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The Ultimate Intern Survival Guide

Updated on September 13, 2013

So you’ve begun your internship in your chosen field and have arrived on day one filled with a mixture of hope and trepidation. Armed with a notebook and pen you strut around trying to strike the perfect balance between cheerful enthusiasm and casual nonchalance. But somehow it is not quite as straightforward as meets the eye.

Fast forward a few weeks and try as you might, there are some people who still don’t know that you’re alive. Then there are those who are not the CEO, buzzing for your attention every few minutes wanting to send you on a coffee and midmorning cookie run. They smirk, snigger and think its adorable when you look overwhelmed and struggle to cope.

Does this paint a familiar picture?
Does this paint a familiar picture?

You may find yourself wondering if it is at all worth it, to be honest maybe twenty per cent of what you will learn academically and practically during your internship will be used and applied in your career. The rest of what you learn will be resounding life lessons that in retrospect will be worth their weight in gold. If you are an intern, chances are that you may still have to cross the bridge of time for some of these lessons to make sense in your mind, but until then, here are a few points to help you survive as you embark on your journey as an intern.

Listen and Learn

Suck it up SpongeBob! Yes, here’s looking at you kid. This is that one time in life, where the world literally is your oyster from a learning point of view. There are thousands of experiences to be had - sights, sounds, colors, textures, people, nuances of communication, inner workings of systems, personalities, information and politics to absorb and take in. All you have to do is train yourself to observe, listen and learn!

One of the best things that would be useful to remember is that you have an amazing opportunity to absorb and learn. You are expected to be fresh, energized and perform to the best of your ability, especially because you are probably inexperienced and eager to impress. One of the best ways in which you can show your commitment to doing so, is to be a good listener and observer and then to apply your acquired knowledge in real work situations.

Assuming that you haven’t already been assigned a mentor in the workplace, find somebody who’s work ethic inspires you, make the effort to discuss a working arrangement with them such that you are able to ‘shadow’ and assist them on a regular basis in return for skills exchanged. Same as you might hire a personal trainer for a more targeted and specific workout if you go to gym, having a mentor provides you streamlined advice and an advanced level of focus in your internship program.

Let’s face it, people are often too busy and way too caught up with their own professional lives to remember that an intern newbie needs nurturing. You WILL have to claim that space for yourself..

When requesting a mentor or if you are being assigned to a person to work with, consider their particular skill set and how it crucial it would be to your development. If you do get to pick, be discreet but rather partner first with the people who you have the most to learn from.

Once you have a mentor, ask questions, be curious and interested, there is nothing worse than attaching yourself to a busy professional and then sitting by taking idle notes and doodling, when you could be engaging, adding value and being heard. Speaking of which…

Contribute and let your voice be heard

There is no point trying to be inconspicuous, ending up being all arms and legs and sticking out like a sore thumb. As an intern it is only natural to get stage fright at first, but you do have to overcome those tendencies and contribute in a working environment.

If for no other reason, think of this time as your investment for your future career. Many of the people that you will meet and interact with during your internship will most likely remain connected to you via important social networks that will help serve as an extension of how future employers view you. Think LinkedIn, Facebook and many others, smile, talk, contribute professional opinions when asked and also when not. If you engage, contribute and make your voice heard, chances are that you will be memorable to your colleagues and chances are greater of them giving you recommendations and endorsements when you least expect it.

TIP:

Do NOT allow fears of inadequacy to come in the way of you being heard, make no apologies for the knowledge that you don’t already have, that is why you are an intern remember?

Keep on top of trends

Being within the information driven times that we are in at the moment, it is definitely beneficial to find ways to keep researching and to keep abreast of emerging trends out there. If you want to get ahead and set yourself apart from the crowd, you have to be savvy by being in tune with what’s happening in your industry. Now is the time to have fun with knowledge, so flex your muscles and have fun with it. Once you get into a permanent and proper paying job, there is little time left to keep yourself updated as much as you would right now.

Keeping on top of trends need not just be relegated to surfing the internet for new reading material on subjects related to your field. Network, meet and exchange information with other interns and peers that have information that might be meaningful and relevant to your field. Volunteer to be sent on short courses, seminars and other so called ‘boring’ activities that other, more jaded professionals, may be tired of and reluctant to attend. You will probably come away with a world of information that will hold you in good stead.

Have a schedule

If you feel as if you have to function within chaos, then that is probably the exact moment that you need to create a 'to do' list.

Even though you may not have an official position at the company that you’re interning at just yet, it helps to have a list of priorities in order to get through what needs to be done in a day.

Never underestimate the power of writing things down and the sense of accomplishment when striking them off your list one by one as you accomplish the tasks. You will feel a greater a sense of accomplishment for having done so.

Shine

Assuming that you have chosen to intern in a field that you are interested in, you most probably have skills and an affinity for that which you are doing. Put those skills that you have to good use. Now is the time to flex your intellectual muscle and engage in some serious mental gymnastics. Watch, wait, listen, learn and at the right time, step forward and shine! There will never again be a more cushioned safe place for you to strike out, experiment and express yourself. As annoying as it may be for people in the work place to dismiss your ideas or see them as amusing because it comes from an intern, it does also provide a safety net from which to present yourself without too much criticism or harsh scrutiny. Chew on that thought for a moment, then go out there and shine!

On a cautionary note:

Know your rights!

There is a fine line between being amenable and available to do work and being a person without boundaries and any form of standards. It is up to you to do some serious introspection about what you will and will not allow in a working environment and of course to do the necessary research to find out what intern laws are applicable in your area and at the company that you work for.

In a world where everybody is out for the next freebie, make sure that you and your services are not exploited. For more on intern rights have a look at the following link

You are not a bottomless pit

While the charm and tenacity exhibited by Anne Hathaway in her role as Andrea Sachs in The Devil Wears Prada is admirable, you really don’t want to hand over the reins of your soul and personality to the people that you intern for.

Keep it classy

For many, being an intern coincides with the first forays into adulthood, personal freedom, heading out and simply letting your hair down and having fun after hours with new and dynamic people. While exploration and having fun is one of the best ways in which to grow and develop as an individual, be selective about the people that you hang out with and if you are getting a little sloshed let it be with good friends who are not going to document your excursions and embarrass you by tagging you on social networks the next day.

While you’re in an internship and for the rest of your career, important opinions are being formed about you and who you are in a professional sense. Safeguard yourself and your professional image, if you feel that you really rather shouldn’t… you’re probably right!

Don't take it personally

It’s a quiet afternoon in the office and the birds are chirping outside. In the silent reprieve from the last few days of scrambling around the office, you can’t believe that there are a few moments to quietly click away on your keyboard, when suddenly you hear it…

Your employer going crazy about a number of tasks that need to be done, before calling on you to help.
Your employer going crazy about a number of tasks that need to be done, before calling on you to help.
You may feel like doing this when your boss approaches you in this mood, but please DO resist the temptation
You may feel like doing this when your boss approaches you in this mood, but please DO resist the temptation

Every once in a while as an intern you are going to hear the bellows from the yawning pits of hell (read boss/employer) coming at you with rapid fire. Though the temptation may be high to turn tail and run or get on the defensive - resist the urge!

Often the anger and the fury, however fiery, may not entirely be directed at you as much as the collective body of people in the office. As you and the number of people in the office scramble to get the necessary tasks done to appease the fire breathing dragon that has emerged from its lair, understand that this outburst may not be personal. Yes, even the powers that be are meant to be accountable and keep things in check, but consider that the person in charge is just as put upon to steer the ship as you may be in finding your feet in it.

On a lighter note:

Bring your own unique beverage of choice to the office

Be courteous. If you are not cool with the office provided drip coffee and regular teas, please by no means think that it’s going to fly if you ‘accidentally on purpose’ borrow a teabag here or a spoonful of coffee there. If your taste buds lean toward the more exotic then by all means bring in your honey bush and Earl Grey teas or your favorite hipster blend of coffee to the office. There’s nothing that spells trouble quite like the wild eyed look in your colleagues eye when they go off at you for having pilfered their last teabag fix of organically sourced green hemp tea.

Throw off your invisibility cloak

Let’s be real. Being an intern makes for a certain level of anonymity and let’s face it… invisibility. You will probably be the last to know when an event takes place, the last person on the important memo mailing list and if you’re invited on a camp or weekend getaway, someone is going to think it’s cute to leave out the little detail that there is an after party and you needed to bring your best clothes with you in order to participate.

Yes these transgressions may happen, and chances are that you will be overlooked. But hey, it is up to you to make yourself more visible in the workplace. Keep a keen sense of eyes and ears about you. Ask questions, especially if you’re unsure about the time that a task requires or the details of an event pertaining to your work.

Useful reading for interns

What would a survival guide be without some useful reading for interns

1. When it comes to being an intern, many famous people have walked the walk, before they reached the top of their industries. Read on for some interesting stories of the experiences of industry giants. Famous people who paid their dues

2. If you are battling with choosing the right type of internship for you, take this interesting online internship predictor test, which should help you gain a little more clarity on the field that you ought to pursue. Internships

3. When it all gets a little too heavy and too much to bear, find some light relief and humor- life isn’t always heavy and serious. See the fun side of life! 9Gag

4. It helps to look at things from another perspective. Take a look at this movie trailer and if you haven’t already, check out ‘The internship’ The Internship

At the end of the day, everybody’s internship experience will be a different one, shaped by different experiences, people and influences. However, there is one common denominator wherever it is that you go or whatever it is that you experience and that is that you are at the center of the experience. We would definitely love for you to share and tell us more about your internships and more especially what you learned and took out of them.

What was your internship experience like?

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    • Kiss andTales profile image

      Kiss andTales 3 months ago

      Wonderful Articles ! I can relate to externship in the medical field

      I learn good do's and don't from your article. Basically I was comparing what I did and did not do. Wish I had your article during my experience things would be different.

      Thank you for sharing this valuble article

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