Eyes wide and heart beating hard, I stepped into the elevator that would take me to the 12th floor and my first day at my first internship. I scrabbled in my purse — a hand-me-down from my mother, since I had never owned or had use for a purse before — and frantically reopened the email with directions for how to enter the front door for the umpteenth time.
Once I finally gained entry, I expected to be grilled as to who I was, ignored in every meeting, shoved to the side whenever I proved to be an inconvenience, and given busywork that no one else was willing to do. Some of these expectations came true, but I never could have anticipated all the positive side effects that would come about as a result of my internship, too. If you’re wondering what you should expect from an internship, read on.
What is an internship?
An internship is a learning opportunity that companies give to students or recent graduates as a form of work experience. So, what are the objectives of an internship? With a goal in mind, it’s possible to take advantage of this opportunity in several ways: your goal could be to gain some valuable work experience, to make possible connections that might help you later on in your career, or to simply do something that you can list on your decidedly bare resume.
What should you expect from your internship?
1. A contract.
Even if you’re not getting paid, you should expect to sign a contract before starting at any internship. In many states, the law requires that any company offering unpaid internships must make interns sign a learning contract, which establishes that the goals of the internship are educational and will not be benefiting the company monetarily. A contract will delineate your job title, your duties, your hours and much more. Do not consider your internship locked down until you’ve signed on the dotted line!
2. An introduction to the company, field, or industry.
By the time you leave your internship, you should know a significant amount about your intended field. This will happen mostly by accident over the course of the internship — as you acclimate to your surroundings, you’ll learn more about your job and the people you work for, and in doing so you’ll build a deeper understanding of your role in the company. Hopefully, this introduction will serve to help you decide whether or not this is the field you’d like to enter full-time.
3. A new skill.
As part of this introduction to the field, you’ll be assigned work to do, and the likelihood will be that you’ve never done that type of work before. Lean into the discomfort and embrace the challenge of learning a new skill. Even if that skill is sorting files or inputting information into an online system, you never know when it’ll come in useful; so get good at it, whatever it is.
4. The chance to shadow.
Shadowing an employee for a day is a unique experience that you should look forward to in your internship. It helps you understand working life more fully, and allows you to create a deeper relationship with one specific employee as they act as your mentor for the day. Note: Not all employers readily offer up an opportunity to shadow a higher-up, but if this opportunity is not made available to you, you can still ask your boss if it’s a possibility.
5. Reasonable hours.
If your internship is asking something ridiculous of you in terms of the hours you’re working, like workdays that are longer than nine hours or have no lunch breaks, then you have a problem. Internships are designed to serve an educational purpose, so if you’re working more than 40 hours in a week, then you are likely being taken advantage of. Check through your contract and communicate with your employer to figure out your hours before you start the internship.
Make sure to spend time talking to the people around you. Coworkers are more than just that; they are possible connections. Doing a little bit of networking while at your internship is a smart idea if you want to set yourself up in the field. Plus, getting to know your new colleagues makes the internship much more interesting and exciting.
7. A resume boost.
Even if you get literally nothing else out of your experience interning, you are at least guaranteed one thing: a new entry on your resume. This is no small matter, since the more fleshed out your "Work Experience" section is, the more impressive you’ll look to future employers. Building your resume is not an easy thing to do, so any opportunity, even an unpaid internship, will probably pay off somewhere down the line simply as a contribution to the resume.
8. An outgoing internship report.
As your internship nears an end, you can expect to be asked to fill out an internship report. These reports can be a nuisance, but they’re very useful for your employer; essentially, they’ll ask you what your experience as an intern was like in order to collect useful information about how to change or better the program for the next round of interns. Try to be thoughtful in your response, because your feedback is the most meaningful feedback that your employer can receive about the program.
9. A reference for the future.
After working with your employer for as much time as you have, they should know you well enough to provide a reference when you apply to more jobs in the coming years. This is part of why you should make an effort in your internship, even if you consider your tasks menial or your contribution unnecessary; an employer can usually tell if you’re hard working or not, and the reference they write for you will reflect that.
What an internship is not
Let’s get down to business: do you always get paid when you do an internship? Many people are confused about this aspect of internships, for good reason. Not all internships are paid opportunities; in fact, more often than not, the internships you apply for will be unpaid. In an ideal world, unpaid internship programs would strive to give interns a very comprehensive learning experience of their respective work environments. Of course, that is not always one’s experience in an unpaid internship; however, the internship is still meant to be mutually beneficial for both you and your employer. No matter if you work a paid or unpaid internship, you should still be getting something out of it.