Here are 10 ways to get the most out of an internship:
1. Know what to expect. Generally, the idea behind an internship is to give you some basic exposure to day-to-day work in your field. In most cases, you will not be doing glamorous, substantive work; you’ll be making other people’s lives easier. This means you may get stuck photocopying, filing, arranging meetings, and completing other tasks that may strike you as drudgery. In exchange, you get exposure to the field and work experience to put on your resume.
2. Gain trust early on. If you excel at the boring tasks and do them cheerfully, you may be given more interesting work. Now, you may wonder what being good at photocopying has to do with your ability to do, say, independent research. Here’s the connection: When you come in as an intern, you haven’t proven yourself in the work world. But if you do a great job on the boring work, you’ll show that you pay attention to detail, follow instructions, and care about quality. Keep up that track record, and eventually someone may let you try something more interesting. But do a bad job on the basic stuff, and no one will trust you with anything more advanced. So it’s important to go into the job determined to do every task well, no matter how menial.
3. Pay attention to the office culture. Observe how others in the office act, and mirror that. For instance, if employees modulate their voices when others are on the phone, modulate yours. If they’re compulsively on-time for meetings, you should be compulsively on-time, too. Lots of little things like this will help you appear professional. And while they may sound small, they’re likely to help you stand out compared to other interns.
4. Focus. Don’t use social networking sites (unless it’s part of your job) or text with friends throughout the workday. You may be confident that it doesn’t distract you or affect your work, but experienced managers have watched enough people to be confident that it does.
5. Take your work seriously. In school, if you made a mistake on a test or paper, it only affected you. In many jobs, mistakes are much more serious. If you do make a mistake, make sure you handle it correctly.
6. Ask for feedback. Every so often, ask your boss how you’re doing. What could you be doing differently? Make it easy for her to give you input that will help you grow.
7. Learn from your co-workers. Ask them about their own careers. How did they get into the field? What do they like about it? What do they find challenging? What advice do they have for you? Most people love to talk about themselves and will be flattered that you’re asking about their experiences. Best of all, it’s likely to make them want to help you.
8. Dress appropriately. There’s no “intern exception” in the dress code, and yet I’ve seen interns come to work wearing flip-flops, ultra-low-rise jeans, visible bra straps, and worse. If you look like you're dressing for a class rather than a job, you’re signaling that you don't take your job seriously.
9. Ask for advice. Talk to people about your career plans. Tell them you'd love any advice they have, either now or in the future. Your co-workers can be helpful to you by telling you about job leads, recommending you for a job, and helping you consider various career choices. Though most people are happy to offer this kind of help, they might not offer it if you don't explicitly ask.
10. Say “Thank you.” Talk to your manager about what you’re getting out of your internship, and thank her for giving you the opportunity to work there. We all love hearing the occasional expression of appreciation, so don't be shy about offering it.
Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Leader's Guide to Getting Results and former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, hiring, firing, and employee development. She now teaches other managers how to manage for results.