How to be an intern (a good one)

know a lot of you reading are through with the “intern” phase of your life, but I hope you’ll read anyway and/or pass this onto those in your life that are still open to internships as a part of their school/career path.
As of this spring I’ve interned for 4 different organizations (a university press, a non-profit service organization for ballet professors, a nationally renown opera company, and the web department serving four major US dance magazines), paid and unpaid, for college credit and out of the goodness of my heart (slash a desire to learn… like more than what’s in a textbook).  I took internships mainly because I thought that they would lead to jobs (either with said organization or through getting awesome letters of rec and relevant experience)… for me, this hasn’t happened (unless you count contract/freelance positions) however, events in my life (my timing in getting married, deciding that I’m not ready to live in NYC, deciding to take the job on the cruise line, etc.) have kept me from pursuing potential offers.  In other words, had my life turned out a little differently, I have no doubt that one of these positions would have landed me a job.
Well, to be frank, the people I worked under (as well as their supervisors) loved me. I was at the dance magazine 2 weeks when the managing editor approached me to see if I wanted to apply for 1 of 3 positions (I had school the next semester). She practically told me that I couldn’t leave on my last day, and then called me 6 months later to talk to me about something (I’ll never know what it was, because I had to immediately tell her that, no, I cannot relocate to NY).  I did write 2 articles for them (written work in a national publication: CHECK!) and have no doubt that I’ll be able to continue.  The opera’s invited me back to do something next year if I want.  The other 2 organizations acted as great references for all my future job applications.  Everyone always said that I did a great job.
I’m not saying this to brag, I’m saying this to reveal something… I never did my personal best at those internships.  Not once.  Not in my opinion.  Sure, I did good work, no doubt.  But was I worth all the oohs and aahs?  I don’t think so.  I don’t think I did anything all that groundbreaking. (for the record, it wasn’t because I didn’t care, it was just because I was given so-so work to do… but hey, that’s what an intern is for, right?)
Woody Allen said that 80% of success is just showing up— You can take that statistic literally. Every time I get praised for producing work that is neither difficult nor my best work I try to figure out what it is that I’ve done to make people like me… so here’s how to be a good intern, even when you’re doing work that shows nothing about your actual ability.
1)    Be on time.  Dude, you’re at the bottom.  Being late means you think you’re not, and that means you’ll be the least popular person at work.
2)    Be professional. This is where a lot of people miss the mark, I think.  Just coming in and showing respect for your superiors, and handling people in a calm, and reasonable way will get you very far.  Usually intern is code for “doesn’t know what they’re doing” and professionalism will fool people into thinking you are comfortable in your position, even when you’re not.  (hint, being able to act professional is part of it… so if you can do that, you DO know what you’re doing)
3)    When given the opportunity, give an opinion and/or solution.  My favorite moment at the magazine internship?  The editor-in-chief asking for my opinion on an upcoming cover. I have no doubt that giving opinions (when it’s appropriate) helped a ton, especially since I was in a creative position.
4)    Do what you’re asked to do, even if it sucks.  At the opera, I basically had to show up for 3 hour rehearsals and just sit there.  I learned a lot, but I don’t know that I was huge help, other than the fact that I did a very menial job (answering a phone) that no one else wanted to do.  They did NOT need me, but I did what they asked me to do.  Ultimately, the work needs to get done, and if you help that happen, even in a small way, the fact that they don’t have to worry about it (or check up on you to do it) goes really far.
5)    Figure out how to read people.  Some people are good at this, some people aren’t.  But if you can figure out how people like to communicate or be approached, and then treat them that way… wow, you can get a lot done, gain a lot of respect, and avoid a lot of drama.
6)    Take direction.  If people correct work that you’ve done, fix it, and improve it next time.  If you can’t take direction, then you’re virtually useless.
The funny thing about these 6 things is that I’m pretty sure they’ll work for any job at any level.  If you can show these things at an intern level, you can show that, while you may have a lot to learn about this particular job or industry, you’re a good worker.  Most people would rather teach you how to do your job rather than teach you how to work hard or work well with others (because that’s generally something that you can’t teach).
Anybody have any other advice for success at internships, or in the workplace in general?

2 thoughts on “How to be an intern (a good one)

  1. GREAT advice!!! I started as an intern at a group of radio stations right out of college (basically, like you said, out of the goodness of my heart and a desire to learn). Five years (EEK!) later, I'm now the Promotions Director for those stations.

    To add onto what you said……..

    Do the grunt work and do it well. It has to be done and if you show you can do it, then they'll slowly give you more.

    Literally look at every assignment as an opportunity to learn. It may seem menial or boring, but it IS the business of what you want to do.

    Know that your superiors did (and probably sometimes still do) the same awful tasks that you're doing. They aren't above it…. they've just worked their way into having someone help them with it.

  2. I think this post should be required reading for anyone who is going to be an intern or even starting their first job. Excellent points.

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