“Make the most of it,” my dad says via Skype on the first day of my Arts international internship at the In Flanders Fields Museum in Ypres, Belgium. It’s the same advice he’s given me on the first day of every previous internship I’ve done: barrister’s chamber, publishing house, radio station, magazine office….
In this case I’ve travelled overseas for a slice of Europe, a character building experience and 12 credit points. But there are some things about internships that stay the same across the world. Excitement at new experiences conflicts with fear of endless photocopying. These are pretty regular emotions for any intern who’s put on a blazer and their best maturity for the first day on the job. While nothing can really protect you from the joys of photocopying if they do come your way, there are a few ways to maximise the results of your internship and gain much more than just 12 credit points.
Have confidence in your contribution:
Entering a workplace as a nervous intern, it’s easy to feel you should be seen and not heard, that you should avoid asking questions unless necessary and tiptoe past the other desks. Remember, you’re providing (normally free) help to an organisation – you should be praised! You’ll enjoy your experience more if you hold your head up high from the first day.
Ask all possible questions about the industry and staff s’ specific roles, from exciting tasks to the more mundane. Ask especially about the mundane: Google will inform you about the glamorous side of job without having to leave your bedroom so maximise on the opportunity to hone in on the nitty gritty.
Take notes of their answers. Any feelings of dorkiness at pulling out your notebook will be well outweighed by the fact you’ll actually remember the precious, ungoogable information at the end of the day.
Once you’ve got a greater understanding of the workplace, don’t be afraid to ask staff slightly more meaningful questions. Why do they believe their work is important? What inspired them to pursue this path? While some will be willing to share more than others, gaging the values of people who work in a certain field is a good way to ascertain if this career path is for you.
Practically speaking, if you don’t want to distract people with questions while they’re working, approach them confidently and ask them by name if you can arrange a later time to sit down with them. They will be impressed by your interest and professionalism.
Don’t limit yourself:
While choosing a field of work related to your degree is relevant, when it comes to choosing an internship, don’t be narrow-minded. Work experience is exactly that, work experience.
You’re not committing to a career by spending a bit of time in an office. Internships are an opportunity for a short immersion in a field without long-term commitment. It’s the perfect way to learn about an area of work that you might be interested in but not inspired to devote your life to.
Don’t have too high expectations:
As previously alluded to, sometimes the tasks delegated to interns aren’t as exciting as you would like. In particular, the nature of short internships may make it hard to get involved in work requiring greater explanation or training. At the publishing house, I was thrilled to read publications and give a verdict on whether or not they should make the cut (extremely cool right?!). Rearranging the filing cabinet the next day was not quite as exciting.
View your internship holistically and you’ll find there’s no such thing as wasted time or a pointless task. The chance to see an office’s inner workings, ask endless questions, improve your communication skills with professionals, feel comfortable in a different environment and survive a full 9-5 day can be just as valuable.
Keeping in contact:
Half the benefit of an internship doesn’t happen in the office. Internships are about connections and networking which means asking outright for business cards and email addresses. The week after the internship send follow-up thank-you emails to everyone who answered your questions, helped you with work, made you feel welcome, and showed you where the closest coffee shop is…
It may feel slightly silly, particularly if you didn’t have the most welcoming experience. However, if you want someone to remember you when you need a reference or industry contacts, your memorable photocopying skills are probably not going to cut it.
If a thank you email feels too contrived, think of further questions you can ask by email to show a sustained interest in the field of work. That’s where the trusty notebook can come in handy. Being able to look back at a specific conversation and generate questions from your notes makes it look like we’re been paying attention big time.
In any internship, the benefits up for grabs are much more than just a CV reference and 12 credit points. While these ideas won’t save you from photocopying, hopefully they’ll allow you to walk away satisfied knowing you’ve made the most of a quintessential student experience.