How to rock that internship
Updated: Nov 1, 2020
You are an intern. And you want to impress your boss.
I have been there. Over a decade of my life, I was there.
Here's the bottom line – no one will take the initiative to mentor, motivate, and support you. But there are ways you can make this happen.
Be good at your job. This seems straightforward, but it isn't. You are an intern because you are just starting out in your career field – you probably aren't very good at everything. That's ok. BUT you need to be purposefully about catching up.
List the types of skills that your internship requires. You may not actually know. If this is the case, the first step is to have a conversation with your boss about how they tend to use interns. If possible, try to talk to people that have interned in your position before and ask them. Examples include: making presentations, writing up event summaries, writing research memos, handling social media, event planning, translations, etc.
Purposefully cultivate needed skills. You may think, “I’ve used powerpoint before so I can put together presentations.” Or “Event summaries? Ill just take notes and clean them up.” Wrong. Be purposefully about cultivating the skills you need to succeed. Search the web for articles, videos, courses, podcasts to help you. Pay the setup costs. Don’t expect your boss to be able to provide insights – he/she might not be very good at it themselves (that’s why they have interns for that). If they are, ask them if they have a system, though many successful people don’t actually know what they do to get there.
Sometimes the internship itself will offer opportunities to do so. When I was a summer associate at RAND Corporation, I had a session with a professional briefing consultant, who went over my slides to give feedback. If your internship offers these types of opportunities, make the most of them.
But sometimes it is up to you. When I was at RAND that summer, my main job was to translate Chinese writings about military space doctrine. When I started, my boss was like, "You won't have any problems with this work, will you?" And I was like, "oh sure, no problem." But it was a problem. I had never read anything in Chinese that wasn't in a textbook with explanations and definitions right next to the text. And I had never translated anything before. So I worked all day on my translations, and then I took them home and worked on them all night. So no one would know that it took me so long to complete them. But over time, I got better and quicker, and in the meantime, I was still able to make a good impression on my boss.
So use the internship as an opportunity to cultivate skills. Then making a good impression will just become a nice side effect.
Be proactive about what you can contribute. Are you particularly good at something that would be useful in your internship? Designing websites? Proofreading? Creating event invitations? Whatever it is, bring it to the attention of your boss and ask if you can help.
“Hey, I’ve noticed that you don’t tweet a lot – is that something you’d like to do? I can draft tweets for you, if you’d like”
“Your project on China-Russia relations looks interesting. I actually speak Russian – would you like me to write a summary for you on what Russian sources are saying about the issue?”
Also, pay attention to what your boss complains about – are they treading copyediting an article? Offer to do it for them. Is their office a mess? Offer to sort through and alphabetize their books. The possibilities are endless. In one of my jobs, I was told there wasn't much to do. But everyone complained about a stack of books in the back - so I offered to summarize, sort, and catalog them. People remember when you make their lives easier.
Never make your boss tell you the same thing twice. This is where reminders and performance notes come into play. If I have to tell an intern many times what citation format to use, it's not good. Attention to detail is important. But sometimes your boss won't give you clear instructions all in one place. Recently I've had an intern compose tweets for me. Over the past three weeks, we've had many back and forths in which I've provided feedback. The best way forward would be for the intern to make a checklist for tweets and go through it each time before sending it to me to make sure he/she does everything I've asked.
Network the right way. You may have the opportunity to work directly with your boss - when you have access, all of this is much easier. But sometimes, there will be someone between you and the person you are creating products for. If you follow the previous two steps and do a stand-out job, you will get noticed. But in the meantime, you should reach out to the people you want to establish a relationship with to set up a meeting.
Now, most people set up meetings to ask for career advice. And if you need some, great. But I’ll tell you, I take dozens of meetings a month along these lines. And I remember very few of them. The best way to network is to engage on topics of interest to your boss with goals in mind. They've asked you to put something together – and you want to follow up to make sure you understand what they are looking for.
If you want to network outside your organization, this principle also applies. Let’s say your boss has asked you to write a report about cross-strait relations. You read a few pieces by leading scholars and have some follow up questions. Email to ask them if they had time for a quick chat – now you’ve gone above and beyond for your memo and made a meaningful connection.
For tips on networking remotely, see this blogpost.
Leave a place better than how you found it. Part of my system is to put all relevant information in one place. This is a great way to make an impression. What would make the next interns' job easier? You can create checklists, templates, tips on where to look for sources, etc. In the military, we call this a continuity binder – the idea is to put all the information in it that helps the next person do the job a bit better. This demonstrates initiative and leadership, and the organization will definitely be grateful for it.
Make performance notes. Write down what worked and what didn't – what you wish you had gained from your internship and why you think you did or did not. Also, note which aspects of the job you liked and what you didn't- this helps you figure out what you want to do in life. Which is the whole point of an internship to begin with!
Make a graceful exit. Make sure to send a personal note to everyone you worked with, noting one thing in particular that each did to enrich your experience. Keep track of everything you did to contribute to the organization and send a summary to your boss. Ask for an exit interview to get feedback. This is also a good time to ask for suggestions for the next steps. Continuing with the example of my internship at RAND, I got the advice to try to get an internship that allowed me to work more directly with the military. That led me to pursue an internship at Pacific Command, which eventually convinced me to join the military. All good things. And follow up with your boss later when good things happen – thank them again for the opportunity and connect your recent award, scholarship, publication, or whatever to the internship opportunity. It shows that you understand you can't do it all alone, and you are appreciative of others' support. And people like to support people that make them feel good.