Challenges Faced by Interns
The working world is a jungle, and the intern is at the bottom of the food chain.
There’s no doubt that the internship habitat is changing. Jobs that used to be entry-level have turned into internships with no paid vacation or benefits. The number of qualified college graduates in the job market has grown (more hooves in the watering hole). Unpaid internships are a necessary hurdle to pass in many fields to get to the paid internship.
Interning in Washington, DC this past year – the capital of internships and ambitious young people looking to gain experience in political offices, law firms, and non-profits – I have gained a few insights into the nature of internship positions.
Seven Common Internship Challenges
Any job will have challenges, but after a year of my own internship experience and hearing friends share about their internships over happy hours, I've found that there are some common intern challenges to expect. What are the common issues of an internship? I think it is that interns are three things:
- In a race to gain experience
Here are some of the big challenges that this work environment creates:
1. Not Enough Work
There’s not enough work assigned to you. You’re bored, underutilized, strumming your fingers at your desk, and tempted to peruse Facebook.
What to do: Sympathetic friends and parents hearing you moan about not having enough to do at work will recommend that you do your own research and create your own project. This is all very good-sounding advice, but, in practice, it’s hard to get fired up about a project that you’re not sure will be used or even looked at.
Asking your senior employees if you can help with their projects is fine, but it also can be embarrassing or disheartening repeatedly admitting that you have nothing to do. The best tactic I saw one of my fellow interns use was to ask employees if they have a moment to chat and give you an overview on their role in the office. As an intern you are there to learn about the profession, and if they have a conscience, they will comply. Once you’ve got them talking about their work, try to see where you could fit in. Maybe, merely by voicing things aloud, they will be inspired to get you onboard one of their longer term projects.
2. Too Much Work
Because interns are just glad to get a foot in the door, some work places may take advantage of young workers by giving them very long hours of dull, repetitive work. However, from my observations, this seems to be less of an intern problem and more the experience of entry-level assistants in the legal, corporate, and banking world.
What to do: Keep your long-term career goals clearly in mind to make it all feel worth the effort.
3. Afraid to Ask Questions
All of a sudden, there’s an influx of work, and you finally have the chance to prove yourself! But, you’re not sure about x, y, z….You may feel the pressure to be an independent and self-sufficient worker, but it’s so much better to clarify uncertainties!
What to do: Follow this one rule and you will become a better worker: don't assume. My friend is a civil engineer, and her supervisor told her that his most important rule was to never assume something's right. Always check if you’re not sure. You will avoid silly mistakes and crumbly bridges.
4. Supervisors Forget That You're New to the Field
Your supervisor gives you a project, but the directions don't quite make sense to you, or you're having trouble seeing the bigger picture. This goes along with “don’t assume.” Ask, ask, ask! It’s your right as an intern and it’s their duty as a supervisor! They will be impressed that you care about doing it right the first time or learning more about the overall field.
What to do: Even if you think you’ve got all the directions right, a good practice is to repeat back to them the details of the project to make sure you’re on the same page.
Sometimes supervisors are not located on site. My generation is, perhaps, too comfortable with email. Email is useful when outlining complicated directions, but usually a phone call is quicker and can communicate more. It also gives your supervisor a voice to attach to your name, thus making you more memorable.
5. Competition With Other Interns
Luckily, I’ve worked in groups where the interns had a collaborative relationship such that we could ask each other questions and team up on projects easily. Other office environments may not be quite so friendly, as interns might be competing for a future job opening or a good letter of recommendation. My friend Amy experienced working with a fellow intern who was a project snatcher. On days Amy was out, the other intern would complete projects Amy had been working on and turn them in to the supervisor under her own name.
What to do: Just relax and stay friendly. At this stage of your career, I've been told that the most important quality you can have is to be open-minded, drama-free, and easy to work with. It’s okay if you aren’t the smartest and fastest worker or the ruthlessly ambitious worker. People will want to work with you because you’re enjoyable to work with and have a good attitude.
6. Your Work Is Not Used
Your boss gives you a project that you finally feel will make use of your college education. But it ends up never being published, getting lost on their desk, or, whoops – there was a miscommunication between the senior staff and your project is now unnecessary. Not only is this frustrating because of your seemingly wasted time and effort, but it makes you less motivated for projects in the future.
What to do: Publish your written work online instead! Try not to look at it as wasted time and effort. Instead see it as a resume/experience booster. Keep a list of the tasks and projects you’ve accomplished during your time as an intern. Writing them down will help you remember what experiences you’ve had and give you the sense of completion you need to push on.
7) A New Lifestyle
If you’re a recent college graduate, you may be getting used to a new lifestyle that can be quite jarring. Instead of waking up at ten and going to a few classes a day, you’re sitting at a desk 9 to 5. You might be living at your parents' to save money. The hours and the new living situation clearly make socializing more difficult than before.
What to do: Don’t fall into the "go home, eat, shower, sleep routine!" Schedule socializing and adventurous activities. Do what some of my friends have done to keep life spicy and full of friends:
- Join a local bowling, kickball, or other such sports team.
- Find a pub that does trivia and get a regular posse together.
- Adopt a dog: it will get you outside and let's you meet other dog owners.
- Sign up for online dating. The most popular site in my friend group is OK Cupid.