INTERNSHIPS: SLAVE LABOR OR SERIOUS LAUNCHPAD?


 

hello my name isJuggling 10 cups of coffee while trying to navigate a revolving door… collecting birthday cards for the client’s kid… coming into the office first and leaving last… not being paid.

 

Whether or not you’ve experienced any of the above, many will recognize the telltale signs of interning. Certainly any time I see an eager youth struggling with an abundance of folders, lattes or parcels, I automatically assume – intern. But, stereotypes aside, are these really the only things fresh-faced collegiate over-achievers have to resign themselves to when applying for internships? No.

 

I did two internships during college and both were awesome. I adored my teams, I learned a ton, and happily, I got paid! (And I’m not even saying this because Kari (Ms. Boredom to Boardroom) was on one of those teams!) I am, unsurprisingly, a huge advocate of internships. Setting aside the compensation issue for a moment, internships offer many of the benefits of college and working life simultaneously. They are brief (like a course, if you hate the one you picked, it will be over soon!). They expose you to the pace, relationships, and norms of office life – or film set life, or restaurant kitchen life, etc. And most importantly, they allow you to sample a real company that hires real people to do real jobs. They basically give you the keys and you get to test-drive a company.

 

Internships also carry fewer risks than school or a real job. No grades! No pressure to commit! Say you decide on day 12 of your Big-Four-Accounting-Firm internship that, despite rocking Accounting 201, you have no interest in being an accountant. No problem! You have full latitude to pivot to, say, an art museum next summer. This may be the only time in your life when there is really no downside to bouncing across different industries over a short period of time.

 

That said, if you do want to turn your internship into a permanent gig, here are a few suggestions:

 

  • Talk to everyone. This includes the secretaries, receptionists and mailroom staff. Start by asking your manager to explain the corporate structure to you – what each department does, how the reporting lines work, and some insights into the “corporate culture”. Ask for coffees to get one-on-one time with colleagues in your department, and every other department. (I prefer coffees to lunches or drinks – nothing to get stuck in your teeth, no risk of talking with your mouth full and no chance of getting tipsy too quickly.)

 

If the company is relatively small, you may be able to get individual appointments with the C-suite staff. Otherwise, seek out their number twos. These people have almost unlimited access to the key decision-makers and may also be less censored and more candid. In all of these chats, ask a few insightful questions, but then try to mostly listen. These conversations are opportunities for you to learn about the people and company you work for – not a platform for you to talk about yourself (there are plenty of other opportunities for that).

 

  • Raise your hand. (Remember, this is kind of like school!) Seek out new assignments. Take initiative. Don’t be afraid to ask for support if you’re struggling. But…

 

  • Ask smart questions. Don’t ask what time lunch is. Don’t ask how to calculate CAGR. Don’t ask where the best happy hour is. Unless you have neither a computer nor a smart phone at your immediate disposal, don’t ask anything that you could easily google.

 

Ask people about their roles, which teams they work with most and what systems they use. No one expects you to walk in knowing everything. They do expect you to pay attention and use your brain. People are generally happy to explain things to you. Asking good questions shows you care and you’re interested.

 

  • Determine where your work-life boundary is. It’s important to know how much you’re willing to share with colleagues. Do you want to accept their Facebook invitations? What about LinkedIn? Google+? Think about how much you are comfortable sharing about your weekend, your hobbies, your friends, your dates. There aren’t black and white rules on what to share – just be mindful of your personal preferences and get to know those of your co-workers.

 

  • Read the tea leaves. Could you work for this company on a long-term basis? Understand (by doing #1!) the opportunities for promotions and lateral moves within your company. Do they have other offices domestically or internationally? How often do people travel? Do you agree with the “mission” of the company? Do you like your assignments day-to-day? Do you like your colleagues? Can you learn from them?

 

While not rocket science, these five guidelines will definitely go a long way in ensuring you get the most out of your internship.

 

A quick word on compensation. It is important to understand the economics of an internship. Even paid internships are not well-paid. I had a great time interning in London and New York, but these roles were only possible because I had help from my parents and lived super cheaply. Internships offer a lot of intangible value that you should consider in your cost-benefit analysis. But, the benefits of an internship are undermined if you max out all your credit cards in the process.

 

It can be daunting to apply for and get an internship. Kind of like applying to college, there are a lot of unknowns and it is a lot of work. But, like visiting schools, it helps to take some time to get to know the place (company) before committing to go there (work for them). The difference is, unlike school applications, you can evaluate the company before deciding on the best match long-term. You can scope out the entire working experience in a few short weeks – getting to know your colleagues, the expectations, the corporate culture, the opportunities. But the onus is on you to make sure you take full advantage and come away with a clear understanding of how your internship stacks up against what you want to do in your career.

 

Originally from the US, Allyson is currently a junior banker in Singapore and has previously lived and worked in New York, London, and Dubai.

 

Talk to us! Did you do an internship? Are you looking for one? Leave a comment below.

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