Internships are time-honored ways to get your foot in the door at an organization you’d love to work for – but you’re only going to get out of it what you put in. Whether you’re a student doing an internship for credit, or a professional who’s exploring a different career option, here are some concrete ways to leverage your internship to educate yourself, grow your skill set, and network for future opportunities.
Learn from everyone you meet
Everyone at the organization you’re interning for has something to teach you – from the most senior manager to your fellow interns. The trick to learning it is to keep an open mind – and don’t be afraid to ask questions! Asking thoughtful questions doesn’t come across as ignorant or annoying – on the contrary, it signals that you’re engaged and ready to learn.
After you’ve been at your internship for a while, take the opportunity to interview senior managers and department leads about their experiences and career paths. This is your chance build relationships with people on all levels of the organization. Ask, and you may be surprised at how easy it is to get a few minutes of someone’s time.
Hone your ideas and your skills
Internships aren’t just about getting coffee, filing paperwork, and listening to those who’ve been there longer – this is your chance to contribute your own spark to the organization. Suggest new ways of doing things when appropriate, and pay attention to the results.
You’ve probably learned a ton in college or at your previous job – and your internship is a chance to test it out in the real world. Hone your ideas and practice your skills. Use the internship to discover gaps in your knowledge, develop your biggest strengths, and spot areas of improvement.
Offering contributions as an intern requires an equal measure confidence and humility – both of which may stretch you beyond your comfort zone. Demonstrate that you have the pluck to offer suggestions, but also the modesty to receive feedback.
Grow your skill set
At some point you’ll probably get stuck tackling that closet full of files from 1998 that still need to be scanned – but hopefully the main portion of your internship is about learning new skills. In order to keep that focus, be sure to lay out your expectations with your supervisor from the start. In your initial emails and conversations, try to come up with three to five things you’re hoping to learn, in order to alleviate the problem of your internship turning out nothing like you’d anticipated.
Take initiative in asking for work. Have some free time? Volunteer for a new project, or ask to be loaned out to a different team if your manager is running out of work for you. This is your chance to truly tailor your internship – seek out projects that align with what you want to learn, and that look good on your resume.
A caveat: be sure not to burn yourself out. Your focus should be on quality over quantity. Once you’ve finished a project, take some time to ask for feedback, and to evaluate your work.
Add new contacts to your network
One of the biggest things you can take away from an internship is an expanded professional network. You’ll meet other interns who will grow with you throughout your career, as well as more experienced coworkers who can act as mentors. Be deliberate about meeting people and growing relationships: sit with a new person at lunch, stop and chat at the water cooler, and invite a coworker out for coffee.
Be sure to stay connected after your internship is through, via LinkedIn or email. Making friends both within your department and on other teams will help you expand your circle – and you never know when a contact may come in handy.