12 Things You Should Know Before Starting an Internship

1. Take time to research the industry where you’ll be working.

Where does the company or organization you’ll be working for fit into the industry’s big picture? Are they an industry leader, an innovative start-up, or a small player with a lot of room to grow? For example, a large commercial law firm is a business headquartered in a city with a network of offices abroad. Are you interning in the headquarters office where the culture may be a bit more corporate and there’s a large presence of important clients, or are you helping out in one of the satellite offices in a nearby country? 

Knowing the business landscape will help you understand the company’s strategic goals. When speaking to a higher-level executive, you’ll not only be able to hold your ground, but communicate in a way that suggests you’ve done your due diligence.

2. Review the company’s website and learn about their products, services, and overall approach.

Websites vary in content. Some contain an attractive user experience with personalized, detailed case studies, whitepapers, and a full roster of all the employees to include profiles. Other websites may only have a “Contact Us” form, links to social media accounts, and a small and uninformative paragraph about the company. See what you can learn from how the organization presents itself to the public. See how established they are and how much they prioritize their web presence and digital brand. 

3. Dress well and look professional.

This doesn’t mean you have to go out and break the bank in order to look professional in the office. Judge what to wear by what others wear. Is it a more formal workplace, or are people dressed in business casual? Simple standards of hygiene matter. No matter what you wear, wear clean clothes without rips or stains. Learn how to iron, if you don’t know how to already. Invest in a good pair of work shoes. Make sure you are always showered, clean, and put together—otherwise, no matter how good your work is, it will be difficult for people to respect you.

4. Be open-minded about becoming involved in as many projects as you can. 

As an intern, you can put more items on your plate and embrace new requests for assistance with a positive and welcoming attitude. You’ve been hired to breathe life into the organization, to bring forth a different perspective. You may be asked to participate in various projects which may fall outside of your area of expertise. Don’t worry! This is only going to benefit you and allow you to learn about the multifaceted nature of the industry. Be proactive about areas in which you can volunteer – this will let you gain advantageous footholds and develop unique skill sets. 

5. Find a person at the workplace who has a wealth of knowledge and who you seem to “click” with that can potentially become a mentor for you.

The Greek philosopher Plato called his teacher and mentor Socrates ““the wisest, and justest, and best of all men whom I have ever known.” That might be a tad too optimistic for most office settings, but it can still be incredibly beneficial to foster relationships with the higher-ups. Be sure to catch up with them biweekly, whenever you have a question, or just to be friendly. A mentor can help you navigate office politics or provide leverage if you need something. If your relationship with your direct supervisor is lacking throughout your internship, you may also use the mentor as a reference once the internship is over. 

6. Be prepared to show what type of stuff you’re made of. 

After working on a market research project for several weeks, you’ve received notice that you’ll be giving a presentation to senior leadership. Perhaps you’re sitting at a table with project managers and you’re asked to introduce yourself and talk about the kind of work you have done in the past so they can figure out where to best use your strengths. At moments like these, if you aren’t used to pressure situations or speaking in front of groups, you may tense up. This is the time to just focus on the opportunity you have in front of you and don’t care too much about what others think about you. The chances are, they aren’t even sizing you up. 

Some people in the room may be genuinely curious about getting to know you and working together to solve a problem. Speak to them. Make eye contact. Avoid trying to please everyone; rather, fulfill your obligations, communicate concisely and effectively, and show your resolve when called upon to speak your piece. Laughter is an excellent way to show you are approachable and comfortable with the situation.

7. Don’t always grunt about doing grunt work. 

A college graduate accepts an internship at a major media company. On the first day, her supervisor drops a thick stack of papers on her desk and asks her to send them out individually to hundreds of clients. While this may be considered grunt work, sometimes someone has just got to do it. You’ll probably encounter interesting and challenging tasks, but they may be couched between dull and repetitive ones. The reality of the workforce is that boring, manual work is part of the package. As an intern, these tasks can help get you settled in, learn the company’s culture, and understand that small things need to get done too. 

However, if you aren’t getting any of the more interesting tasks to sink your teeth into, maybe it’s time to speak up. Your manager may be so busy with deadlines that you’ve fallen behind on their radar: put yourself back on the map by stopping by their desk for a quick hello, letting them know you sent out those letters.

8. Become a master of acronyms and industry lingo. 

You’ve landed an internship at FEMA’s CBIRF and you’ll also be working with teams at CARRI, CARVER, and interfacing with CBPMO, although some personnel may be TDY. Welcome to the federal government. There are a lot of acronyms! Even if it isn’t the ‘feds’ you’ll be working for, many companies and firms have policies they adhere to which they refer to as abbreviated words. They may use euphemisms for industry lingo. Is something “in the pipeline”? “What’s the low-hanging fruit?” a co-worker asks you. FYSA, don’t panic or run to the nearest apple orchard — just take a moment to look into what they are really asking of you. 

9. You may acquire more soft skills than hard skills, but that’s okay. 

‘Soft’ skills are people skills and interpersonal skills. You may develop your ability to work on a team, take the lead on a project, and develop patience and good communication when collaborating with co-workers with different personalities or language barriers. Soft skills take time to acquire, but they are crucial for gaining the respect of your team members and meshing with diverse personalities. Maybe you’d like to learn to use a cutting-edge tool or spend time on a business certification, but instead, you learned how to mediate between two hostile program directors and facilitated an agreement that furthered an initiative and saved thousands of dollars. Bottom line: soft skills are absolutely critical.

10. Know your set hours and responsibilities. 

If you have a second part-time job and your boss is asking you to stay an extra three hours to work on an urgent PowerPoint presentation for them, let them know you can’t stay. During work hours, you’re there to work. However, this doesn’t mean you don’t have a life outside of your internship. If necessary, keep your supervisor informed about how important it is to get to the metro station on time to take the train home. The employer should respect your schedule.

11. Know your bottom line for salary.

Unpaid internships can be great ways to gain experience and get your foot in the door. However, they are not always viable options. To pay your bills, fulfill financial obligations, or meet your earnings goals, what is the very least amount of money you should be paid? Careful consideration should go into whether or not to accept an unpaid internship. For paid internships, every dollar counts. If you feel you aren’t getting offered an appropriate hourly wage, respectfully request if they can go higher. 

While there are a ton of benefits of doing paid or unpaid internships, the latter does present some risks to overall sustainment of funds and can affect the dynamics of the worker-employer relationship. 

12. Know your back-up plan in case the internship doesn’t turn into a full-time position. 

Do you have a Plan B to fall back on if Plan A doesn’t work out? Apply to several internships so that if one potential arrangement falls through, you have more options. Organizations may not be able to hire you once the internship ends, and this means you’ll be back on the job market, searching for an opportunity. 

Extra Tips:

  • Have a tangible idea of what you want to get out of an internship (career benefits, specific experiences, etc.).
  • Be prepared to exceed expectations. Talk to your boss about what they expect out of you and what their goals are for your role. Then go above and beyond what those goals are. 
  • Punctuality is very important. Be on time. Learn your commute. 
  • It’s OK if you make mistakes. Ask questions, your employer will appreciate you doing so.
  • Quality beats quantity. Take time with your work.
  • Triple-check final products, meeting invitations, or drafts. Make sure all the details are correct before pressing the “Send” button. 

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