Saturday, January 11, 2014

How to Ace Your Internship

Last May I quit my part time job so that I could focus all of my energy on working within my professional field, hoping to build up experience and find a job soon after graduation. Over the summer I worked on a political campaign and then in the fall I landed two internships. One was with a domestic abuse advocacy program, and one is (as I'm still working there) with a non-profit that benefits individuals with intellectual & developmental disabilities. All three of these internships have been incredible learning experiences, however my first one (and a couple months into the second) was a little rocky. I think this was because my last job was very simple and I was there for such a long time that the work came to me very naturally - I never really worked hard at it. Internships are different. They're learning experiences and you're only going to get as much out as you put in. Just the other day I accepted as extension of my current internship until I find a full time job. I was very flattered to be offered the extension and felt very rewarded for all the hard work that I've put in.

I feel like, while a lot of colleges might have classes on building resumes, etc., not all of them have classes on how to get the most our of your internships. And if you don't come from that type of background (both of my parents are working class), then the office setting can be jilting. Because of this, I thought I'd do a little post about how to get the most out of your internship - and impress the boss while at it!

Get to know the company you're working for
Take my word for it that there's nothing more embarrassing than to have someone ask what the company you're interning with does...and to have no clue how to answer.

My second internship not only involved a rather complex mission statement, but also required confusing - and sensitive - terminology and legal procedures. After a few weeks of feeling completely lost and fearing the question of, "So what does legal advocate mean?", I asked one of the recent hires how she settled into the job. In response to my question, she handed me a massive binder of notes and photocopies of important documents and pamphlets. And so, I started my own. I spent a good day at the copy machine, going through all the manuals, books, information pamphlets, binders from trainings, etc. that were around the office. I compiled them all into a binder and then I studied that binder every day until I got that shit down.

When you start working at a new company, ask your new co-workers and your boss about why they work there and what the work means to them. Ask them if they have any tips for learning your way around the office or the work you're doing. Don't be shy to ask questions when you're confused. And seriously, compile that binder or folder. It will save your ass down the line!

Talk to people outside of your department
Even if you're not going to be working with them on a project and even if you don't need to knock their socks off for a good review, it's handy to get to know the other people you'll be seeing around the office. It's always nice to have a friendly face around, or someone who you can talk to in the break room or at the water cooler. A lot of the time these people will make time to get to know you because a) you're not working for them and b) you're young and hip! Some of these co-workers have even connected me with people that they know within my own field. It's really great and so don't be shy!

Remember, you're a guest there
I feel like I should follow up that last tip with this one. Always remember that you are a guest there! Yeah you're doing work - and probably unpaid work - but this opportunity is a learning experience and meant to give you a boost. My first tip is, as one of the mall cops at my part time job used to say to me, never dip your pen into the workplace ink. Or it was something like that. What I'm trying to say is, do not sleep with anyone in your office. Do not start something romantic with anyone in your office. I don't care if there's chemistry and I don't care if you're really lonely. Adopt a cat. Buy a vibrator. Start something with them afterwards if you really need to & don't mind having your reputation diminished once you're out. As Kelly Williams Brown wrote in her book Adulting, pretend everyone in the office has plastic doll crotches.

Other very simple basics: Arrive on time. Keep your work area clean. Stay off of social media. Don't be that person who stinks up the whole office with smelly food. Keep phone conversations private. Just because your boss likes you, doesn't mean that you're his/her new bff. These are all very simple. You're a guest. Be courteous.

Dress the part
The concept of "casual Friday" does not exist for you. Always dress for the work that you're doing. If you're working in an office, dress professionally. I've worked with other interns who wear cut offs and leggings to the office. If you don't see full-time staff doing it, then don't do it yourself. Make sure you know the office's dress code policy and stick to it. If you're supposed to wear business attire, then wear it. No leggings, no jeans, no strappy tank tops, no tube tops. Remember, it's always better to over dress than under dress. Dressing up shows that you're serious about your work and take the company's reputation very seriously as well.

Here are some office essentials:

A good pair of sensible shoes
Invest in a good pair of kitten heeled shoes or loafers. Even if your strappy four inch peep toe platforms are fucking hot and make your legs look great, save them for date night. I have four pairs of work shoes: black pumps, brown pumps, red loafers, and black boots (for snowy winter). Here are some good examples:

A professional carry all bag
This is the tough thing to find. It's important to have something professional (no massive purses with everything thrown in, please!) but large enough to hold all of your papers (and keep them clean & unwrinkled) as well as your lunch (because you'll go broke eating out every day). My favourite bag is a great big blue one that I found in a vintage shop. It's circa 1970s from Sears, with several large pockets. It holds EVERYTHING. Your bag is up to you. Check out vintage shops and thrift stores. If you opt to buy one online, always check measurements. The worst thing is buying a bag and having it come way smaller than you imagined, or not open wide enough to fit anything. (This always happens to me when I'm buying "fashion" bags, assuming that I can also use them for work. Cute, fashionable bags are ALWAYS way smaller than you think they will be.)

I was recently contacted about the upcoming brand O'Bazziƫ Classics which I'm really excited about, as they make large, beautiful bags and in really exciting colours. I'm definitely going to scoop one of these babies up when they hit stores.

A pencil skirt and blazer
A sharp pencil skirt and well-tailored blazer are investment pieces. These are things that you will be wearing constantly. I went to Nordstrom and headed to their petite section to assure that all my clothes would fit properly. If you choose to buy second hand or online, make sure that you bring them to the tailor if they don't fit correctly. The last thing you want is to be swimming in your clothes, especially an over-sized blazer. Skirts should hit right around knee length. Absolutely make sure that the hem extends past your fingertips. Your office isn't a club. Be modest.

Be smart in meetings
Meetings can be scary. I was lucky that my first internship was for a political campaign run entirely by young people - the oldest staff was around 28, if I remember correctly. It wasn't as scary to speak up and say what I believed, because everyone was my own age. My second and third internships: not so much. Board meetings at my current internship can be a bit terrifying. But, I speak up. And when I do, yeah, I turn bright red, but whatever. I'm asserting myself, asking questions, and making it known that I'm curious to learn more and that I want to be taken seriously.

Always take good notes. A legal pad will be your best friend. And make sure that you have all your necessary paperwork with you. Check with your boss to see if he/she needs help setting up any presentations or making copies of paperwork. Be very prepared, and spend the meeting attentive, sitting up straight, and taking - perhaps an unnecessary amount of - notes.

Offer to take on tasks - not in your job description
Offer to take on new tasks. Often, these will come up when you're in meetings and they're listing off things that need to be accomplished. Speak up and offer to complete assignments or tasks - but only ones that you know you can feasibly achieve.

Often times when you're in meetings, you feel like someone else who is more qualified should take on the tasks being thrown out. But, the only way you become qualified to do them is by starting as a beginner. After the first committee meeting I was in, my boss took me aside and said that I could take on all the tasks that I had offered to do. Many of them were not even tasks on my job description, but I wanted to do them anyways. It pays to be a go-getter and have confidence in your abilities.

Stay organized
I'm going to end on this one because it is the absolutely most important. Organization is the crux of achieving professionally and personally. The easiest way, for me, to get organized is by making lists. I make to-do lists of everything I need to get done. If the boss gives me several tasks, I write them all down in order and check them off as I go along. If I have individuals or businesses that I need to follow up with, I put them all on a list and go down that list one by one. I keep all of my lists in a legal pad so that I never have a post-it note with one list, and another with a different list, etc.

All of my paperwork is filed away and if I must take out more than one file, I keep them stacked separately. There's nothing worse than needing to check several files at once and finding them all on top of one another or strewn across your desk.

Write down every meeting that you have, every day that you have to be at your internship, what times you start. Keep them all in your date book. Nothing will disrupt your day more than missing a meeting or arriving to work an hour late.

It's important to remain organized throughout the duration of your internship. Organization is a never ending task, but it can cut the stress of your work down by half and keep you focused on what's important now, and what isn't important now, so you can put all of your energy into what you need to get done first.

So, in conclusion...
I hope that this little guide will help you down the road, or perhaps very soon! So many of my readers are in that age group (my age group) where we're just launching our careers. It's a scary thing to do, but I'm lucky that my experience interning has cut down my anxiety of beginning a full time professional job, and a lot of that is related to the fact that I'm working hard to get the most out of my internships. Every internship is different, just as every boss and office is different, but I believe that these core principals and practices can be applied to any internship, to succeed in any internship. Best of luck to all who are on that scary path to having a career!


Anonymous said...

WOW, I can't belive how little they teach you about "How to GET a job" in college! The points you make are valid, but any highschool kid SHOULD know these things.

Jamie Rose said...

This list was actually really helpful since I'm starting my internship on Monday. It was good for me to go through and make sure I had all the items I'll probably need like a notebook for lists. I definitely would've forgot that and I make lists all the time so I'd be lost. You're way ahead of me in the internship/career game. I'm in my last year of grad school and just now doing my first internship. I hope yours continues to go well and that you find a full time job soon!

chloe said...

Anon - it's shocking how unprepared so many young people are. Not all colleges or degree programs offer classes on finding a job (my program did not), and even those that do often times do not teach proper etiquette, etc. I remember that a similar class I took in high school prepped us for finding a job (resumes, cover letters, interviewing) but not for how to behave once you have actually secured that job. When you don't grow up with parents/friends/family members who work in offices, then you're really foreign to proper business etiquette. Plus, breaking into that can be terrifying and leave you uncertain as to what risks you should be taking.

Meli said...

Thanks for this- I'm starting my internship tomorrow! Eep!

Anonymous said...

Chloe, You are so right. As a recent graduate of the U of M you SHOULD give feedback to them about this topic. It is very important to all students.

Anonymous said...

Good luck on your job search! You will do great things of this I am sure.