects they had me focus on an an intern. So I couldn’t take initiative on those topics until I learned more about them, which I didn’t have much time to do in a 3 month internship.

    Maybe something else is going on with your intern, OP. But this context is something to be mindful of.

    1. CommanderBanana*

      I feel like I’ve worked for many more bosses who were annoyed or irritated by people coming to them than vice versa. I still have a lot of anxiety about just ‘stopping by my boss’s office’ because of how many people I’ve worked for who were visibly irritated when I needed their time or were always so invested in looking busy busy busy that they somehow never had time to meet with their subordinates.
      Personally I loathe managers who claim to have an “open door policy,” because 1. it’s a cliche and 2. it puts ALL the onus on the person with the least power and 3. tells your direct reports exactly nothing about how you like to be kept up to date or what to do when they need your input.

  26. Not your typical admin*

    It sounds like she has needed a lot more guidelines. I had two internships in college. The first one was great. The person in charge sat down with us when we started and asked us our specific interests and goals. He then gave us specific assignments and goals and showed us areas where we could exercise creativity. He also was really good with writing out specific tasks for the week and telling us what upcoming projects needed to be discussed. In my other one, I was the very first intern they had. My manager would ask me what I wanted to work on, but I found that hard to answer because I didn’t know what kind of things he would be okay with me doing.

  27. Purple Jello*

    If she’s not taking the initiative, you definitely should give concrete examples of what you want and expect.

    For example, “type this letter to the sales team” could also mean:
    – format it to meet company style guidelines and/or look good
    – proofread it
    – does it make sense? Flow well? Any inconsistencies?
    – make sure everyone ‘s name is spelled correctly, compare to the company directory
    – fact check
    – independently verify all numbers
    – check the math

  28. kjack*

    Might it also be worth having a conversation with Lauren about whether this is a field she even wants to work in? Obviously your mileage will vary a lot depending on how specialized a field your in, but if an internship is a requirement of her program and this is what she got, that may not mean that this is what she wants to do or what she has a passion for. This of course doesn’t negate Allison’s other advice regarding work expectations but if she’s doing the work as assigned but isn’t taking the initiative that you expect because of how enthusiastic others were in her place, she may be in this position.

    As a completely anecdotal example, when I was in grad school, I had a summer internship lined up that I ended up having to cancel (the internship was across the country from where my family lived, and I rather unexpectedly had to return home due to a family health emergency). Not only did I have to line something else up last minute, but it was in a related but not exact field, and I knew within about two minutes of my first day that this was not the field or the work I would be doing in my career. That said, the internship was a graduation requirement, so I sucked it up, but I doubt I was particularly enthusiastic or even much of a go-getter that summer.

    Additionally, maybe this is a field that she thought she wanted to work in, but doing the day-to-day tasks has shown her that she doesn’t enjoy this kind of work, and that’s a valuable conversation to have too. At this stage of her education, changing fields can be incredibly daunting and it may be contributing to her lack of initiative.

  29. BellyButton*

    Thank you, Alison, for telling OP that they need to give concrete examples. “being proactive” is the goal- but what are the behaviors that successfully lead to being proactive. So many times people give the goal but fail to give the specific behaviors and some people just don’t know or think what they are doing is meeting the goal.

  30. please take your time*

    There are a lot of people chiming in to basically say they relate very strongly to the intern so I’m just joining the convo to say that I relate more to OP and have always been the person who shows initiative in terms of pursuing my own learning/experiences at work. That comes from assuming that everyone else basically has zero interest in whether I grow/succeed/fail, so I have to take things into my own hands if I want to get anywhere–and even if I was unsure of exactly where, I’ve always wanted to get somewhere. When it comes to my competition, I haven’t cared if they never figured out how to be proactive since it was just more room for me, but as I get further in my career the need to help interns and assistants be actually useful in their work does become more relevant. It’s really hard for me to understand the mindset of “well nobody told me that I should be doing this!” so I appreciate the explanations in the answer of how to walk someone through things that seem obvious to me.

    1. cosmicgorilla*

      Sometimes you don’t know what you don’t know. You don’t know what to learn because you don’t know what you should be learning, where to find what you should be learning, or how to learn it. It’s hard to take initiative when you don’t know what that looks like, when you’ve always been in environments where tasks were handed to you to complete, or a path was laid out for you. Honestly, it’s a bit like asking an introvert to start extroverting hard, with the difference is that critical thinking can be taught to most people.

      I’ve always been impressed by folks that had a very clear vision, because this was not the case for me when I was younger and early in my career.

      1. allathian*

        I’m an introvert, but I can fake extroversion at work at least to some extent. Even in a culture like Finland, which traditionally is seen as very introvert-friendly, being unfazed by small talk is a necessary skill in the vast majority of jobs.

        I’m a chatty introvert and not at all shy anymore (I was shy when I was a kid and up to my late teens, working retail and joining my high school drama club helped a lot), but I find being around people, even when I don’t have to interact with them, very draining. So I’ve chosen a job where I don’t have to talk much and most communication is by email or on Teams. I enjoy being around people, even if it drains me, although I’m very grateful that I can WFH most of the time (2-3 days at the office per month).

        But I do agree with you that it’s unreasonable to expect people to take initiative when they don’t know what that looks like. Most will learn when they’re shown what it looks like.

    2. Little Dog*

      It’s really hard for me to understand the mindset of “well nobody told me that I should be doing this!”

      Tbh, the type of initiative I took early in my career, I now understand was cringeworthy and ineffective. I think people, ie, managers to early career employees, *should* walk them through what they should and, perhaps more importantly, should not be doing.

    3. Rowan*

      If you have been consistently punished for taking initiative and consistently rewarded for being quiet and task-focused, it’s difficult to suddenly reverse that set of habits, let alone intuit that it’s needed without at any point being told so.

  31. Ellis Bell*

    I really like the advice to give examples of ideas social media interns have done in the past, because Lauren needs to be shown as much modelling as humanly possible. Right now she’s still in Victorian schoolroom mode where ‘there is one correct answer and way of doing things’. If you want her to go off-road, she needs to know what that looks like. If you want her to chat about her goals, chat first about how you reached yours and chat with another colleague in her vicinity. The key thing is to show individuality in your responses. If you want her to get excited about projects start with giving her examples of one that excellent intern A did well on, and then one excellent intern b did well on and ask her to do something similar for c. Right now she probably doesn’t even know she’s allowed to have an opinion. It needs to be shown, not told.

  32. Justin D*

    I was never an unpaid intern but from what I understand the point is learning, not doing work. You’re approaching this like she’s your employee but she’s really just supposed to be learning.

    1. MsM*

      Not really. You don’t necessarily expect an intern to have all the skills you’d expect from a full employee, but you’re still giving them actual work to do: not just practice assignments.

    2. Yoyoyo*

      I have been and supervised unpaid interns and the point is to learn THROUGH doing the work (eventually, once trained and having observed others).

      1. Little Dog*

        Yes. Whether paid or unpaid, internships involve doing work. The emphasis on learning for internships that are part of a scholastic program is to avoid having them spend the entire summer doing nothing but making coffee and photocopies. It doesn’t mean they observe and take notes, like they are in a class.

        All jobs involve learning by doing work (ok, I am sure there are exceptions). Even in retail, you learn, say, that scarves on display need to be folded a certain way when your manager tells you to fold the scarves a certain way before putting them on the display. And you learn how to fold them. Entry level office workers are also learning by doing work. Heck, as a seasoned worker, I am *still* learning by doing work.

      2. It Actually Takes a Village*

        Right, but it’s still too much to expect an intern to come up with their own work to do! Especially if a person is conscientious and aware, they’ll know they don’t necessarily have all the information, skills, and knowledge to suggest projects for themselves that would also be beneficial for the company or organization. So they’ll just wait to be assigned the next piece of work.

  33. anon for this*

    I don’t have any good advice, but if you do find a good solution to tap into what Lauren wants/needs/is thinking, PLEASE come back and share!

    I am going through this with an adult dependent right now and it is SO frustrating. I say, Be proactive, look for things that need to be done and do them, and I give examples – she picks ONE example, does exactly that and only that, and then disappears.

    So I’d love to hear back about anything at all that may work for you!

  34. Looper*

    I can imagine there’s concern of seeming like a micromanager, but interns are not the same as employees and likely do need a lot more oversight and point-by-point instructions than an employee. At the end of the day you’re their teacher as well as their manager and you absolutely know how your industry works and how to do their jobs better than they do, so don’t be afraid to share as much as you can.

  35. JobHopper*

    Haven’t read the other comments yet, but I would suggest a checklist or a rubric (can you tell I am a K-12 teacher?).

    Conversely, you could ask her to make a list of the steps she needs to do to accomplish x or y to see if you’re both on the same page.

    If they match up great! If not, you can show her where to add other steps.

    1. I heart Paul Buchman*

      I did two internships, one at the height of WFH COVID restrictions. I found the WFH one near impossible. A lot of taking initiative as an intern is making connections with people and then taking opportunities when they offer them but when you WFH there is no real way to do that. There is also no way to watch others and ask questions/ request resources you see them accessing or ask to join them to observe meetings. I found my WFH internship was more of another uni project with no clear direction. It was a very dispiriting experience. The in office internship had so many more opportunities for learning and growth.
      How many genuine contacts does your intern have in the office? People they could casually message to ask questions/talk things through? If it is just you, that might be part of the problem. can you imagine how inhibiting to productivity/creativity it would be to have to ask your boss every little question? (Hey boss, sorry to interrupt but how do I find the Pensky file on SharePoint again?)

  36. Em*

    This internship sounds pretty loosy goosy. When we have interns we always have a very specific plan that they work through. Each week or two changes with a new project or department. Expectations are laid out very clearly with instructions. Deadlines are pretty concrete.

    I had one internship where I was asked what I wanted to do. I honestly didn’t know the first thing about their responsibilities beyond the obvious. It was an extreme waste of 16 weeks of my life where I didn’t even know I could ask for more. I am not saying that is the situation, but I do wonder how clear OP is being with intern.

    1. ThatGirl*

      Yeah, I mentioned my experience with an ad agency internship above. Part of it too was that I literally didn’t understand what the actual work entailed beyond a vague high-level understanding. And yes, I know now that I could have and should have asked more questions — but I also think they had some responsibility to like, introduce me to the business and industry and see what I already did or didn’t know.

      1. Em*

        I agree 100%. I was a first generation college student. Came from poverty. I did not understand professional norms–LIKE AT ALL. I also had no one to refer back to that it was weird. I only understand how useless it was in retrospect and I work hard to ensure that my interns have a very different experience than I had.

        I also came from a service industry so pleasing my bosses was important. I would also say I can do whatever you need me thinking I was being helpful instead of unmotivated.

    2. Burger Bob*

      Yeah, and interns don’t always know what role you’re expecting them to fill. Is this an internship where you’re expecting them to mostly observe and complete some “practice” tasks? Or is this an internship where you’re expecting them to basically behave like a fully incorporated employee? If they don’t know their place in the hierarchy, they’re not always going to guess correctly. (And frankly, for me it’s hard to fully integrate myself with the team like that if I know I’m only there for a few months.)

  37. Alan*

    Since no one else has raised this, it could be that Lauren is struggling with depression or other mental health issues. I have seen this in coworkers who inexplicably seem to just not care.

    1. Popcorn*

      I thought the same. My longest internship—and first one in an office setting—saw me through a period during which I was desperately trying to keep a cheating, alcoholic partner. (They had a *very* cool career.) I was an absolute wreck. It definitely did not help that I also had undiagnosed ADHD.

  38. Quickbeam*

    For my BS in Criminal Justice, I had 3 semester long paid internships within the 3 arms of the system (penal, enforcement, judiciary). The university worked with the government agencies for feedback and skills acquisition. I paid for credits and was also paid for the work. I learned a ton. I was expected to be a functional junior member of the team.

    When crafted well, it’s an unbeatable experience. I appreciate that Alison is outlining concrete steps to help the intern achieve success.

  39. Gnomes*

    I also want to point out that this whole internship is apparently remote. I don’t know about everyone, but I’m terrible at forming relationships, communicating, and generally operating in remote environments to the same level of engagement and passion as I am IRL. I know some people flourish in remote environments. But some of us really don’t (if I never had another zoom meeting in my life that would be fine with me, but alas…). And if this is not only her first experience with professional work, but also with remote work, I could totally see Lauren struggling. So I guess… what are you basing all this begrudgement on? Her lack of passion? Some team message chats? I’m wondering if you’ve actually met her in person? Or is it only video chats? I absolutely hate video, I do much much better on straight up phone calls.

    Failing her would be a very very big deal. So I think you need to get really really clear on what exactly it is that she is failing at. Because to me, it sounds like she is doing everything you ask, she just isn’t being the bubbly cheerleader you want. And it might be that what you actually need to train her on is how to feel connected and part of a team while doing remote work. Then… maybe teach me.

    1. Somehow_I_Manage*

      I didn’t catch that in my initial read, but I wonder if OP’s previous interns were in-person and this is their first cycle in a remote environment?

      There’s really no way around it- managing entry level or intern staff remotely is more work. They can’t network without your help to connect them to the rest of your organization. They miss out on opportunities to learn by observation. And you miss out opportunities to passively keep an eye on their needs.

      1. starsaphire*

        It’s not entirely remote. The LW mentions that it’s “mostly remote” and also that Lauren observes her working.

        I’m far more concerned about how the LW mentions Lauren giving up after the first try, not doing a great job on the projects she completes, and failing to respond to a direct and plain request to let LW know when she’s done with what she’s working on, so that she can be assigned more tasks.

        I don’t really feel like Lauren’s very present in this whole situation, tbh.

        1. Bunny Lake Is Found*

          I feel like I cannot fully embrace LW’s assessment of Lauren’s actual work product because of the use of the phrase “uninspiring”…is this just a language flourish by LW and Lauren’s work is not good, or does she literally mean that it’s just boring, standard and uninspiring?

          Or that she gives up on things on the first try…given the lack of guidance from LW, I can’t tell if this means LW tells Lauren to “Organize all the Llama files” and:

          a) At some point when LW thinks Lauren should be done with the Llama files LW says “Hey, Lauren, where are we at organizing the Llama files?” and Lauren says “I tried, but I can’t make the software work.” or
          b)Lauren is coming to LW and saying “I am working on organizing the Llama files and I can’t make the software work, can you show me how to do it?”

          The difference obviously being that (a) is Lauren actually giving up and showing no initiative, but (b) could still feel to LW like Lauren, rather than trying to figure out how the system works on her own, is “giving up on the first try” by coming to LW at the first sign of any roadblock. But I would argue that, to most people, (b) isn’t a problem and it’s on LW to be clearer with Lauren that this isn’t acceptable to LW, but that (a) would universally be Lauren failing to meet basic requirements (like telling someone when you are stuck with regards to a task they assigned you).

    2. cosmicgorilla*

      Hi Gnomes,

      Here are some potential suggestions for you.

      Set up recurring individual meetings with your teammates. Maybe every other week, maybe once a month. Keep them short, but use them to ask questions about their current projects, or even just socialize.

      Do you have regular team calls, or are you just out there on your own? Team calls can help. It also helps if once in a while, that team call is purely social. There are plenty of options on the internet for games that are work-safe and would function as ice breakers.

      Take extra time to add in the social niceties (if you aren’t already doing so) when you reach out to someone about work. I’ll be honest, I don’t always want to respond when someone asks, “Hi cosmicgorilla, how are you?” over chat. Just tell me what you want, already! But it can help with the relationship-building.

      You don’t want to set up meetings for everything, but sometimes a quick call to go over a project or request vs email is better, and this also helps with that team feeling.

      You may already be doing all of these, but I wanted to share what I’ve seen be successful after years of working remotely.

      1. allathian*

        Yup, I agree on all these. I’ve been mostly remote for three years now, and more than half of my team have been hired during that period (two teammates retired, a few left for other opportunities, and our 15-person team expanded to 23), including my current manager. Networking and onboarding when you’re WFH requires more work to be successful, but it can be done. Although now that we’re hybrid, with some people working at the office almost every day and others, like me, working mainly remotely, everyone has said that networking and socializing is a lot easier in person. That said, our team’s also distributed, we have employees at 7 different offices, and some of those are the only members of our team at their office, so regardless of whether they’re WFH or at their office, they’re still remote. That’s why all our team meetings are on Teams, to give everyone an even playing field. Hybrid meetings are the worst…

        I have the advantage that I’m established in my job and I know the people I need to contact when I have questions. My team’s been very successful at onboarding both interns and employees, though. We currently have two interns, and they’re basically skilled enough that they’re doing the jobs of ICs, just for a lower salary. But we’ve hired several former interns in the past after they’ve completed their studies.

  40. Jessica*

    I think Alison’s answer is magnificent and digs into what so many of us need to learn: how to meet people where they are and show them the path to where you want them to go.

  41. Jam on Toast*

    I’ve spent my career in higher education. Not specifically experiential education but experiential-adjacent and everything that this intern’s manager is what I see on a daily basis in the university classroom. Never, ever underestimate how much your “easy” or “baseline” workplace task that you do automatically, without even thinking about, is actually tremendously difficult or requires multitasking and planning. You’ve just done X task so many times in your decades long working career that it’s now become background noise or only difficult if it’s X squared or X while you’re also doing A, B, C and D. This student may have never even realized that X is a task they need to complete as part of their future career, let alone thought about how to not only complete it but complete it at a level appropriate for the workplace.

    Some students will have the ability (naturally acquired or as a result of more privileged personal family background) to infer meaning or intent but most students don’t. And it’s rarely malicious. They’re just new and inexperienced learners. That’s why I have rubrics and I include sample documents for assignments and offer practice tasks and modelling of academic skills that they need to meet course learning outcomes. Unambiguously telling students “these are the specific skills or tasks do you need to meet the learning outcome and here’s what level of proficiency you will need to demonstrate” is literally part of my course design process.

    Imagine for instance, that you’ve always rented. You never even knew someone who owned their own house. And now, you’ve just been given a house and the owner leaves the keys in the mailbox and you’re 100% responsible for all of the tasks of maintaining it except *you’ve never done it before* and no one tells you exactly what you need to do to be a good homeowner. Your only experience with houses is in school, where you studied how houses are designed or the tax implications of mortgage financing or the history of domestic ideology in the 19th century. But would you know that you have to change the furnace filter every three months? Or know you need to plan ahead and buy a ladder on sale in August so that when the leaves come down in October, you’ll have the right gear to get up on the roof to clean the gutters? Probably not, right? Well, this intern is trying to figure out how to ‘maintain a house,’ too, only it’s their new job. They may honestly not know what they don’t know, or even that a task is suppose to be on their to-do list. So you’ll be doing them a real favour if you help spell out the tasks they need to complete, as well as explain the rationale and the process for completing them. Otherwise, as you’ve seen, the house may just fall down round their ears without them knowing it.

  42. Capybarely*

    Along side offering specifics for what “proactive” would look like, it may help OP and the intern for OP to identify some of the *why* behind those elements. Is it because OP’s type of work or workflow benefits from someone who is checking in at each stage? Is it because there’s an industry-wide expectation that projects get multiple iterations for review?

    Similarly with the “seems to give up” piece – while Intern definitely has growth here, OP can also give explicit context around the time/effort/quantity of work that’s typical for this task.

    I’m probably not the only one in the comments who got away with handing in first drafts throughout undergrad and even much of grad school… It was a harsh and necessary wake up call to be required to heavily edit my writing!

    It’s not (necessarily) OP’s responsibility to manage this level of minutae, but it may not be as much effort as OP is fearing. Intern might need that wake up in one or a few conversations, and then do the sort of work that OP expects.

  43. New Senior Mgr*

    This was a really thoughtful answer, AAM. I’m definitely using it in the future.

  44. Ruth*

    Post-grads like Lauren should know what their goals and interests are. That’s why one goes to graduate school – to specialize knowledge and skill. As such, it looks like grad. school might not be a good match.

    Ĺauren sounds unmotivated from what the LW writes, especially compared to other students. This seems a Lauren problem.

    1. Little Dog*

      Yes, one goes to graduate school to specialize in knowledge and skill, but since I’ve done that twice now, I can tell you: what you go in thinking will be the outcome is only loosely related to what actually is the outcome. Some people really do have a straight line from undergrad interests to grad work to a job. Many more have a more winding path where what they end up specializing in barely resembles what they thought their goals and interests were at the outset.

      Plus, your goals for graduate school over all and your goals for a specific job are not necessarily going to be the same. Lauren not having goals for this job that she has right now is not enough information to conclude that grad school was a poor match for her. We really know absolutely nothing about how she is doing in her graduate program.

  45. Buffy Rosenberg*

    Were the previous interns remote as well? Could that be making a difference? It’s difficult for some people to move from “school” to “professional” even when they’re absorbing it all day. If you’re not even around the culture, that wouldn’t help, would it?

    I love home working but for people starting out and learning professional norms, they’re really missing out on some opportunities and experiences.

  46. Ann O’Nemity*

    Is this an unpaid internship for a field like social work, where the student is required to work for free and pay the university for the credit hours?

    1. Pierrot*

      I went to social work school (and dropped out) and this does not seem like a social work internship to me, but I could be wrong.

  47. Been down before*

    As someone who failed out of grad school for personal reasons, I want to add one possibility that I didn’t see discussed: Lauren could be suffering from undiagnosed major depression or other psychiatric illness. It can be very hard to tell from the outside, and during undergrad I even refused to cooperate with a professor who recognized the signs before I did.

    I’m not saying that IS the case, but it should be part of the thought process since it requires vastly different solutions than the fact she might not understand expectations or how to work in a professional environment. It’s also not an either/or. Both could be contributing factors. If she truly is depressed (or you know anyone who might be) it can take aggressive intervention to help her realize that she needs help, and that it’s OK to admit it.

  48. Jennifer S*

    Great advice here! i have previously supervised a practicum student who had similar issues. We did the whole conversation that they werent at a passing level, and they expressed that they needed more structure- struxture in type of supervision, structure in how to plan their day and workload. since then I make a concious effort to discuss how to structure the practicums with my students to best meet their learning needs.

    1. JessicaTate*

      Agree. And I would add, use that process to make clear to your intern that part of this should be about them learning to eventually NOT need that structure. You can make clear that, while you can provide support now so that they can learn, they should be increasingly working toward doing more of that themselves. I’d tell them when they are looking at a job like X in this field, the expectation will be that they can manage YZ on their own and take initiative like you’re asking for here. (My assumption, based on LW’s tone, is that this is the expectation in the job the intern will be heading into. Clearly, it’s not true for all jobs.)

      I managed a relatively experienced employee in recent years, where we had to have the exact conversation Alison laid out about what I expected around initiative and self-management and “status updates”… including the, “if you don’t start doing XYZ, you will lose your job” part. I was shocked to have to do that for an experienced professional in our field, and wish someone before me would have given them that coaching.

  49. nnn*

    Thinking back to when I was Lauren’s age, the thought never would have crossed my mind that there’s anything wrong with what she’s doing. I would have seen it as Being Good – being quiet and undemanding, doing what I’m told, staying out of the way, not making a fool of myself. (It wasn’t until I was nearly 30 that I was even exposed to the notion that the rules of Being Good that I was raised with aren’t intended to be applicable for your whole life, but no one tells you when they’re no longer in effect!)

    Even now, as a seasoned professional who supervises interns myself, it wouldn’t have occurred to me that this would be cause for failing her – I would have seen it more as not being an A+ student. Different workplaces are different!

    So yes, as Alison says, have a conversation calibrating expectations with specific examples of what success would look like.

    For next time, the “calibrating expectations of what success looks like” conversation should come on the student’s first day, as part of onboarding and orientation. (I also like to include in onboarding and orientation “how this internship is different from your coursework” and “how this internship is different from other jobs you’ve had”.) And the ongoing feedback that the student gets throughout the internship should include “For this to be a passing mark, I’d need to see A, B and C,” or “For this to be an A+, I’d need to see X, Y and Z”.

  50. Chelsea*

    I am currently a C-suite executive at a Fortune 100 company, a role I got at 30 years old and I’m 32 now. But I was once just like this intern. When I started my career, I wanted to be very careful not to step on any toes, not to ask too many questions, not to annoy my boss or other superiors, and not to take initiative to do tasks for fear of effing something up. Of course now I have that confidence, and I run a department and team and manage numerous obligations, but it took a while to get there mentally. How did I get there? I had a boss who gave me tasks to do and wasn’t hard on me if I messed them up – he was just happy I was there and was handling it in my way. He wasn’t mad at me for not asking questions or taking on my work, and took my initial uselessness in stride! Maybe you can be that kind of mentor to your intern!

    Of course, this doesn’t work with everyone. Your intern needs to have hustle, and it needs to be a confidence thing only. If she really is lazy and slacking off during the day, then it won’t work long term. In any case, being supportive and building her confidence is probably the best thing you can do.

  51. Former Gremlin Herder*

    When I was an intern many moons ago, I was a bit of a Lauren. I was excited and worked hard, but I didn’t understand how to get the most out of my internship or that I could take charge of the experience. This wasn’t as big of a deal as it could have been since I was at a non-profit that needed all hands on deck for campaign related things, but looking back I wish I’d known going in how to be a good intern. I just knew an internship was something I was “supposed” to do, and I didn’t have any conceptions of it beyond that. If LW is able to impart any of that knowledge to their intern, they will be doing them such a kindness!

  52. El l*

    So while there’s a lot of possibilities as to what Lauren’s deal is – and it is completely on Lauren to figure out her deal – sounds like to me like somewhere in her background she was raised/trained to do what she was told. Initiative was strongly discouraged, and perhaps she was even told to be very literal in fulfilling requests.

    But between “getting used to the working world” and “you have to be more independent when working remotely” that just isn’t going to cut it anymore. I think telling her “you’re not getting a passing grade unless you do concretely ___ and ___ to meet values __ and __” is exactly what she needs to hear.

    I can’t promise she won’t be a drain going forward, and maybe she’ll deserve to fail. But that’s her best chance, and that’s the best you can do here.

  53. Anon For This*

    Ok, LW, I think you really need to soul search yourself a bit on this. On first read of this letter, I assumed the frustration was because you are expecting Lauren instinctively know how to perform to your standards without guidance. However, I believe there is possibly something else at play. LW, though you are framing this as Lauren passing/failing her internship, is your real concern that Lauren is setting herself up to be deeply unhappy in this field?

    There are fields that are vampiric for most people. You make no money, see good people hurt and bad people rewarded almost daily, and often feel like your job might as well be trying to stop the waves from reaching the shoreline. The only thing that allows people to do these jobs day in and day out is some internal drive and passion for the work– the rest of us would be drained of our lifeforce. Based on how you described your field, I wonder if that is what is going on. You see how Lauren isn’t showing any signs of this drive/passion and you know that this job is untenable without it.

    This comment thread is full of reasons why Lauren’s performance may be no reflection of if she has the internal spark to, not even excel in this field, but merely to cope in the long term. But if this is your concern, it is worth trying to find a way to convey to Lauren what the field is like and what helps sustain people through the difficulties (because as you noted, there won’t be an awesome pay packet to match the challenges) but without accusing her of lacking the passion to do it. It can be very easy in school to believe you want to do X because it is a subject that fascinates you, but it is a whole other thing to deal with the underbelly of X for 40+ hours a week for the rest of your life. That’s part of why the interns are there: to see what doing this work is really like.

    Also, though, trust Alison here, and if you see Lauren improving with more guidance, trust that maybe Lauren just never was in an environment where she felt she could express the passion she has for the field in such an active way before. And know that no matter what, the best thing you can do is give Lauren all the tools you can for her to succeed and enough information to know whether, even if successful at the job, if it is one that she would actually want to do.

  54. Anony738*

    I have to defend Lauren here as I have been in her shoes before. I also agree with the other commenters that the OP needs to give concrete examples of what success looks like. When you state: 1) You asks about learning goals/interest…she has none – as a new grad, oftentimes, maybe she really doesn’t know what is out there or is still exploring her career options. It may help to just expose her to everything and not have her pick a specific path being that she is still new to the workforce. 1b) Same with you asking her what projects she wants to be involved in. Are you sure she knows what projects are available to her? Also, she might not understand what kind of work she will get herself in if she doesn’t understand the scope of projects. 2) My boss says something similar to me …”Tell me when you need more work”. What you are saying to her, I often interpret when my boss says to me as, “I don’t know what you mean by that statement, because as an employee, I can and am willing to take on additional work any time. I am someone who never says no and will find a way to get it done.”

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