It’s tough to be an intern. Throughout our working lives we perform a balancing act between ambition and patience, and let’s face it: when you’re at the bottom of the ladder, all you want to do is move up.
As an intern, you’re usually trying to gain as much experience as you can in a limited time. Sometimes the stakes are even higher, and you may find yourself competing for a permanent job.
Whether you’re thrown straight into the deep end or feel stuck cutting your teeth on the basics, your internship may test you in ways you didn’t expect. Here are a few of the lessons to take away from the challenging moments in any internship placement.
Why and How to Find the Right Company Culture
I was invited to interview for my first internship -- a vague “let’s see how we get on” opportunity in fashion PR -- at London’s Shoreditch House. It was hard not to be overawed by the private members’ club, famous for its rooftop pool and no-mobile-phone policy. I imagined working my way up to a future among the fabulous: trading gossip over coffee with journalists, toasting the spring lines with designers.
Spoiler alert: I have never returned to Shoreditch House.
During my trial run, a more established intern told me, “You don’t want to work here.” She cited hard work and little recognition as her primary woes.
Hard work? No problem. I filed media coverage at double speed and swept the floor before visitors began to arrive for Press Day. “You don’t need to do that,” said the firm’s founder, roping in the other intern. She suggested I have a drink. But I continued to find tasks for myself: prepping cocktails, straightening gift bags.
At the end of the week, the founder thanked me for my help. But she didn’t ask me back – I later learned that she worried I couldn’t relax. I didn’t fit the culture, despite my attempts to exceed her expectations.
In an ideal world, you should always interview at a company’s offices to get some insight into their culture. Try to gauge the pace of work and how people interact with each other. This may be tough if you’re applying for an internship abroad, but you can still ask for opportunities to connect with current team members, or with internship alumni if the placement is arranged through your school.
How to Find Value in Tasks You Don't Enjoy
Your teachers were right: you never stop having to do stuff you don’t love. Astronauts get motion sickness. Disney animators have staff meetings. Even the most glamorous Instagram influencers need to send out invoices. And while “intern” is no longer a synonym for “coffee-wrangler-in-chief,” your placement will probably include some tasks you aren’t totally into -- no matter where it is in the world, or what industry you’re working in.
I discovered as much as an editorial intern at a magazine publisher – the dreamiest job for a young wannabe writer -- when assigned a piece about pet furniture. It was a legitimate opportunity to write, but as I told friends what I was working on, I couldn’t keep a straight face.
Here’s the thing: getting to do what you want in this world is rare and beautiful. When you’re handed a task that doesn’t stoke your particular fire, you need to throw yourself at it twice as hard to get the most out of it. Your tenacity will probably open other doors you can’t yet imagine.
If you just suffer through the parts of a job you don’t like, they’re always going to suck – but if you put everything into them, they become as rewarding as the tasks you live for.
How to Cope with the Speed of Life
Adjusting to the pace of a new office in a new country is one of the most potentially challenging lessons for an intern, but know that everyone goes through this.
In school, we have months to complete assignments – and no matter how much we procrastinate, we’re constantly fuelling a final product with new insights from class. In an office, deadlines come up more quickly, and you can’t just take a late penalty if you need the extra time.
The good news is, you’re working to different standards. No one is going to think you’re a failure if the work you put out an hour isn’t identical to the best you can do in three weeks. What you do as an intern is often just a starting point for someone else higher up in the team, and projects will change a lot after they leave your desk.
At another PR internship, I was chastised for spending too long on a report. My predecessor had managed the same task in half the time, resulting in his promotion to a permanent role. It felt like a lot to live up to, and I was terrified of cutting the wrong corners.
In situations like this, don’t be afraid to ask questions. While some workplaces assume interns should be autonomous and proficient from day one, most understand that an internship placement is a learning opportunity. It could be that you’re over-thinking the task at hand. Make sure you understand the ideal outcome of your work for the rest of your team. How can you set them up for success? Find out, then make that your focus.
How to Stand Up For Your Values
A company’s ethics are part of its culture, so if you’ve found one that fits, your values are probably a match. Still, every once in a while, something goes wrong.
I once found myself in an ethical showdown when a colleague and I were collaborating on a task. (Group projects: they happen everywhere, so you gotta learn to love ‘em.) He began to copy and paste content from across the internet with the intention of presenting it as our own.
When I challenged him, dancing around the p-word – plagiarism -- he said that he’d worked this way for months and never had a problem. I gaped at the screen as he sent off the document, then went off to cry in a stairwell. (I do not recommend this.)
If you’re asked to do something you don’t agree with, you can always say no. Make sure you have the complete picture before you escalate the situation. Then explain your position without making accusations; as we often advise, be sensitive to cultural norms around these kinds of difficult conversations. If you still have ethical concerns – especially if the problem exists above your pay grade – then it may be time to think about giving notice. But that’s not a route you want to take lightly.
When to Walk Away -- Or How to Manage if You Can't
If the situation at your internship becomes too much, turn to your support system first. If your placement was arranged through school, that includes teachers and administrators who can help to manage your expectations based on their years of experience.
Most internships are short, so it’s usually best to stick it out if you can. Unless you’re facing a serious ethical issue or workplace harassment – which you should definitely report through the proper channels – it’s not worth burning a bridge.
If you do have to leave, try to secure a reference before you go. You might even consider sending a thank you card to a supervisor you enjoyed working with.
Whenever you face a challenge during your internship, remember that it’s also an opportunity. These experiences can inform the questions you’re asked in your next job interview -- and the ones you ask prospective employers.