Sarah* had a graphic design internship at a New York-based fashion start-up, and it wasn’t what she expected.
“The work was more general office intern and less graphic design focused — which was my major. My morale was low because I wasn’t being given meaningful or challenging work, and it didn’t even seem like it mattered that I was there. The interns were great at helping the company, but the work they assigned didn’t really help the interns. We weren’t learning. I started calling out. Then, after a month at the company I stopped coming completely."
Unfortunately, Sarah’s story isn’t completely uncommon — not only did she and five other interns end up resigning, but there are plenty of former and current interns who’ve found themselves in similar situations.
If you find yourself in an internship like Sarah’s and are ready to bolt out the door, read on to learn how you can turn the experience around.
“My supervisor asked me to help her scan amendments into the system. At the time, I didn’t feel like this was any exceptional skill. I felt as if anyone could be doing this, but I did it and looked for ways to enhance the process by learning specific systems and new techniques for recording data. After I left the internship, I realized the ability to enter data quickly provided an essential foundational skill set to work in other places. Now I work at Port Authority working on a multi-million dollar project for the World Trade Center," says Kelvin.
A simple shift in attitude toward your internship when completing redundant tasks can take you far. Remember, mundane tasks aren’t meant to be time-wasters — they are supposed to give you a granular understanding of the company and industry. Think of it this way: When you are the rookie, you gain points for effort; but as you climb the ladder, you gain points for excellence. Put in the effort to learn all the details now so you can excel later.
“You go to an internship wanting to learn as much as you can about a company. At first I would ask, ‘Do you have something for me to do?’ Then, I started networking around my desk. I developed relationships with individuals that [sic] were outside of my immediate area of learning, and they would give me assignments," recalls Miriam, a former Cargill and Boston Consulting Group intern. While the company is certainly responsible for helping you learn, you have to remember that you too are responsible for advancing your professional development.
Try making a list of goals. This will not only give you personal direction; it will also help you seek opportunities outside your given roles and responsibilities. If you aren’t sure where to start, ask yourself these questions:
What are the responsibilities outlined in the job description?
What is the mission and description of the company?
What is the company known for (for example, key projects, social initiatives, research)?
Where does the company excel?
What trainings and experiences will help me flourish in this industry?
What soft (attitude, time management, adaptability, communications) and hard (technical or administrative) skills do I need?
What projects am I interested in working on?
Are there meetings I’d like to observe?
Who would I like to meet or shadow?
Having goals will keep you focused and forging ahead. It will also help you find intrinsic value in your daily tasks. Employers will definitely take note of your initiative. “When they saw me learning on my own, they saw that I was helpful, and in the case of Boston Consulting Group, I was allowed to intern for another semester," says Miriam.
“At Cargill, I spent some time working in a warehouse, but when I went to the warehouse and offered my suggestions, no one really wanted to listen. Originally, I didn’t want to say anything to my supervisor because I didn’t want to offend anyone, but finally I called her. She came to the warehouse, they implemented my idea for inventory, and we figured out that we had over $500,000 in overstock. My system worked, and I was named employee of the month," says Miriam.
It can be an internal battle of “should I or shouldn’t I" when it comes to voicing your opinions and ideas, but remember that as long as you are respectful, it is okay to advocate for yourself. And it’s great practice for the actual workforce. Remember, employers are not mind readers; they cannot help you if they don’t know that you need help.
A good way to advocate for yourself, for example, can be to set up a time to sit down with your supervisor. When you meet, start off by letting her know that you are grateful for the opportunity she’s given you, and start by naming the positive things you’ve enjoyed about the internship. Then point out some tasks and initiatives you’d like to take on. Showing that you’re there to work hard and be a great asset to the team is music to the ears of supervisors. And a good one will do whatever she can to ensure you have a great experience.
As a new employee, you bring a fresh perspective as you learn procedures. You may see them as opportunities for advancement or new methods that others simply consider routine. Start out by trying to improve the tasks you are allowed to do, and then look for bigger projects. Not sure how to request extra work? Try something like this: “I have some extra time, and I wanted to inquire about any pain points for the company in X-department. I would be more than happy to do some research on solutions and, if appropriate, present my findings."
If your internship is absolutely unbearable and you cannot grit your way through another day, here are some steps you should take if you decide to leave the company (and by this point, you should have previously expressed your concern to your supervisor so she isn’t completely blindsided by your desire to exit.):
Draft an email to request a meeting.
During the meeting with your supervisor, focus on the positive. There’s no need to hash out all the dirty details, so thank her for the opportunity and her support. Focus on the fit; it’s not about the specific mundane tasks, the meaningless errands, or the lack of direction — it’s about the fit. You are exiting to find an opportunity that more closely aligns with your goals and needs.
Give at least two weeks notice on your departure. Remember to finish all assignments and leave your contact information in case they have questions and need to follow up.
There’s no guarantee you won’t burn any bridges, but if you are respectful and gracious, the bridge won’t spontaneously combust in flames.
Sarah admits, “Looking back, I know that there are things I could have done differently. There were things that I could have learned if I stayed. I could have grown my people skills by working through difficult relationships, and even though the tasks were repetitive, I realize that I could have grown to do more challenging ones."
Kirsty Bryant, a recent grad with a few unfortunate internships under her belt says she’s grateful for the experiences. She advises, “Take notes on the areas where you need improvement and development, and find those on your own time. I learned things I like, what kind of worker I am, and what kind of environment I thrive best in. It’s important to remember that these are stepping stones to developing your full promise and potential."
* Name has been changed