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Internship Pitfalls

By 2015-01-01

Summer is the time of great expectations and hopes for recent graduates and students looking for meaningful internships in giant international companies to gain a valuable working experience and make their resumes irresistible for future employers. Unfortunately, apart from all the mentioned benefits, internships can bring some unexpected disappointment.

Planning Council names three biggest internship pitfalls that can turn your dreams into ruins. Make a note of the following points to avoiding falling into an undesirable internship placement.


Intern Pitfall #1: “I’m bored! The people I am interning for never give me anything to do.”


Your supervisor is juggling so many projects that sometimes finding something for the intern to do gets bumped down the priority list. You can avoid spending your valuable time twiddling your thumbs, though.  One good way to start is to be reliable.  If you frequently miss your scheduled day or are often late, the people who are relying on you for help will stop saving projects for you. Another good habit to get into is to send an email or voice mail a day or two prior to your next visit. “Hi – just reminding you that I will be in tomorrow from noon till 4:00.  I’m looking forward to finishing up that inventory in the first hour so if you could line up a new project for the rest of the day, I’ll be ready for it!”


No matter what, at some point in your internship you will find yourself without a project.  In that case, do not simply start surfing the Internet, or texting your friends, or doing your homework.  Be proactive and ask your supervisor for a project to do.  If your supervisor isn’t available, go around the workplace until you find someone to ask for a project.  If no one is available, try learning more about the agency or business by reading the annual report or other materials that you can find around the office.  At the very least, the information you learn will help you better understand the mission of the organization and it might point you in the direction of some project you can undertake on your own while you wait for your next assignment.


Intern Pitfall #2: “My supervisor doesn’t answer my questions quickly enough.  I feel like I could be more effective, but I need answers in order to keep working.”


Make it one of your first tasks as an intern to find out from your supervisor how he/she prefers to communicate, then use that channel to keep in touch.  Some people prefer to communicate by email, others by voice mail, still others in writing or even in person. Don’t assume your supervisor will even see that text message you sent with an urgent question unless you have confirmed ahead of time that he/she even knows how to receive and send texts. Many will be okay with you coming in to their office with an urgent question, but be sure you don’t overstay your welcome by spending the next 10 minutes regaling them with the story of the movie you saw last night or the test you are taking next week.  A short, timely question will leave them appreciating your initiative in getting what you need in order to keep working. And don’t just walk out the door at the end of your shift.  Leave an appropriate message with your supervisor telling them how far you got on the project, where to find your work, and how to communicate with you if he/she has any follow up questions. Then, be sure to answer your supervisor’s questions quickly if any are sent prior to your next on-site visit.


Intern Pitfall #3: “The work I am doing is nothing like what they told me I’d be doing. It doesn‘t match my skills, and half the time it’s just busy work.”


Whether you are being given projects that you feel are beneath you, or that seem unconnected to your particular strengths, it is vitally important that you do your very best on each and every task. Do not fly through assignments you think are simple; too often this results in mistakes that cause your work to be unusable.  Even mundane tasks can be positive career builders if handled in the correct manner.  Before starting your internship, do a skills inventory.  List different tasks and experiences you would like to have as a part of your internship. Be sure to include not only professional skills you’re trying to develop, like designing surveys or conducting focus groups, but also more universal skills like designing power point presentations or learning excel. Rank yourself on each skill, designating whether you are already an expert and can perform the skill independently, or if you have intermediate skill but would appreciate getting opportunities to practice/improve, or if you have no skills but are interested in learning. A sample intern skills inventory has been uploaded to our Box.net widget that you can adapt for your own use.  Fill it out and share it with your supervisor at the beginning of your internship, if possible, so that he/she is aware of your own goals for your internship. 


Another way to avoid all these pitfalls is to keep a learning log.  Each day or week of your internship, take some time to reflect in writing on what you have accomplished.  Describe the tasks you were assigned and then list the skills you learned and used to complete the tasks.  Don’t forget to list the people you interacted with in order to complete your assignment and the teamwork skills required.  Finally, write down the lessons you learned and will carry forward to other parts of your life.  You can find a sample-learning log in the Box.net widget.  Use it and you might be surprised at what a great intern experience you are having.


The original article by Julie Whelan Capell “How to Avoid the Three Internship Pitfalls and Have a Great Experience”.



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