Friday, August 12, 2011

Interns of the World: Listen Up!

I have spent my fair share of summers as an intern- an unpaid intern in most cases.  
I was a liberal arts major in undergrad. In case you haven't noticed, most of the internships in that arena are not compensated, in money at least.  Were it not for my father's support, trust and encouragement, I would not have been able to afford those opportunities. And I can tell you that the reason I've been able to land most of my internships is because I could market the skills gained in those previous internships.  They have paid off. Undoubtedly.

The District of Columbia is notorious for morphing into a city full of interns in the summer.  And "interns" do not have a great reputation.  The squeaky wheel gets the grease, or the attention in this case.  In other words, the loud and obnoxious interns that flood the city in the summer make a bad name for all interns. In fact, there is even a blog where you can read tons of stories about all the incompetent, overly confident interns in this city and their many (overheard) adventures. When the truth is, many interns provide great help to their offices and get great experiences in return. 

Let me tell you- I have had some incredible opportunities as an intern.  Not only have I had the opportunity to learn new skills, but I've been able to attend some amazing events and meet some wonderful people- well-known and otherwise.  Many of the people from my office last summer have become my closest D.C. friends.  I see them regularly for dinner or coffee and I am so thankful they are friends to me. 

I say all that to say this:

A month ago, I started a new job. And I am an intern.  But this time, I'm a paid intern.  And the work is much different than other internships I've had so far.  Yes, I am an intern- but I have a bit more responsibility than I've had in other internships and this is a great opportunity for me to really gain some new skills that will hopefully serve me well now and wherever I may go next. I am so thankful for this internship.

But, this also isn't my first time at the rodeo, if you know what I mean.  I'm a little more seasoned than many interns.  I've been around the block a few times.  And here are some of my key take-aways from my internships and from observing others.

Be Humble.
Yes, you are an intern at XYZ Agency or Company.  And that is great! It is a big deal! Your parents are proud of you and they should be! You should be proud of yourself. I sincerely hope you are.
But you know what? You are still an intern- and any way you slice the pie, you are at the bottom of the totem pole.  It is not easy to hear, but it is true.  It is not your place to pass judgement openly on your workplace and its organization or lack thereof.  Especially when you've been around for approximately three weeks. You are there to learn.  And it is difficult to learn if you are constantly running your mouth.  I bet your second grade teacher tried to teach you that and it still applies. If you have negative thoughts and opinions of people you work with, I recommend that you save them for happy hour discussions with your buddies. Do not bring them up with your co-workers or fellow interns unless you know that they share your same negative feelings.  Bad-mouthing your employers or co-workers makes you look rude, snobbish and unprofessional. And it makes me think, if anyone ever asked me about you, that I would not recommend you as a good intern or team player.

Observe the behavior of people in your office.  Try to model your behavior after them. (Obviously do not mock or copy, but model yourself after them.) Do not be the first to jump in the discussion in a staff meeting. Let others speak for a few moments before throwing your ideas out there.  Do not clam up and be a wallflower, but have respect for people who have been around the organization longer than you have. You will probably learn something from them. If you are in a situation and you are unsure of how to act, follow your boss's lead.  I was invited to a reception last summer with my boss and I had no clue what I was walking into, so I followed her lead.  Chances are, you can't do something too wrong or embarrassing if your boss is doing it too. 

Be nice.
You will probably be spending a lot of time in your new office.  When I moved to D.C. last summer, I easily imagined myself becoming friends with my fellow interns and I did. What I did not anticipate was becoming friends with people who were technically my supervisors beyond an office friendship.  But I did.  Some of my best friends in D.C. now were my bosses last summer. And you know what? It is a lot more comfortable to call your friend and ask for a letter of recommendation than it is to call a boss that you half-heartedly had a relationship with.  If you do good work for someone, they will help you out with future pursuits in most cases.  But if you did good work for someone and they like you on a personal level, they will be even more excited to help you. So be nice. You never know when the next stranger you meet in the office might become your closest friend. 

At minimum, follow the dress code.
I mean this is just self-explanatory. I doubt there are any guys reading this blog, but if there are (possible shout-out to my friend Kori if he still reads?), you should own at least one suit. When you get an invitation to an event that calls for professional dress, you should wear it.  I am no expert on menswear and I do not pretend to be- but I think things are a little more straight-forward for guys in this department.
For ladies, I highly recommend this blog post from Capitol Hill Style titled, "Intern Style: 15 Easy Pieces." When an event calls for professional dress, a cardigan will not cut it.  If you will be meeting the CEO of your company or some other high-up official or principal, please wear a jacket with a collar- otherwise known as a blazer.  Even The Gap is selling them these days. I promise people may not notice if your blazer is super expensive or chic, but they will notice that you are wearing something borderline business casual when everyone else is in a suit. 
For those who want to pump it up a notch in the dressing department, I highly recommend paying attention to what your supervisor wears and dressing in a similar style (or as similar as possible without breaking the bank).  If your supervisor typically wears a jacket, you should consider wearing them too.  If your supervisor is more casual, it is okay for you to go with business casual too. 

Be Punctual.
If you are not early, you are late. Especially being an intern, you will likely be unfamiliar with where you are going a lot of the time. This morning, I spent 30 minutes walking around a complex looking for a room that I didn't have access to without an escort. Did anyone tell me this? No. But I was on time even after walking around for a while in the wrong direction because I was early to begin with. Plan ahead and plan carefully with time.

Be Honest.
You are an intern.  At some point, your boss or someone high-up in the "food chain" will ask what your goals are.  Make sure you are prepared for this question and be honest about your goals.  These people are likely taking an interest in you because you have made a good impression on them.  They want to help you because you have been a help to them in some way. But they can only help you if you are honest about your future goals and next moves.  You are an intern- so it is okay to let them know that this job was not the best fit for you and that, through the learning process of your internship, you think you may want to try something different.  If you are at the point of looking for a paid job, it is okay to tell them that if you have a good relationship with each other! They may not be able to hire you, but they may be able to recommend you to someone else. 

One last thing...
Watch your mouth.  Cursing does not make the best first impression on most people and is not appropriate in most workplaces.  Once you have made friends with a coworker, it is okay to curse if you feel comfortable.  Otherwise, don't use even borderline "bad words" around complete strangers.  It is just not a great idea.

I hope this post is maybe helpful to someone out there.  I hope I do not sound all high and mighty.  I am not the greatest intern ever and I make plenty of mistakes- trust me!  But I have had experience as an intern and I feel like these are pretty common pitfalls. 

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