Let’s face it: if you want a job after you’re done school that doesn’t involve writing down pasta orders or spilling Americanos all over yourself (been there), you have to do an internship.
No ifs, ands, or buts. Our generation is not our parents’ generation. A formal education doesn’t guarantee you a job—or even a foot in the door, for that matter. It’s all on you to corroborate your university education with other experiences that will improve your chances of getting hired somewhere. Start with an internship.
Yeah, it sucks that it probably won’t pay (although it should). Yeah, you’ll probably have to do the crappy things no one wants to do along with the cool stuff. But I’m not telling you to intern just because it looks good on your resume. Your resume is going to grow and change a bajillion times as you live your life; if you want an internship just so you can list it in bold on a piece of paper, don’t bother. The only reason you should be doing an internship is for the life experience and personal development it offers you. Any internship will give you skills, knowledge, and personality traits that you need before somebody even considers giving you a professional position.
I have been lucky enough to have been an intern three times. I completed a curatorial internship with Grunt Gallery in my first and second years of university, I briefly interned for Hearty Magazine, and just now, I am wrapping up an internship at Industrial Brand before entering my third year at UBC, where I study Art History.
Interning for an artist-run centre and interning for a design business are two very different things. The environments are different, the pace of work is different, the team is different, and the work itself is different. However, it is through these differences that I realized something quite important. No matter where you are interning, there are certain things you need to tell yourself and do to ensure a worthwhile experience.
1. Listen diligently.
When you are an intern, you are at a distinct advantage over your school classmates: you get to snoop in on EVERYTHING that goes on in a real work place, and ultimately learn a whole schwack of relevant information without doing much more than listening and writing stuff down. So, make sure you listen as much as you can. If there is a meeting coming up that sounds like it could be informative, ask to sit in on it. If there is a problem with a client or a project, listen to find out what went wrong. If your managers are introducing a new program into the business’ daily activities, listen to them explaining how to use it. There is little more valuable than the information you learn just by being a fly on the wall.
2. Use your Spidey senses.
Every workplace has its own way of doing things. After spending a week or two as an intern, you should have a good idea of some of the things that are expected or allowed—and some of the things that are big no-nos. If everyone in the office communicates via Adium or Skype, it’s probably not a good idea to yell a question across the room every five minutes. If there are certain formalities employees use when speaking to their seniors, make sure to use those as well. Observe, use your intuition, and try your best to fall into the rhythm of the office. Show that you are capable of conducting yourself professionally and fitting in to the office culture.
3. Communicate well.
Here’s a tip for the rest of your life: stop feeling self-conscious about speaking up and asking questions. If you don’t ask for clarity when you need it, you are likely to screw up on your assignments a whole lot more and create generally unpleasant and discouraging situations for yourself. Think through what exactly it is that is unclear, ask it in a polite and considerate manner, and you’re good to go. It’ll show your employer that you want to do the best job you can at his or her company.
4. Check in about your performance.
Don’t be annoying and needy about it, but ask your employer how you’re doing every once in a while. Unless you’re really messing up in your role, your employer might not give you the feedback you need to hear unless you ask for it yourself. So, periodically connect with your employer to see how your internship is going and what you can improve in. Do not shy away from these conversations: not only will they reassure you that you aren’t a big screw up, but they will also help you set goals for the rest of your internship.
5. Take advantage of all your resources.
At Industrial Brand, I have access to many of their servers, files, archives, and databases. This has proven to be incredibly helpful, because at any time I need to look something up for reference or for more understanding, I have hundreds of files at my fingertips. Wherever you are interning, dig around for a similar treasure chest of information. If you’re interning for a magazine, see if they’ve catalogued all their sponsors. If you’re interning at a gallery, see if they have press releases, invoices, and other documents from previous shows on site. Be heads up about everything you can get to help you in your situation, and take full advantage of it.
6. Accept that you will screw up. And that’s okay.
There’s no point in stressing out that your boss asked you to design a poster for the staff barbecue on Photoshop and you have no clue where to even start. You’re an intern—you are expected to know very little, to make mistakes, and to learn from them. No one is taking you on thinking that you’ll be able to do everything they ask of you. So just take two seconds and chill, and realize that it’s okay to ask for help or admit that you aren’t ready to do something. However, if you do that…
7. Catch up, fast.
If you don’t know how to use Photoshop to make that poster, go home and sit at your computer until you learn it. For real. Sacrifice some Netflix time and watch tutorials, download trials and practice the programs that you think you will need to stand out at your internship. Even basic programs that everyone uses, like Word or Excel, probably have more to them than you think. If you start learning the things you don’t know, you’ll find that you’re able to do more as an intern, and you’ll have a more valuable experience. Sometimes you have to learn for yourself, by yourself. Which leads me to my last point.
8. Move your butt.
Our experiences at colleges and universities make us think that internships are similarly structured. We tend to think that, like universities or colleges, internships are organized educational programs, with specific tasks and standards and instructions and timelines for the interns.If that’s the type of coddling you expect… don’t hold your breath.
The reality is, businesses and organizations have way too much going on to be able to always devote time to ensure you a cohesive, organized, and satisfying intern experience. It is up to you to make sure you learn as much as you possibly can during your time with the organization. If you don’t take the initiative to create mini assignments for yourself, you’ll be disappointed and disillusioned. It isn’t your employer’s job to hold your hand through your experience as an intern—it is your job to make it a worthwhile experience for both you and your employer. So, be aware of what’s going on. Look at the company calendar and suggest where you may be able to help. Most importantly, make use of what you’re good at. If you’re a good writer, suggest editing some proposals. If you have an eye for organization, suggest formatting some documents. There are plenty of opportunities for you to stand out in an internship. If you act as a self-starter, you’ll blow your employers away, but most importantly, you’ll teach yourself the invaluable life skill of independence.
Being an intern is a necessary step you should take to enhance your learning. If you commit to ensuring a beneficial experience, you’ll finish with a whole new perspective on yourself and your career and new skills that you’ll be able to make use of for the rest of your life. Enter with the right attitude and diligence and your internship could very well lead you away from Americanos and towards your first meaningful job. No excuses, though: it’s up to you to make it happen.