Dear Lifehacker, I just got an internship at a company I really like, and it seemed like a dream come true until I realised I have absolutely no idea what to do next. How can I make sure I don’t screw things up and make the most of this experience? Sincerely, Intimidated Intern
Let’s start with the good news: nobody expects you to know what to do. No matter what your internship entails, no new worker knows the ropes right away. Your company will spend a lot of time in the first few weeks getting you up to speed. Even if your manager wants to throw you right into the fire, you still have to fill out forms and ask questions. You’ll learn as you go, and so long as you work hard and don’t make any grievous errors, you’ll do just fine. With that in mind, let’s talk about a few guidelines to follow to make the most out of the experience and avoid those big problems.
With the exception of a handful of people, pretty much no one can sprint for a mile. Even if your internship only lasts a given number of months, you need to avoid burning yourself out. You can’t maintain an extremely high level of productivity forever, or even a relatively short period of time. If you attempt to do so, you’ll start sacrificing sleep, free time and your health. You’ll end up hating the work you do, because you feel like you have no time for yourself.
You don’t have to end up like that. You can do your job well and set boundaries so you have time for other things you care about. While you can’t know exactly where your limits lie when they haven’t been tested much before, you can say no when someone asks too much of you. No reasonable person will judge you for saying “I have too much on my plate right now, but if it can wait until tomorrow I’m happy to do it.”
Conversely, don’t feel like you have to set super-strict boundaries. Special occasions will dictate when you might want to work a little late, put in some extra effort on a project or help out a coworker in need. Save that energy for times that will benefit the company and your reputation at the same time. Although you won’t become the paradigm of altruism, we’re talking about a job here and not charity work. You only have so much energy to expend, so pick the best moments to expend it so everyone benefits.
Strictly Follow the Rules (for Two Weeks)
Companies may or may not have strict sets of rules, but you need to follow them to the letter for your first two weeks. Show up on time, or even a little bit early. Dress according to whatever dress code they may have (or claim to have). Take your lunch breaks for however long they allow or less. You probably won’t have to follow these rules for most of your internship, but don’t break them until you know where flexibility lies at your company. After about two weeks you’ll know what you can get away with, so just follow them strictly until then.
Use Your Breaks Wisely
When you go to lunch, go with others at the company. Start off by asking someone new to go to lunch every day. Tell them you want to meet people around the office and want to know if they’ll take their break with you. Not only will this help you get to know people — people who can help you with specific parts of your internship when needed — but some of them might pay for your lunch because they actually make a salary. Even if not, you’ll learn all the places people like to eat and save yourself some time discovering nearby quick eats.
Find the Right Level of Confidence
Confidence can take you far, but you don’t want to go so far that you find yourself jobless on the side of the road. You can make a good impression by standing by your ideals, but you need to keep an open mind and leave the cockiness at home (or in the garbage can, as it doesn’t really help you in any situation). Timid people don’t have to worry about this problem but will need to make a greater effort to contribute to their team if they want to get noticed.
Fortunately, we’re not dealing with a fine line. You want to have the courage to suggest ideas, defend your opinion when you think it serves the company, but also know when to shut up. As much as you may want to have an equal voice in every discussion, interns (and even lower-level employees) need to prove themselves before people start to listen. That takes time. It doesn’t happen overnight, and it won’t necessarily happen during your internship. Make your voice heard when you can, but if you sense more than just a little resistance you need to back off even you think you’re right. Both you and your superiors make mistakes, but you don’t have years of experience under your belt. If they argue, people might say “so-and-so argues a lot but always does great work. People won’t say the same of you because they’ll only know about your argumentative attitude.
On the other side, companies forget people who lack confidence and always stay quiet. Great work takes you most of the way, but if you never contribute beyond what the company instructs you to do you will always restrict your own success. If you lack the courage to make suggestions in meetings (or in general), set aside time at home to think of some and practice. If you don’t feel comfortable contributing to a meeting right away, come back the next day with some ideas that came to you overnight. While you might miss your chance to actually contribute, you’ll demonstrate that you want to. That will get you one step closer and you can work your way up to proper confidence in due time.
Understand What Mistakes Mean
You will make mistakes, and should. Your company will expect those mistakes too, so just handle them gracefully. Apologise when necessary, but always prioritise correcting the error. You can only say sorry so many times. Learning from your mistakes, however, demonstrates intelligence and growth.
On top of that, you should pay attention to whom your mistakes affect. Even if you work on a team, errors in your work may affect other teams within the company. When correcting a problem, figure out who you’ve caused problems for and address that issue with them directly when necessary. You don’t want members of a team — or the entire team — thinking of you as the incompetent intern because they haven’t put a face to the name. A simple apology can avoid that, especially if you give them an ETA on the correction. As you’ll find with most things, good communication gives you a serious advantage.
Don’t Waste Free Time
You may have enough work day to day, but when you have free time, you should ask for more work. It will hurt your reputation if someone finds you doing nothing by choice, even if nobody assigned you anything. Show initiative and get new worked assigned to you. Better yet, have something in mind. When free time presents itself, you have a great opportunity to ask for the kind of work you like best or a task you really want to explore. Even if you don’t get a job out of the internship, you should seek out the kind of work that would look good on your resume. That way, should you depart, you can use that experience to get the kind of job you want.
Get Regular Feedback from Someone You Trust
Under the best of circumstances, you can ask your manager for regular feedback on your performance. This way you can learn how to improve from the person who sees you working the most. That said, you might have a better relationship with someone else in the company who can offer a more level-headed perspective. You don’t want to go to a work friend for feedback, but rather someone quite a ways above you on the food chain who you respect. Either way, checking in now and then can help you get the small amount of mentoring you need to learn what you can’t figure out on your own.
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