5 Ways To Optimize Your Internship Experience
If you practice intentional meaning-making while interning, you’ll be well positioned to create that type of life after you earn your degree
At least 80% of us want purpose in our work and having an internship during college is the most powerful way to get there, according to research we recently conducted at Bates College with Gallup. That said, an internship is only as transformational as we make it. Days filled with repetitive tasks and limited interactions are less likely to yield the meaningful future we all desire.
Here are five steps you can take to optimize your internship experience, regardless of its content or location:
1. Connect With Other Interns
While some internships offer a built-in cohort of fellow interns, most sites host only one intern at a time, which can lead to lonely, boring days at work. Even if your full-time co-workers are warm and personable, talking with people in your exact stage of life is irreplaceable.
At Bates College, we offer a virtual platform to connect our Purposeful Work Interns around the world. This provides the chance to vent shared frustrations, brainstorm ways to handle common obstacles, and generally feel less alone throughout the internship process.
If your school doesn’t offer that opportunity, you can create it for yourself:
- Contact the Career Development office at your school and ask for a list of interns working in your geographic region or industry.
- If they can’t provide this list, use LinkedIn.com/alumni to find current students who have “intern” in their title, regardless of their geographic location. Reach out to those who seem most relevant to you – either because of shared industry or similar activities and interests – and ask whether they’d consider keeping in touch during the internship experience.
- If neither of those avenues pan out, you can simply ask your friends who are interns – regardless of their college – to create a virtual group.
Once you have a group assembled, create a schedule for sharing insights and feedback, either asynchronously (e.g., in a social media group) or on a phone or video chat at a set time. Whatever approach you choose, be sure to connect weekly in order to maintain momentum and build trust.
2. Master The Art Of The Informational Interview
Informational interviews are 15- to 20-minute chats during which you ask a person about their day-to-day work and solicit advice about your next steps. The goal isn’t to land a job but rather to learn about a type of work and forge a genuine connection.
While interning, you have a treasure trove of people around you who are eligible for excellent informational interviews. Even if the organization where you’re interning is quite small, there are likely other organizations close by, all filled with people who would be more than happy to have a coffee chat with you.
It tends to feel awkward to ask for informational interviews at first, but there’s literally no better time to get comfortable with the process. The very title “intern” denotes your openness to learning and your lack of certainty about the future, making others eager to support you.
3. Reflect On Your Experience Regularly
An internship can provide powerful insights while we’re immersed in it, but we tend to lose track of our own “a-ha” moments if we don’t make the time to capture our thoughts. Thankfully, the structure an internship creates in your day-to-day life is perfect for scheduling time to reflect. Carve out time to reflect weekly, near the end of the work week but not so late on Friday that you’re too tired to care. It only takes fifteen or twenty minutes to reflect thoughtfully.
During your reflection time you might do any or all of the following:
- Briefly document your major tasks, interactions, and insights from the preceding week.
- Write about connections you see between your internship and your coursework. In what ways has coursework prepared you well? What do you want to know more about?
- Journal in response to specific questions about your experience. We provide our Purposeful Work interns at Bates College with a weekly prompt, such as “What is one challenge you are facing right now? What is one way you might handle it?” You can find internship reflection questions online, such as from Wake Forest University or the Metropolitan State University of Denver, or brainstorm some with your intern cohort (see Step 1 above).
- Make note of some goals you’d like to work toward in the next week, which might include asking for an informational interview with a co-worker, trying out a new task, or exploring a new area of the city during lunch.
4. Identify What You DO Like
Unfortunately not all internships are wonderful experiences. When an internship is less-than-stellar, it’s tempting to discount the entire experience and simply “move on” – but that’s a big mistake.
I nearly did this myself after my first year in college. A physics major, I accepted a tech internship that ended up boring me to the core. When I returned to campus in the fall, my academic advisor didn’t let me throw away the entire experience, as much as I wanted to.
“Even though you didn’t like what you did and didn’t feel at all connected to your co-workers,” she said, “what did energize you, even in the slightest?”
“The commute,” I said without hesitation. I explained that I was fascinated by the variety of people I met on the train and at the newspaper stand and constantly found myself wondering what made them tick.
“Why not take a Psychology class then?” my advisor asked.
A change of major and complete shift of career followed.
5. Practice Making The Most Of Your Days
Finally, an internship isn’t just about work. Internships should be a full experience of working with meaning, which includes making the most of time beyond the office as well as within it. Meaning is created moment-by-moment; therefore, making a point of sharing a smile with the bus driver on your commute, using your lunch hour to explore nearby cultural opportunities, and carving out your evenings for activities that truly fill your well can all make for more meaningful, richer days.
By Rebecca Fraser-Thill