Bringing Life to a “Dead End” Internship

Bringing Life to a “Dead End” Internship

“I spent my first week working the hole punch,” said Nadya. “I’ve got you beat,” said Derek. “My first week I simply ‘observed.’ A hole punch would have been fun!” Nadya and Derek are two of the many college students and job seekers starting summer internships this month. And like many, they have already found their internships may not be all they were cracked up to be.

You know internships are important for gaining experience and resume items. But what should you do if your internship doesn’t feel like it’s offering you much opportunity?

  1. Be patient. While Nadya feels her first week was not productive, she is just getting started. It’s possible her manager wanted her to start slowly and get a feel for things, or simply didn’t have time for deeper engagement.
  2. Observe with enthusiasm. While Derek felt his time spent observing was pointless, watching and absorbing are important parts of an internship. Listen to conversations, look around, take in everything you can and eventually the bits and pieces of information you are gaining will come together and become valuable.
  3. Offer to do more. When the time is right, offer to help in a bigger way. Even if it is just making copies for someone, show how useful and helpful you can be. As people get comfortable with your abilities and willingness to contribute, they will begin to allow you greater responsibility.
  4. Ask. While it takes time to be allowed to work on big and important tasks, you can ask to  listen in on meetings and strategy sessions, or to shadow someone working on something interesting. Sometimes a manager simply hasn’t thought to include an intern. When the time feels right, it’s OK to ask if you can be part of something.
  5. Seize opportunities. Keep your ears open and jump on the chance to do something. For example, one intern was in a meeting where someone was bemoaning the lack of documentation around a current project. The intern volunteered to create the documentation, a job most people dread. Doing the documentation allowed the intern to interact with almost everyone on the team and created a lasting positive impression. It all happened because the intern raised a hand and took on a job no one else wanted.
  6. Network. Introduce yourself in the lunchroom and the hall. Ask people what they do. Show an interest and make clear you would like to learn more. Eventually you may ask people to talk over coffee or lunch. Networking is a great way to get to know the business and will position you for future opportunities.
  7. Set goals. Mutually agreed upon goals are critical to a successful internship.  Often it works well to set them a few weeks into the internship when you have a better idea about what is possible. If your manager doesn’t speak to you about goals, initiate the conversation. You may say, “Here are some goals I have for this internship. Do they seem realistic to you?” Buy- in from your manager increases the probability that he or she will support you in reaching your goals.
  8. Communicate. Check in with your manager regularly. Ask how you are doing. Ask how you can bring greater value. Update your manager on progress toward your goals.
  9. Show a great attitude. No matter how “dead end” your internship may feel, always show a great attitude. Be willing to do whatever is asked. Be helpful, inquisitive and pleasant. Show what an asset you can be and your dead end internship will quickly find new life.

Derek and Nadya are both on the right track with their internships, just weeks after feeling they were going nowhere.  Derek was recently asked to drive an industry big-wig to the airport after a meeting, and he used the time to gain wisdom and insights about the industry.  Nadya was allowed to sit in on an important client presentation. She saw her hole-punching pay off when materials were presented, but also learned a great deal from being part of the meeting.

Tell us: Have you ever had an internship or job that felt dead-end but ended up yielding great experience? What’s your advice for making the most of a situation that doesn’t seem promising?

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