Five ways to make the most of your internship

Internships offer a chance to get your foot in the door for many industries. Follow these tips to make sure you are making the most of your intern time.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor/File
UPS intern Ginger Golobish from Indiana works with students in a Strive Readiness Training class to prepare them for job interviews (2004).

Kristen Purdy studies environmental science at Portland State University, but her coursework alone didn’t inspire her to pursue a career in sustainability. She’s also done four environmental services-related internships in the past three years.

“My internships and my work experience have been so closely related to my career goals that they’re almost as important as the education itself,” says Purdy, 21.

Internships give students like Purdy the opportunity to explore career paths, get resume-building experience and show a company what they can do. Nailing an internship can also be the difference between struggling to find a job or sailing straight into one when you graduate: More than 70% of employers said their primary goal in bringing on an intern was to hire them as a full-time, entry-level employee once the internship ended, according to a 2015 report by the National Association of Colleges and Employers.

Use these five tips to get your employer’s attention during your internship so you’re first on their list when an entry-level job opens up.

1. Be realistic about how much you can take on.

Internships are often less competitive during the school year than over the summer, and you can try out different companies if you work your fall or spring semesters in addition to summer break.

But if you overcommit yourself, both your work at your internship and your GPA could suffer, says Taren Crow, director of liberal arts and sciences career services at Iowa State University.

“You really need to look at your course load and make sure that it’s manageable, maybe even speaking with your instructors before the semester starts,” she says.

You also need to consider your financial limitations as well, such as whether you can afford to take an unpaid internship. They’re especially prevalent in fields such as journalism, nonprofit management and entertainment, though it’s not feasible for everyone to work for free.

“In some industries it is really common, and it is the best way to get your foot in the door. But see if you can negotiate a little less time in the internship,” Crow says. If you’re offered an unpaid internship that requires a commitment of 40 hours a week, for instance, ask your employer if you can cut it down to one or two days. That way, you can make money elsewhere to cover living expenses.

2. Treat a challenging project as a way to test yourself.

This summer Purdy was an intern at Recology, a San Francisco-based recycling and waste management company. She learned about supply management and resource recovery, which includes recycling residential and commercial materials and debris. The field was new to her, and so were the projects she worked on.

“I was actually doing stuff that involves web design, which is totally not my field,” she says. But she stayed confident and enthusiastic, and she viewed her internship as a way to learn what she was capable of.

“I’m like, ‘OK, this is three months, I’ve got a mentor, I’m supported.’ But at the same time, I can kind of test myself.”

Getting thrown into a new environment without much experience can be scary, but internships are ideal places for you to try a new skill or role without the weight of a class grade on your shoulders. And when you show your employer that you’re willing to take on every project with positivity, no matter how big or small, you’ll demonstrate how valuable you’d be as a full-time employee.

3. Meet with your supervisor regularly.

Some internships are highly structured and build regular check-ins with supervisors into the experience. But if your internship is less organized, it’s up to you to seek feedback. That will not only help you improve your work while you’re there, but you’ll show you’re thoughtful and eager to progress in your field.

A strong relationship with your supervisor and co-workers also means you’re more likely to be considered when a job becomes available. When you build a friendly rapport with others, they’ll remember you’re someone they’d want to work with again.

“It’s good to make sure that you really meet people while you’re there so you have people to go to bat for you when they may be making a hiring decision,” Crow says.

4. Let your boss know you’re interested in a job.

If you loved your internship and want to work at the company in the future, tell your boss before you leave. It might seem direct, but it’s worth putting yourself on your boss’s radar while you’re still at the company.

“Your supervisor can’t read your mind, and so they may not know that you’re even interested in that,” Crow says.

As your internship is concluding, she recommends telling your supervisor: “I really enjoyed my experience here and I’m hoping I could be eventually hired full-time. Are there any opportunities I could be considered for?” Let your supervisor know when you’ll graduate, and if it’s more than a few semesters away, tell him or her that you’ll follow up as the date gets closer.

5. Keep in touch when your internship ends.

Former internship supervisors and colleagues are hugely valuable members of your professional network. They know your work and can vouch for you not only for jobs at their company, but also when you apply to other companies, too.

Purdy got a letter of recommendation for her Recology internship from a former supervisor at the electric-car advocacy organization Drive Oregon, where she interned her sophomore year. She also emails her former bosses a few times a year to let them know what she’s doing as she progresses in school.

“They really like that. I get lots of good emails back,” she says. “I can’t wait til someday when I’m older and I start getting those warm, fuzzy emails from students that I’ve mentored.”

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