Hungry for a Great Internship? Know Where to Find the Meat.

Internships are considered a must-have for many college students (and even some high schoolers) looking for a leg up in getting a job upon graduation. They hunt to find them, compete to get them, and strive to multiply them–all for good reason.

Internships are real workplace experiences that build and showcase the job knowledge, skills, and behaviors essential to career success.

So why do so many complain about those internships once they’ve been landed?

  • The work is too menial. I feel like a lackey.
  • I don’t have enough autonomy.
  • There’s too much/too little/no supervision.
  • I’m left on my own to figure out what to do.
  • I do all this work and don’t get paid (or am paid a paltry sum).

Welcome to the business world!

There is often a misconception that, once you get a real job with a real title, all the work is meaty, independent initiatives are applauded, your supervisor is supportive, and the compensation commensurate with the work. Sorry this isn’t so, but internships can help you recalibrate your expectations.

Internship Lesson #1: Teach yourself to see and understand the realities of the work place and what drives it.

You can’t see what’s really going on unless you look. Too many student interns limit their focus to the work they are asked to perform and not the experience as a whole.

Initially, there’s good reason for that: the tasks are new to them and they want to do them well. That’s a good thing but not the only thing.

The real meat is between the bun.

Internship Lesson #2:  Learn what did or did not fit you about the company, the work, and/or the environment and why.

Your internship helps clarify what you need from a job to perform at your best and stay motivated.

That means discovering are how effectively you:

  • Handle ambiguity and too little/too much direction
  • Perform under pressure
  • Communicate with executives, managers, your boss, and coworkers
  • Overcome flagging self-confidence and self-doubt
  • Use strengths and overcome weaknesses
  • Make independent decisions and come up with new ideas
  • See your work in the context of the company’s big picture
  • Influence or take the lead when there’s an opportunity
  • Stay positive and avoid getting caught up in office gripes
  • Put knowledge and skills to use in the right way

You need to make your internship as much about discovering who you are within the dynamics of the job as you do about future line items on your resume.

Here comes the judge.

This week I served on a panel to judge internship presentations at a local university. The fifteen students in this six hour undergraduate course interned with major corporations like AT&T, Guardian Life, Allstate, Abercrombie & Fitch and small businesses including a restaurant, spa/pool company, law office, and long-term care facility. Most students were business and/or marketing majors.

The students who stood out were those who discovered the most about themselves while interning. One learned he didn’t want to be in law because he knew he couldn’t defend someone he knew had committed the crime. Another loved the company she interned with (they wanted to hire her) but realized she wanted to work for a large firm. Two other students surprised themselves at how effective they were talking to front-line employees as well as the company president, seeing how they were able to adapt their communications styles successfully. Others learned how it felt to own and defend their web design assignments.

Win-win internships

There are no bad internships unless you choose not to learn anything from them. Every business is fascinating in its own right. Each has a unique business model, leader-driven culture, performance history, cadre of employees, and customers/clients. No matter what your internship role, you are always in a position to observe, explore, and contribute. So whenever you can, take a big bite and savor the flavor.

Photo from Lego-LM via Flickr

4 thoughts on “Hungry for a Great Internship? Know Where to Find the Meat.

  1. Great article Dawn. A lot can be gained from an internship. I once hired a college grad for her first business job! Her expectations were unrealistic and I had to teach her how to work in a business. (She had worked in food service during her college years.) I wished she had at least one internship under her belt. Ultimately, after a few years, she moved on. I don’t believe she really enjoyed working in an entry level position but she certainly was more prepared for her next job!

    • What a great example, Kate. Knowing you, she got some priceless straight-talk about what it takes to forge a successful career path in business. You’re right, she could have gotten a leg up through an internship but fortunately for her, you refocused her early in her career. Not everyone is so lucky. Thanks, ~Dawn

  2. Coming from a person accused of “sampling the workforce” through college, I can tell you that your advice is so true. I had jobs and internships that taught me a lot about the “real world” that the professors kept warning me about, and I learned that I was living in the real world, just a different setting in college. Struggling to juggle all the responsibilities while competing for the proper attention and striving for perfection. the biggest lesson I learned is I require to I believe in the person for whom I work as opposed to the work because I can always fall back on that shared vision and goal when the monotony gets to be too much. I have all of this learning to attribute to internships because I had a six year head start on my fellow graduates. Thank you for your post!

    • Jason, what a wonderful testimonial from your own experiences. I love the value you extracted from all your internship experiences, particularly on a personal and strategic level. I always say that the most important question to keep asking in our jobs is “what’s really going on here?” When we stay tuned into that question and the answer(s) to it, we are better positioned to make the right decisions. Many thanks for your kind words and comment. ~Dawn

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