For the inexperienced, a bad internship can appear insurmountable to say the least. Most interns start off wide-eyed with optimism, wearing their best sunbeam smiles, positive attitude at the ready.
Then the experience turns sour: there are only so many coffees you can make. There are only so many documents you can scan. What was meant to be a springboard to a top-notch career starts to bear an uncanny resemblance to your worst soul-sucking nightmare.
At their best, internships benefit both the intern and the hiring organization. The intern receives an opportunity to develop their skills and knowledge, and the hiring company benefits by receiving additional manpower – often for free.
When an internship starts to go pear-shaped, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that, in many cases, it is possible to turn things around – with lemons you can make lemonade. If your internship isn’t quite what you expected, if any of the following scenarios apply to you, here’s what to do:
1. You're Given ‘Dud’ Assignments
You approach assignments and projects you’re given with vim and vigour, determined to learn and add new skills to your resume. You’re keen to conquer your new challenge and add real value to the company’s business.
But then you notice that pretty much all the assignments you get are ‘dud’ ones, the ‘inactive’ ones that no-one seems to know – or care- about. Worse, you often spend months working on an assignment only to be told it’s not needed. You find yourself frequently feeling despondent and dejected.
If you’re given a lemon of an assignment, you may still be able to squeeze enough juice from it to make your lemonade. What situations have you come across as a result of the assignment? What were you trying to achieve? How did you evaluate your options? How did you select your eventual option? What progress did you make? What have you learned? All these questions are worth asking as they will make you more aware of how you have developed your thinking or skills. What’s important here is not the assignment itself. It’s how you’ve developed because of it that really matters.
2. You Are Engaged in Menial Tasks
The stereotypes about bad internships are many. Whether it’s fetching coffee or making teas, filing, or emptying the garbage, there is no end to the menial tasks that interns are wrongly assigned during their internship. If the work you do contributes nothing to your development, it’s time to request a meeting with your immediate supervisor.
It serves no-one if you spend the day staring into the distance or making endless photocopies. The whole point of your internship is to help you gain transferable skills for your future career; emptying the bins simply won’t cut it as ‘experience gained’ in the real world of work. If your internship does not enable you to acquire these fundamentals, take action - speak to your boss as soon as possible. But be tactful: express a concern about ‘not adding as much value to the company as you’d like’ – a coded way of informing them that you’re being underused. Offer ideas of how you can add value based on your skills and interests and explore these with your supervisor.
3. You’re Called “The Intern” by Everyone
Are you referred to as ‘the intern’ around the office? If this is the case, it’s likely that you’re not really valued (assuming everyone else has the privilege of being called by their real name), or you’re not treated as an equal in the office.
You and your coworkers are employed by the company to provide skills/knowledge/experience. As such, you should be treated with the same respect as every other employee in the organization, regardless of your particular role. If the disrespect you experience is limited to one person, speak directly to the person who has caused you offence: they will most likely appreciate the opportunity to rectify the situation. Alternatively, seek advice from someone you trust about how best to address the issue. If the disrespect is department-wide, discuss the issue with your mentor or supervisor to find out how best to handle it. If the situation is serious, for example if you are experiencing harassment of any kind, be it verbal, non-verbal, racial or sexual, and if you feel you cannot discuss it with your immediate supervisor, take it up with the company’s HR department. To pursue this direction, it’s important that you have concrete examples and dates to back up your case. The HR department should provide you with advice about the action you need to take.
4. You Constantly Face Unclear or Unrealistic Expectations
You get assignments, but feel frustrated because you have no idea how to approach them. Or you may feel that the expectations of the work required from you are unrealistic. More often than not, unrealistic expectations can be traced back to a lack of effective communication. And communication is key to securing better outcomes – particularly when it comes to how you address an issue.
Take the initiative and speak to your mentor or supervisor. Explain that you would like to ensure you bring as much value to the task as possible. Ask intelligent questions: what is the ultimate objective of the task? What are the different ways in which the task can be approached? Has anyone been involved in a similar task? What would success look like? Asking the right questions not only makes you look smart, but it will also provide you with the key information you need to accomplish the task. Be specific, measured and professional. Be honest, too: if you don’t yet have the experience to fulfil a particular task, say so, but express your desire to acquire the experience. Could you shadow someone, for instance? It may also be worth requesting weekly progress meetings so you can gain confirmation that you are approaching tasks in the right way. Taking the initiative, asking intelligent questions and monitoring your progress are all attributes of successful people; moreover, they are the key elements of turning things around in this scenario.
5. You Are Always Excluded from Meetings and Discussions
When it comes to work meetings and discussions, managers normally limit the number of participants for efficiency’s sake. If, however, you feel you would benefit from attending meetings, ask if you can attend purely as an observer. This is unlikely to be a problem for the meeting organizer and most people would have little objection to this. It’s important to make clear your reason for wanting to attend the meetings – ensure that you can link your attendance at the meeting to your furthering your development in some way.
If any of the above scenarios are typical of your internship experience, and none of the suggestions have worked, it may be time to reconsider the value of continuing with it. Sometimes the easiest option is to leave an internship. A counterproductive internship could set you back in your career, not to mention your sanity and self-confidence. There’s no value in remaining in an environment where you are not given opportunities to develop; where you are not listened to; where you are treated disrespectfully; where your personal values are compromised; and where you are perceived as being good enough only to do menial tasks.
Remember, though, that often a bad internship is also a learning opportunity. Moreover, retain your perspective: internships are only short-term experiences so don’t let a bad experience consume you!
Have you experienced an internship from Hell? What did you do to improve the situation?