I’ve been running an internship program for 4 years now and was wondering how I could better prepare an intern during their onboarding for how to make the most of their time. I don’t recall getting any coaching when I was an intern and thankfully I was part of a great program that guided me through it, but otherwise I still kind of muddled through it.
I started googling things like “Internship Guide” and everything that came up was about the interview and getting the internship — but nothing about what to do after starting your new job as an intern. (Or maybe I just didn’t google the right things).
Now that I’ve been on the other side and have watched how different interns approached their internship, I’m pulling together the guide I wish I’d had 10 years ago.
While there’s tons of help out there about interviewing for an internship, I did want to drop the 2 most important things you should be thinking about.
What are you looking for?
While this may change over the course of your internship (and perhaps should!), it’s helpful to come in knowing the answer to this question. Are you dabbling in a career option? Are you fairly certain you want this career and want some experience?
If you’re dabbling, ask, “What are the opportunities to try different things here?”
If you’re serious ask, “What kind of work will I be expected to do?”
Find out is this a learning/teaching internship or a production internship?
Technically, in a true internship, the intern should gain more value than the company. Some companies approach internships as an investment and teaching/apprenticeship space and some approach internships as a way to get cheap labor. Ask “What is your approach towards internships? How much time do you usually spend with an intern? Who will I be learning from? What does success look like for an intern here?” Ideally, you’re getting a supervisor or a coach that is going to spend a lot of time with you so that you can learn from them. Look for a company that has a teaching mindset towards internships.
For me personally as a hiring manager, I invest deeply in internships not because I’m going to get incredible work produced, but because I care about young people getting the job experience and training in a safe experience so they successful at their next job where the stakes are higher. A great job well done is a bonus.
First 90 Days
During your onboarding, you’ll likely be given a ton of information (personally, I think it’s worse to get low information). The organization hierarchy chart, who does what, what software we use, what process we use, what our mission, vision, and values are, a huge list of acronyms, etc.
Try approaching it differently from school though — there’s not usually a test or quiz at the end of the week. I’m not expecting you to have it memorized, but I am exposing you to it so that you can find it later when you need to reference it.
Expect to be exhausted the first week. You’re doing a new thing and that’s hard.
Meet People & Be Proactive
Your internship should be an awesome opportunity to learn from people who are adjacent to your discipline.
Who should I meet with?
In design, that’s project managers, engineers, writers, etc. If you don’t know which disciplines are adjacent, ask your supervisor!
Also as much as you can, meet with leadership — your supervisor’s supervisor, a Vice President, an Executive Vice President, the President! One day you might hold roles like these, and it’s never too early to start learning about what leadership does and what you can expect of them.
You do not have to set these up yourself! Ask your supervisor to set up meet ‘n greets for you, particularly with upper level leadership. Ask anyone you meet with questions like:
- What are you working on lately?
- What was your path here like?
- What do you like about your job?
- What resources have helped you most?
- What do you find hard about your job?
- Where do you keep learning?
- What advice do you have for someone like me?
- What habits do you find helpful?
- Who else should I be talking to?
Learn Your Job by Asking Questions
One of the toughest things is transitioning from school work to…work work. And it’s especially weird when it’s an internship. You want to contribute and be helpful! But…you also don’t really know how most things work. As an intern supervisor, I know that, and I expect that.
You may find yourself blanking or stressing because you’re in a new environment and struggling to do things you have done before, but now you’re sure how to do them inside an organization. Don’t panic! Don’t be afraid to go to your supervisor and ask:
- How do I do this task?
- What’s a good way to start?
- Is there a standard way to do this?
- Why do you do it this way?
- I got started and tried this, am I heading in the right direction
- Can I watch you do it?
- Can you get me started as an example and I can finish it?
“When should I not ask a question?”
Generally, you should always ask. But if you find yourself re-asking a question more than once, start taking recordings, taking notes, and putting the onus on yourself to find a way to retain the information.
“But I’m worried about being a burden.”
My job is to teach you and yours is to learn! When you don’t ask questions and get help, you waste your time and this valuable opportunity. I tell my interns, “Don’t struggle for more than 45 minutes before contacting someone for help”. Write down what you’re trying to do, what you tried, and where you’re stuck. At the end of the internship, most interns regret not asking for help more often.
Remember, you’re here to learn
It takes time to settle in. If this is your first job, know that it takes 60–90 days to absorb everything and start feeling like you know what you’re doing. For a 3-month internship, that’s half of your internship! I am constantly telling my new interns that I fully expect it to be a little shaky feeling the first couple of months and that my job is to be their rock through it.
Whether it’s a 3-month internship or a 12-month internship, it’ll come to an end. About a month before it’s over (or 2–3 months if you have a longer internship), get feedback that you can use for the rest of your internship and grow in.
- What have you seen me do well lately? What skills & strengths do you see in me?
- What do I need to work on and what resources can help me with that?
- What is something that "I don't know I don't know" and should ask about?
- Who should I be talking to?
Hopefully there’s an exit interview, but if not, take some time to journal and reflect on questions like these:
- What have I learned about how I work best?
- What has felt life-giving? What has felt draining?
- What was my supervisor’s style like? How did that work well for me and where was it hard?
- What was the pace like and how did I adjust to it?
- What kind of organization is this and how did it suit me? How did factors like size, type of work, and size of team affect me?
- Where did I feel stretched and where did I feel comfortable?
- Was I fully remote, in the office, or hybrid? What about that was helpful to me and what was challenging?
It’s important to think about these things because this was a learning experience that should help inform you about what type of environment you should be seeking for a more long-term experience, not just a few months.
I don’t claim to have comprehensive or exhaustive advice in this, so help me make this better. Drop your thoughts and advice for interns in a response!
Did this help you?
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Ashley Crutcher is the Director of Experience Strategy at InterVarsity located in Madison, WI. She tweets at @ashleyspixels and enjoys cuddling with her furkiddos, crocheting/knitting, ringing handbells, and thinking too much about everything.