10 Ways To Make The Most Of An Internship

Internships have captured the zeitgeist of our culture. From the Cineplex hit The Internship to Tom Friedman’s recent New York Times column, it seems like everyone is talking about internships. I often recommend internships not just for high school and college students, but also for career changers and adults looking for productive experiences during their parenting years–especially as kids head back to school in the fall and require a tad less attention during the day. They are a good way to test out a field and build your resume, and often they can lead to a job. Here are some pointers to ensure that you (or your son or daughter) get the most out of an internship experience: 

1.Dress and behave for the job you want.
It’s very tempting to measure yourself against other interns when it comes to your hours, attire, and general office demeanor. This is especially true of teenagers who are used to dressing and behaving in relation to their peers, but adults can fall into this trap also. Your goal as an intern is for the professional employees to view you as someone who fits in and who they would want to work with. Therefore, you should observe and follow the office culture. When it comes to attire, use the other professionals in the office as your guide. If they are wearing capris and open-toed sandals, it’s okay if you do. But if only the non-professional staff dresses that way, you should dress more professionally, in tailored pants, a blouse and closed shoes, or whatever style reflects the office norm. For career changers and older interns, this principle can lead to some difficulty if your office is populated with much younger employees. Always remain age-appropriate, but be mindful of the ways in which your office attire may date you. It can be challenging to develop a mature business casual look, but it’s worth investing in the right clothes. The same holds true of accessories. The Coach bag you wore in your former career may look dated, and the big pocketbook you use for errands is too informal. Invest in a classic smaller bag for your essentials or a professional-looking tote for your laptop. Similarly, if most of the professional staff takes a short lunch break, you should not take hour-long lunches.

2. Establish your brand and your work habits.
An internship is an opportunity for you to establish your personal brand, which is essentially your reputation and how you want to be viewed professionally. Before you begin your internship, think about the value you can add to an office environment and how you want to be perceived. In terms of your work product, do you want to be thought of as a “dependable, efficient researcher” or a “creative thinker,” or a “motivational leader?” Do you try to figure things out for yourself, or do you rely on others to explain things to you? Think about ways that you can transmit those messages in your internship, and make sure that your work attitude, habits and output support the reputation you want to develop. If you have a student intern in your family, remind them that although it may seem obvious, an intern who arrives late, leaves early, spends the day yawning after a late night of partying, or displays a sense of entitlement about the work that they are asked to do runs the risk of alienating their supervisors. Your promptness, energy level, and facial expressions all will contribute to a perception of you as either ready, willing and able or lazy and immature.

3. Learn about yourself.
Internships are opportunities to learn about yourself and your preferred work environment. Do you work better alone or in a group? Are you self-directed or do you benefit from structure? Do you like predictability and routines, or do you prefer variety and spontaneity in your work? This self-awareness will help when you decide on the career or work environment that’s right for you in the future.

4. Network and establish professional relationships.
Over 70 percent of all jobs are obtained through personal connections, so one of the biggest benefits of an internship is the opportunity to network. Take the time to get to know the other employees; don’t just associate with your fellow interns (or volunteers). Invite colleagues out to lunch and ask questions about their career trajectories, what they like about their jobs, and what advice they would have for you. Remember that networking is a career strategy, and do not blur your personal and professional lives. The contacts you meet through an internship are potential LinkedIn contacts, not Facebook friends.

5. Develop a portfolio of your work.
Be sure to save copies of your work product from your internship. That may include memos, graphic design, research projects, or written feedback that you receive from a supervisor or client. Keep all of the work in a file until you are asked for a sample. If appropriate for the field you’re in, you may want to develop an actual or virtual portfolio of your work for prospective employers or clients.

6. Get a letter of recommendation before you leave.
Few things are more uncomfortable than having to contact someone you haven’t spoken to in years to ask them for a letter of recommendation. That is, if you can find them. You likely will use your internship as a reference for a future job or a graduate school program. Since that may be years down the road when memories are less sharp and people may have switched jobs, you should ask for a letter of recommendation before you leave your internship and keep it in your files until you need it. Usually the best person to ask is someone for whom you directly worked so that s/he can speak specifically about your qualities and work product.

7. Transmit your goals.
Almost every client I work with fantasizes that someone they know will offer them their dream job. In reality, you have to let people know what you are looking for. Several clients who have either interned or volunteered with an organization have been overlooked for open positions they were interested in. Yet in almost all of these situations my clients had not asked to be considered for the job. It’s important that people understand your goals. If you are a part-time intern or volunteer, they may not realize you would be willing to work full-time or that you want to work for pay. Or they may think you have different career ambitions. If you are interested in a permanent position, make sure the people you are working with know that.

8. Do not text during the day.
It should go without saying, but other than on your lunch break you should not use your smartphone or any other PDA for personal use during the work day. This advice is especially apt in situations where you do not have your own office (which is true of most interns) and applies equally to communications with family members. If you absolutely must be in contact with someone, do it from the restroom.

9. Be aware that your computer activity can be monitored.
If you are given access to a computer in your internship, be aware that your employer can track your digital footprint on it. That means that they can see an activity report of all of the websites you visit. Some companies routinely look through activity logs and some do only when there’s reason to (e.g., if a big download from one desktop drains capacity). You probably will not know the office practice regarding computer tracking, so it’s best to play it safe: though it may be tempting to place that Freshdirect order, avoid personal activity on your work computer during the work day. And remind your children  not to look at anything on their computer that they wouldn’t feel comfortable having their grandmother see.

10. Internships don’t end.
Internships can be a gift that keeps giving in that the connections you make can be helpful throughout your career. Make sure you follow the company you intern for or interned for through LinkedIn, Twitter and Google Alerts, and stay connected with the people you work with through periodic emails or lunches.

Barri Waltcher is a New York City-based career advisor who helps women navigate the transition from parenting back to a satisfying career. She is the co-founder of Mind Your Own Business Moms (MYOBmoms.com) and a frequent speaker on career topics.