3 Ways to Get the Most Out of Your Internship

April 19, 2012

This is a guest post on best practices around social networking from Nicole Williams. For similar posts check out our series on networking tips and tricks here. – Ed.

Say again? So I struggle for months to find an internship. Research, wear a suit, interview, interview and interview again until finally I convince a company to take a chance on me. And now I work over 60 hours a week in a completely new and challenging environment, trying things I’ve never done before with people I’ve never met before. Grabbing coffee, researching until my eyes roll back in my head, becoming the go-to for anything tech-related just because I know how to register a URL, basically at my “boss’s” beck and call… and all this, I do for FREE?

I’ve heard this lament about internships more times than I care to count - but let me assure you, the biggest mistake you can make is to think (and even worse, act) as if you’re working for free. In fact, if you’re making the most out of your internship, you’re going to be walking away with one of the most lucrative opportunities of your career. Here are the three things you want to get out of an internship that will make it all worth it.

Relationships: You’ve heard the good ol' saying, "It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.”  Well, believe it.  Career opportunity almost always comes through people and if you want to land a job outside of this internship, it’s all about making quality connections… lots and lots of them (at least 50!)

After creating a thorough LinkedIn profile where you highlight your education, volunteer and work experiences and keep track of your newly acquired skills, you want to take a two pronged approach to building your Rolodex.

Your initial focus is to ask for connections from all the folks you work with, and if you have a particularly close working relationship with your manager, ask if she is willing to help you make introductions to her connections. Think: "(Insert boss’s name here) admires the work you do and suggested I reach out to connect with you." Then, you want to spread your wings. Start following companies you may be interested in working with in the future.   Study who's in and who’s out, and if you find someone of interest with whom you have something in common (a fellow alumni, for example), feel free to ask exploratory questions like "How did you get into the industry?", building up to a suggestion to further your conversation over a coffee.

You have two very unique and unthreatening things going for you: first, you have a “job” while you have an internship and second, you’re new and people want to help people who are starting out.  But keep in mind this very important qualifier: even as a newbie, no one owes you anything.  When you are asking for a connection, it’s always helpful to go in first with a compliment that illustrates the fact that you’ve done your research.  But save your big asks (i.e., a job) for after you’ve built some rapport or even better, have offered something to help them (like registering that URL you’re so good at).

Experiences: One of the biggest mistakes I see in internships is the whole sit-back-and-wait-to-be-told/shown-what-to-do approach.  An internship is all about what you make of it and it’s important to keep in mind that your boss is two things: very busy and somewhat afraid that you’re going to screw up.

At the end of the day, you are new to the whole scene and there is going to be some reservation about putting you on the front line. It’s up to you to prove that you are up to the task. Three initiative taking tricks:  1) Take a look at the mission-critical skills that others in your industry or organization have acquired and follow their lead; 2) Go onto LinkedIn Groups and join the conversation. Ask for insight and advice before delving into a tough project or participating in a meeting to demonstrate your knowledge; and 3) Try actually executing the project on small scale.

Internships are exactly where you want to try your hand at new things, not only to build your skill set but also to get a real sense of whether or not this is the career for you. The whole point of an internship is to move from theory to practice, and the more initiative you take and confidence you instill, the more earning power you’ll muster.

Recommendations: Relationships + Experiences = Recommendations.  Let’s go back to the opening lament about internships. Yes, there is a risk that you will be working for nothing - and by nothing, I mean failing to build the relationships and experiences you need to walk away and have someone be willing to endorse you and your work. The key here is to start with the end in mind.

Even though it’s not until toward the end of the internship that you’ll be making the ask, you need to work hard and be worthy of a recommendation from the start. Build specific skill sets that they can refer to in a recommendation. Also, figure out whose word has the power to influence the opinion of those who are hiring - both within the organization and the industry at large. Help them to get to know you and your skills long before you need to ask for the recommendation to post on LinkedIn and make it easy on them by specifying what you would like it to highlight.

A recommendation is worth its weight in gold. Don’t leave an internship without it!