Last spring, I was gearing up to graduate and was waiting for the job offers to come rolling in. Instead, the only opportunity that came my way was a summer internship. At the time, I was making plenty of money waiting tables, but I knew that the added experience of an internship would add to my credentials– even if it meant taking a pay cut. So I moved to upstate New York to a place that was a five-hour drive from everyone I would care to visit.
When I first got there, I quickly realized that this job sucked. My boss, the woman who had hired me, misinformed me when I had inquired about the hours, the workload, and the learning potential of the position during my interview. However, by the end of August, when it was time to pack up and move on, I realized I had just had one of the best summers of my life.
Before I go into the ways that you, too, can make the most of your summer internship, let me explain why mine was so terrible. I had been hired by a nonprofit regional theater company as an administrative intern for their summer season. As an English major who was trying to break into theater, that sounded right up my alley when my boss had described my duties. However, when I arrived, I quickly learned that the majority of my time would be spent serving as assistant house manager — ripping tickets and listening to patrons bitch for 8 shows a week.
Though I had thought that I would build my portfolio by working side-by-side with the theater’s Educational Coordinator, my first week was spent vacuuming dust off of the theater’s 500 seats and battling the cobwebs that had set in while the venue was dark for the winter.
But I came out OK and you can too. Here are some tips for making the most of that craptastic summer internship:
1. Make friends.
All work and no play…. right? Hey, if the workload sucks, at least you can form a support group and walk away with some valuable new relationships. I had another intern who had the same responsibilities as me, and though our personalities are very different, we couldn’t help but develop a strong friendship. I was the crazy one who showed her how to open up, and she was the level-headed one who talked me off a ledge every time I freaked out about a bad decision. Now, she lives in Japan– go figure– and we Skype several times a week.
Besides the other intern, I got to a point halfway through the summer when I decided to show everyone the “real” me. Take this advice with a grain of salt, because there is a fine line between work and play, but halfway through the summer, I totally let my guard down and started partying it up. I learned how to work the room, and one night, one of my coworkers informed me, “Kathryn, you ARE the party.” Later in the summer, I organized a keg party that everyone in the company attended- young and old, interns and lifers, actors, tech crew, directors- everyone. When the summer came to an end, even the box office team gushed that nobody had ever brought every department together like that.
2. Take on more responsibilities.
I was clearly not going to build my resume simply by performing custodial duties every week. So I made it clear that I was willing to work extra hard in order to be given more tasks. I spoke to the Educational Coordinator and expressed my interest in evaluating script submissions for her, and she gave me scripts to read in my own time (yes, I am a nerd, but at least I was using the skill set I had developed in college). When word spread that I was willing to work outside of my normal intern duties, I was rewarded by the Costume Supervisor, who paid me an extra $40 a week to serve as a dresser on one of the shows. In Intern World, $40 goes a long way. If there’s anything I’ve learned from internships, it’s that everything is what you make of it. You’re not going to get experience if you go home every day and bitch that you just spent 8 unpaid hours making photocopies. But if you put yourself out there, you can garner an infinite amount of experience.
Making yourself known and networking is one of the most invaluable perks that can come with an internship, if you take the initiative. By taking on more responsibilities and becoming the Social Mascot of the company I worked for, I met a LOT of people. I didn’t have to volunteer with the Education department, but not only did doing so boost my resume, it allowed me to get close enough with the coordinator that she offered to serve as my reference when I left the internship. Besides, industry professionals started where you are now, so use the “intern card” to your advantage. Ask one of the head honchos of the company to have an informational meeting with you. You will get to describe your skills set, receive advice, and display initiative that your self-appointed mentor will appreciate. How can someone say “no” to a struggling intern? Even if you’re stuck in a department that isn’t right for you, reach out to a coworker and ask if you could shadow him or her for the day. Hey, it doesn’t hurt to ask.
If you’re bitching about spending several hours a day filing and photocopying, you might as well find a way to make these menial tasks matter. Photocopying contracts? Read them. Filing meeting minutes? Read them. You’ll learn about everything, including the microscopic details that your superiors schedule four-hour fourways to brood over at length. If you’re given a document, your boss trusts you with it. Look at what it is, and take in the info. Do NOT repeat any of it, because many items will be confidential, but there’s nothing wrong with seeing how other professionals handle their business affairs, is there? Because hey– you’ll be there one day.
5. Speak up.
If you’re not being challenged, or if there are flaws in your intern program, keeping mum won’t help. Find someone you trust- another colleague, your internship coordinator, maybe even your boss- and express the fact that there’s room for improvement (politely, of course). Chances are, the company won’t want to risk losing a free employee halfway through the summer when the pool of applicants has already dried up. It’s even better if you have a plan, so you can suggest an alternative. It’s pointless to wait until your exit interview to gripe about how miserable you were this summer, so stand up for yourself and see if you can make a change NOW.