One of the first things your supervisor tells you when you start an internship: you are NOT guaranteed a job offer when the internship ends.
Still, in many cases, an internship can be thought of as a months-long, intensive interview process that the company uses to determine how well you would perform as a regular employee. Again, there are no guarantees.
And the second thing your supervisor says to you: five coffees, two with milk, one with sugar, one with milk and sugar, and make mine black.
After you get over the understandable worry that the next three months of your life will be spent getting coffee, it’s time to get down to business. This internship could be your ticket into the industry, allowing you to make valuable professional contacts, and enhance your job skills and experience. If you put the work in, an internship could land you an interview for a full-time position, after you do your time in the trenches, of course.
Here are some tips to help you make the most of your internship, and improve your chances of getting a job offer.
1. Job Role
Find out your job responsibilities and role as an intern early on so that you can meet and exceed your supervisor’s expectations. Whether you’re a paid intern, earning college credit, or just interning to gain experience and build your resume, it’s also important to communicate your expectations to your boss. Stating your educational and professional goals (even the aspirational ones) will impress your supervisor, and may lead to new opportunities in your internship and beyond.
Network with employees and other interns as much as possible, as soon as possible, especially if your internship is for three months or less. With companies gaining a new batch of interns every fall, spring, and summer semester, it’s important to gain contact information from employees with whom you develop a good rapport. Of course, this does not mean asking for someone’s email or phone number within minutes of meeting.
Introduce yourself to everyone in the office during your first week, and as you begin to develop relationships with certain employees you’ll learn who will become part of your network, and who you’ll be able to ask for a reference in the future.
Work as hard at your internship as you would if you were being paid. When you can, show up early and stay late to finish tasks and get ahead of others. This will show your dedication and desire to contribute to the company. Volunteer to pitch in when you see a fellow intern struggling to complete a task. This person may be the one who informs you of job openings or gives you a reference in the future. Plus, being a team player (as well as a reliable, independent worker) is a good attribute to put forward at any company.
5. Slave Labor
Remember, an internship is a learning experience, not free labor. So even if your daily responsibilities include making lunch runs, fighting with the copy machine, and sorting mail, ask to sit in on staff meetings, and request tasks that will help you develop a new skill set.
In fact, recent U.S. court cases have made clear that unpaid internships must be educational in nature. Interns cannot legally work for free when that work would normally be done by paid employees. To clarify for interns, colleges, and employers what an internship should be, the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) issued a position statement in July 2011 defining an internship as “a form of experiential learning that integrates knowledge and theory learned in the classroom with practical application and skills development in a professional setting.”
So if by two weeks in, you’ve spent more time in Starbucks than the office, or an employee keeps handing off projects to you that were assigned to him, you should have a chat with your supervisor, someone in HR, or potentially the proper government agency.
Quasi-indentured servitude aside, you should never remain idle at the office. If you’ve completed all your assigned tasks, asked every employee if you could assist them, and restocked the paper in all the printers, then read up on industry news online so you’ll have something insightful to say around the water cooler.
6. Be Great
Ultimately, be a great intern. Don’t complain about menial tasks. Ask for more rewarding work when the opportunity arises. Treat your internship as you would any job in which you were hoping to advance: be on time, follow through on assignments, and contribute to whatever projects you can.
Ending on a Good Note
7. End Strong
When your internship concludes, end strong. Thank your supervisor and other employees for the professional experience, and ask if you may contact them in the future for a reference or to inquire about available positions at the company. After you leave, follow up with a thank you letter or email to your supervisor, and any other employee who offered career advice, or provided a learning opportunity during your internship. Ask if you can stay in touch, and the best way to do so.
As stated earlier, landing a job at the company you intern with is far from guaranteed. However, in 2010, interns were converted to employees at a rate of about 58 percent, up from about 53 percent in the previous year, according to NACE’s 2011 Internship and Co-op Survey. The study, which polled 266 employers, states that the increased conversion rate was largely due to more employers offering their interns full-time positions.
Firsthand observation has shown that a handful of the Class of 2011 have indeed landed jobs by way of internships soon after graduating, which means there’s hope for other interns, even in the current economic climate.
The stats and success stories show that when you prove yourself to an employer as an intern, you may be laying the foundation for your future career.
A college professor once told my internship seminar class to remember, at your company, as an intern, you are the lowest person on the totem pole. But, as alumni of his course revealed when they came to share their internship and career experiences with us, the opportunity to climb the company ladder exists as much during your internship as the day you interview for a full-time position.