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How to make sure your internship is worth your time

Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images

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Earlier this month, we asked listeners for questions for Ask a Manager’s  Alison Green on navigating an internship. Now, as internship season approaches rapidly, she gives her best advice for how to get the most out of an internship. Below is a summary of her answers. 

What do you do about an absentee manager?

You can acknowledge that you know your manager is busy, but you’ve been left without any guidance or work for a while, and say that you really want to ensure that your time there is useful to both of you, and ask about getting more to do, Maybe even ask if there’s someone else there who could use you. Now, if your boss isn’t responsive to that then it’s okay to take the initiative and talk to other people there and offer your help. That said, some internships do end up going like this. If you got your internship through school sometimes there’s someone at the school who can help. But other times you just need to kind of learn what you can from the experience, even if it’s not what you were hoping it would be. Fortunately internships are usually pretty short.

What can you ask about an internship to know if it’s worth your time?

It is really smart as an intern when you’re interviewing to ask things like what sorts of projects you’ll be working on. What previous interns have accomplished what would make the internship a success. By the end of the summer, what do they hope you will have accomplished? And sometimes you’ll ask those questions and get blank looks, and sort of vague answers. So if that happens, that is a hint that this might not have a lot of structure. 

Not everyone can afford to take an unpaid internship. How do you weigh the career benefits of an internship versus the wages of a paying job?

It’s true that there are big problems with unpaid internships and not everyone has equal access to them. A lot of internships do pay though, so it’s worth looking for those. Or if unpaid internships are the norm in your field, try looking for one that’s part time, like only a day or two a week, so that you can supplement it with paying work the rest of the time. Internships do have a big advantage in that they can give you the chance to get your foot in the door in the field you want to work in. So if you can intern it’s smart to do it, but you can also look for other ways to get the experience an employer is looking for, like volunteering a few hours a week or organizing a project on campus or through a class. But also I really want to stress that for students and new grads, any kind of work experience is helpful. So people who can’t afford to intern shouldn’t worry that it’s the kiss of death for their careers because lots and lots of people don’t do internships and end up just fine. 

What if you’re overqualified for an internship?

You’ve got to make a compelling case for why you would be great for a role that on paper you look too experienced for. But also, if you’re really overqualified, don’t assume that you have to do an internship. You don’t always have to start at the bottom just because you’re changing fields. So it’s worth talking to people in the industry you want to move into to see if there are other paths into it. 

If I manage an intern, what are the most important things I should keep in mind?

Plan to invest more time than you normally would in training and supervising a new hire because interns need more guidance than people normally assume they’ll need. So you want to be very hands on. Don’t assume that they know things. Explain what you’re doing and why. Spell out things that may seem really obvious to you: basic workplace norms like not texting in meetings or what professional dress really means. And encourage them to ask questions too, because a lot of interns are very shy about asking questions unless you make it really clear that you welcome it. People run into problems is when they expect interns to come in as relatively independent self-sufficient employees with well-developed judgment. The whole point of an internship is that they’re not there yet, and your job as their managers is to help them get there. 

Click the audio player above to hear the full interview. 

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