The One Thing No One Tells You About Internships

You need to speak up. SPEAK UP. Speak. Up. You is kind. You is smart. You is important. The most important variable in an internship is you. No matter how scary your boss is, no matter how nice they are, no matter how nice you are, you need to speak up. It’s not easy. It’s scary. You feel out of place. You feel insubordinate. You don’t want to step on any toes. Most of all, you probably don’t want to sound stupid.

I can tell you from experience that the difference between being an excellent intern and an OK intern is how much you are willing to put yourself out there. I had six internships and it took probably 4 of them for me to realize what I was doing wrong. I never complained about anything. When my supervisor asked me to do something, I always did it to the best of my ability. I was never late, flakey or rude. Yet, I couldn’t help but feel like my internship supervisors weren’t impressed with me. I was used to being impressive in class. Professors always knew my name, they’d reach out to me outside of class, they were excited to get to know me and to work with me so why wasn’t that translating into my internships where I worked just as hard?

It took a while for me to realize that in class I was outspoken with my thoughts, interested in the discussion and shared my ideas. I was a part of the conversation which isn’t difficult to do when the whole point of a classroom is to facilitate discussion. I could raise my hand, say what I thought and that showed my profs that I cared about what was being said. At my internships everyone was busy, I was intimidated by the people I looked up to and it never felt like the right time.

During one internship, and I won’t say where, an editor completely changed an article I had written. I don’t mean a sentence. I don’t mean a phrase. It was a 100 word article and she changed 95 words. I wasn’t insulted, the editor gets final say but I was confused. Why didn’t she give me any edits? Why would she still put my name on the piece if I didn’t write any of it? Wouldn’t she want credit? For the first time, I spoke up. I told my supervisor that I didn’t understand why an editor would do that without giving me edits or telling me, I told them I wasn’t offended but that I wanted to learn, I wanted my writing to get better and I wanted to satisfy their standards. The next day my supervisor sat down with me and went over my pieces with edits. Having that one on one time together helped develop our mentorship and a year later when she was working somewhere else she contacted me for a job.

To contrast this happy story, I’ll give you a less successful one. I was interning at a place where I was ignored. My supervisor wouldn’t even acknowledge my presence or say hello to me. I wasn’t given any direction and was bored most of the time. Only his assistant would talk to me and give me small tasks every once and a while. After 4 months I got my evaluation and was told that the whole time I was supposed to be pitching articles, that I was supposed to be grabbing my supervisor’s attention, that I was supposed to be the one saying hello and facilitating the relationship. My mind was blown.

How was I supposed to know that? Honestly, I think it’s a failure on the part of most supervisors to communicate what they need from interns. That’s why I am telling you: the ball is in your court. My most successful internship only worked out when I started volunteering my ideas. I’d mention that I saw this cool thing, I’d offer my ideas, my opinions. The truth is that it doesn’t matter how bad your idea is, that’s not what your supervisors are noticing, what they’re noticing is that you care. What they notice is that you are thinking about your internship and that you care about the work that is being done. It shows them that you are invested in what’s happening.

When I started pitching and putting myself out there I was asked to come in more days a week, then I was asked to stay on for two more sessions. I was given more responsibility. I was eventually treated like a co-worker and not like an intern because I stepped up. It was hard. It was uncomfortable and I really had to push through my insecurities and that looming title of indentured servitude, “intern.”

What I learned from coming out of my shell is that my employers were receptive of it and that being given more responsibility, gave me more bylines, more experience and more confidence. A job in the field I wanted finally felt more obtainable because I was actually doing it. Believing that you can do something is the most powerful key to actually doing it. Don’t be afraid to speak up during an internship because no one is going to ask you to.

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