During my university studies I did two traineeships. One was underpaid, the other one was unpaid all together. But hey, beggars, eh, young professionals can’t be choosers, and thanks to the German system of affordable student loans, I didn’t have to fear for my financial existence too much. So I had the chance to try out a couple of things and just take my first rookie steps in the professional world. Let’s face it: university does not really prepare you for the real job world out there. After graduating from my Masters degree, I managed to nail what was then my best traineeship so far: a paid one. It was with the European Commission, which offers traineeships every 6 months pays and pays their interns a fair and decent allowance of around €1100. This was enough for me to get a flat-share room in Brussels – while not having to sell off my left kidney to pay the rent.
Internship is what you make of it.
I believe that a successful internship is determined by four factors. You don’t have a whole lot of influence over all of them, but I’d say that at least half of it depends on what you make of it – and 50% of creative leeway is a lot. Make sure to use it.
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So let’s say you managed to get a good internship and are motivated to make it a success. What’s next? How do you ensure that it will actually help you to advance on your career – rather than just becoming a gap-filler on your CV? Here’s the factors that I think matter:
- A decent pay (or something like that)
Let’s be clear: None of us do internships to get rich – but rather to learn from them. Nevertheless, your financial situation shouldn’t cause you sleepless nights, and being able to pay your rent and not starve is a plus. I admit that – apart from the fact that it is you who decides what internship offers to accept or decline – you don’t have too much influence over this.
Not in all sectors do young people have the luxury to be very picky. But if you have any kind of scope to negotiate, do it. Maybe you can get them to pay a small allowance towards your accommodation, free lunches in their canteen or any other useful benefits? See what can be done, asking won’t cost you anything.
And if all of the above is not possible, it’s all the more reason to make an extra effort to make the internship worth your time: by learning as much as you can during that time. Which leads me to point 2:
- The learnings you are offered and how you’re integrated in the team
(Spoiler: Being able to finally make the perfect coffee after six months is not what constitutes for a successful traineeship.)
I think we agree: having a degree alone is not a guarantee for succeeding in the workplace. It is very unlikely for a university programme to deliver all the skills and competences that you will need along your career path. This is why internships are so valuable, especially when you don’t have much experience on the job yet. You can try out different sectors and disciplines and see, if that’s even a good match for you. What I found particularly useful when starting out as an intern was to observe how people work and deal with professional challenges, to compare different styles of working and to find my own.
But in order to do that, your superiors and colleagues have to make an effort to integrate you into the team. I know myself that, faced with the challenges of a busy working schedule, keeping the intern in the loop is not your top priority when you’re stressed. Often it is also easier to “very quickly do something yourself”, instead of first explaining it to someone for half an hour. But it goes without saying that this is not at all useful for you, the intern.
So if despite all good intentions, your team doesn’t involve you enough in their day-to-day business, talk to them. Remind them of your presence and eagerness to work in a proactive, friendly but not obtrusive way. If they can’t think of interesting tasks for you to do immediately, ask them for background information or documents that can help you to better understand the project at hand. Be creative, think of concrete proposals on how to get involved and support them in their work. For example: “In the last team meeting you mentioned that you needed an in-depth analysis of XYZ; I did some research and this is what I put together…”
Ask for feedback. Especially at the beginning, it is likely that you won’t deliver right away exactly what is needed, and how it is needed. That’s absolutely normal. Every team has different dynamics and practices, and every colleague has a different style of working. Over time, you will understand better how to get involved and figure out ways to add value.
- Finding opportunities to add value – ideally even after your internship
The most valuable tip that I got from my supervisor as an intern was: try to find a project for you to pursue during your six months here. Something that you can work towards, and which will be useful for the team even after you’re gone. A project that you will be able to take home as your very own success.
A couple of weeks into your internship you will hopefully already have been entrusted with a few tasks, as well as better understand who needs what, when and how. Work hard, and fulfil your tasks as good as you can. Whenever you find yourself having nothing to do, look proactively for things you could do to support your team’s work or to help improve the quality of their work. Trust me: every office has a long list of “we should”- or “would be good”-tasks that nobody ever finds the time for. But if done well, these little jobs can improve the quality of the whole team’s work.
Maybe your team is lacking a comprehensive social-media-strategy? Maybe they would need a better monitoring-method to keep track of what is working and what is not? Maybe you could put together an analysis, including concrete and easy-to-follow steps on how to do it best? This was the project I did during my first internship. In my subsequent job interviews, I didn’t dread the question “tell us about some of your professional successes” as much as I used to before.
You are young and full of skills and knowledge that your colleagues might not have. Digital and social media skills are the first things that come to mind, but I’m sure there’s much more if you give it some thought. You have the luxurious position that, firstly, you are not yet swallowed up and blinded by old routines, and secondly, that you actually have the time to do some research and get creative.
Talk to your superiors and/or colleagues about your project ideas and try to find something that will add value to the team’s daily work and that will ideally even still be used after your traineeship is over.
- What you take home from it
Think about the time after your internship, which is when ideally you should be starting to search for real jobs. Everybody knows that there are two extremes among interns: those who laze around all day and wait for the 6 months to pass, and those who are proactive and become close to full staff members, who actively participate in the team’s tasks and take on responsibility.
Build your case to show that you’re one of the latter.
Think about it: what are the most common horrible questions in a job interview? “What were your biggest professional successes so far?” “Tell us about the projects you have successfully worked on”, “What challenges have you mastered in your professional life, and how did you do that?” …and so on. Just because you don’t have 15 years of experience on the job, it does not mean that you cannot reply to these questions with concrete and convincing examples.
Over the course of your internship, keep stock and make a list of tasks and projects that you have successfully mastered, and where you have managed to assume some responsibility. You don’t want to find yourself applying for your next job, staring at an empty word-document and failing to remember examples that would help you to prove that you possess all the competencies and experiences that are asked for in the job description. Jotting those things down in a notebook during your internship can help you keeping track of these things.
But most important tip of all: Trust in yourself and your skills. You’ll see, you will manage.
Did I forget anything? Do you have further tips and recommendations? What is your experience with internships? Let me know in the comments section below.
Oh, and don’t forget to spread the word:
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