Spring semester just ended, which means college students are ready to start summer internships. Some of you are about to have fulfilling and valuable experiences at companies that care about their interns and put effort into the engagement. Others are going to feel empty and unproductive with companies that waste intern time on menial tasks. The quality and outcome of an internship is often out of your control.
Luckily, there are a few things that you can do to maximize the value of your summer internship, even if the company only wants you to do data entry or go on coffee runs. Here are some tips on how to make the most of your time as an intern.
Work across departments
If your current department doesn’t have as much work for you as you expected, don’t rest on your laurels and wait for more work to come your way. Instead, ask your manager for more opportunities to contribute, whether with them or other teams in the organization. Your internship probably isn’t as structured as you think it is, so let your manager know you’re looking for something different and they might accommodate.
It’s not uncommon for interns to learn from their internships that they want to do something different in their careers, simply because they had a chance to learn and experience working across functions.
Find a mentor
The best internships are usually the result of establishing a great mentor relationship. Interns that have the focused attention of an experienced professional get to see, do, and learn more than those that are just clocking in every day to tick off internship hours for their resume.
Make as many connections with people in your organization as you can. Find someone with a similar background or personality and ask to chat with them during lunch or a coffee break. Start a lot of conversations and find that someone who can give you advice as to how to break into company with a full time position, what to study while you’re still at school, and can continue to be helpful to you as time passes.
Ask your manager if you can set out times to meet with some of the department heads and managers in the company that could be relevant to your career. You’ll often find that they’ll be more than happy to do this for you.
As you meet with people, be sure to learn a bit about them beforehand so you can form intelligent questions. Along the way, gauge their reactions to your conversation and figure out the one or two people who were most receptive and eager to help you in your career. The signs are easy to spot - people that say “don’t hesitate to come to me with any questions” or “I’d be happy to help you in any way I can” are great targets as potential mentors.
With each conversation, send a thank you email afterwards, and with your mentor targets, send some additional thoughts and questions that circle back on your conversation. Nurture these relationships slowly and intelligently. You won’t get everything you want on day one, and it takes time to develop rapport. Stay in touch regularly - not obsessively - with the aim of creating a dialogue that adds value to both sides, not just a one way stream of questions and information. And don’t let the relationship die after your internship concludes. Then, when you need help finding a job or internship later in your life, you’ll already have a great mentor on your side.
Capitalize on networking opportunities
The students that get the most out of their internships are the ones that take full advantage of all the networking opportunities presented to them. You might be offered the chance to go to lunch with various employees, meet one-on-one with department heads, or even happy hours and mixers sponsored or attended by the company. Take advantage of these opportunities to start and expand your professional network.
As important as the skills you learn are the people you meet at your internship. They are the individuals who will learn about your value, can vouch for you as references, connect you with people who need your skills, and help you make your next career move.
Ask for a change
You may be thinking as a lowly intern that you don’t have the right to complain if the internship is going well. After all, the company was willing to give you an opportunity. But the ability to list them on your resume isn’t all you should be looking for from an internship, and you shouldn’t rest easy if you aren’t getting more than that out of your time.
So if you’re running coffee errands, have no meaningful projects to work on, and aren’t learning from the company and its employees, it’s time for you to ask the tough questions about how you can show your value. Ask for work and learning opportunities commensurate with what you were promised in the internship description and interviews. Let your manager know that things aren’t going as you expected and you don’t feel challenged.
And at the end of an internship that has gone well, don’t be afraid to ask for a recommendation letter and check in with your manager to let her know you’ll want to list her regularly as a reference. It’s expected!
Your summer internship doesn’t have to be mediocre or average. Take the steps to capitalize on all the opportunities presented to you. Work hard on the day to day, but don’t forget to network and optimize for learning.