The Dark Side: How to Avoid Becoming a Serial Intern

Posted by Dave Allen on September 19, 2011
The Dark Side: How to Avoid Becoming a Serial Intern

The combination of desperate hunger for experience and a dearth of full-time, entry-level work has led many students down a path to the dark side. They become serial interns, working for little or no pay, enticed by the scant chance of advancement. They spend their days in a remote corner of the office performing menial tasks: taking out garbage, stuffing envelopes, fetching lunch.

As author Ross Perlin details in his book Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy, it’s common for interns to do the work of full-time employees yet be treated as something less. Because so many students are desperate to add experience to their resumes, they dive in without adequate research or preparation and end up overworked, exploited, and simply neglected.

But you need not tread down this path. A worthy internship—one that will help you develop useful skills and gain substantial experience—awaits those who know what to watch out for.

Do Your Homework
Similar to gathering information before booking a hotel or buying a car, doing background research on internships is critical. Of course, the company’s website will go on and on about how great the experience will be, but you need to seek an unbiased opinion. Unfortunately, there’s no TripAdvisor or Consumer Reports for internships, so some digging is required.

Anything from a review on Glassdoor to a blog post can give you a glimpse of what kind of experience to expect. “You’re just as responsible for ensuring that the internship is mutually beneficial as the employer is,” says Mark Babbitt, founder and CEO of internship placement site YouTern.

LinkedIn is another great source when conducting a background check. With the career paths and job histories of millions of professionals, you have a veritable database of former interns at your fingertips. If you have your eye on a specific company, use the site’s search function to find some recent interns who are in your network.

As soon as you spot one, send a friendly query to ask about his or her experience interning at Company X. Did he work on important projects? Did she receive on-the-job mentoring? What was the workplace atmosphere like? If the answers are “no,” “no,” and “toxic and suffocating,” move on to other employers.  The same approach can be used when tapping into your school’s alumni database.

Walk in With a Plan
Many interns take a passive approach to their first days on the job, modestly asking “What do you have for me today?” But without a strong sense of what you want to accomplish, the experience can lapse into ad hoc, menial work. You can prevent this by drawing up a list of goals, desires, and expectations for your ideal internship based on your long-term career objectives. Also, list a few specific tasks you hope to complete on the job: for example, increasing traffic to the company’s website through social media, or assisting with processing payments to vendors.

This kind of game plan can guide you along your search. However, don’t lose sight of the needs and expectations of employers; they’re hiring you to do work, not to advance your career. The initial interview is the time for both parties to have an open conversation about their wants and needs. “I think employers are impressed by people who have a specific goal in mind and feel confident about what they’re providing the employer,” says Allison Cheston, a New York-based career adviser. If an employer is receptive to your goals, a mutually beneficial experience could result; if they won’t hear you out, you may need to look elsewhere.

Find a Mentor
Once you know what your goals are, a world-wise mentor can help you realize them. Whether you make contact through school, family, or previous work experience, a mentor can set an example of how success is achieved in your industry, set a benchmark for the skills you’ll need if you go a similar route, and perhaps provide insight on how to avoid some of the typical pitfalls.

Above all, good mentors have a vested interest in your future, says Babbitt, and will try to steer you toward valuable experience. As you research places to intern, run them by your mentor. If your mentor is in your industry, he should know which companies to seek out and which to avoid. Also, as you present yourself to employers, ask your mentor to help you find a balance between earnestness and confidence. You want to set a tone that says, “I’m willing to work hard, but I won’t be exploited.”

Put it on Paper
Formal agreements are generally required for all internships completed for college credit. They often set a rigorous standard, including frequent evaluations and an end-of-semester project. If you intern for credit, make it clear before you’re on the job that you’re being graded for your work; this may help stave off flimsy or pointless assignments.

If you’re pursuing an internship independently rather than through your college, try to make a similar agreement with your employer. If you draft a confident, professional statement of your expectations and the hours you plan to work, says Monica Shukla, career outreach director at Chapman University, a reputable employer should
have no problem signing it. Also, stay in touch with your college’s career center in case
things take a turn for the worse. Colleges don’t want to see their students taken advantage of. In some cases they may intervene on your behalf, whether by approaching the employer and demanding change, or by helping you draft your resignation letter. “I’m happy to advocate for students either directly or indirectly by helping them to take action,” Shukla says.

*Early Warning Signals
Even if you’ve done your research and landed what seems like an ideal internship, don’t let your guard all the way down. Keep an eye out for the following red flags. Each could warrant a sit-down with your supervisor. And, if the problem persists, be prepared to bail.

If interns outnumber regular employees, the company might be like a puppy mill: focused more on quantity than with providing value.

Note how many other interns are reporting to your supervisor. If he’s charged with directing more than four interns, his ability to mentor may be stretched too thin to offer proper guidance.

How often are you meeting with your supervisor? If it’s less than weekly, try pushing for more frequent talks. If you haven’t had face time since day one, there might be a problem.

If you were told you’d be working on business-critical tasks but you’re organizing files from 20 years ago, bring it up with your supervisor before it becomes the status quo.

Keep an eye out for rah-rah speeches from managers. If you’re doing menial work that’s being played up as meaningful, something is amiss.

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