Being an intern is
more than just showing up
Too many students fail
to take full advantage of the experience,
Some advice on how to do it right
Globe and Mail: August 2,
2006: CHANAKYA SETHI
It all started when one of her engineering classes was
invited to a factory tour last fall.
As she watched the vinaigrette, cream cheese and candy come off the
production lines, Jennifer Bouchard knew that this was a place she wanted to
So the fourth-year engineering student at McGill University applied for and
received a summer internship at Kraft Ltd.'s manufacturing facility in Mount
Now she's spending her summer working on a team responsible for keeping
those very production lines humming.
"I wanted to develop my skills as an engineer, since I've never worked in a
plant before," says Ms. Bouchard, one of two interns at the facility. "I
wanted to find out if this is what I really want to do for a living."
Like Ms. Bouchard, more and more young people are recognizing the value of
summer internships as an opportunity to test their career waters by seeking
out jobs that let them explore their interests and boost their credentials
as they prepare to join Canada's work force.
Though data for Canadian students is not available, a whopping 82 per cent
of young Americans say that an internship is "extremely important" for their
career, according to a recent survey by Vault, a career-counselling firm.
There are, of course, many potential benefits to be had from an internship
-- including invaluable experience working in a desired industry, potential
doors to be opened to a job offer after graduation and higher starting pay
in the working world than for those who haven't completed an internship.
But just getting such a coveted position is no guarantee of these benefits.
Indeed, once in the door, too many students fail to approach the experience
with the right strategies to make the most of it, career experts say.
"Most of these kids, they don't have an idea," says Jamie Fedorko, author of
The Intern Files: How to Get, Keep and Make the Most of Your Internship, who
wrote his book based on lessons he learned from his own internship
"I didn't know what I was doing either."
At about the summer midway mark, it's probably a good idea for interns to
conduct a checkup on their internship and make sure they are taking full
Here are some pointers from the experts on how to make the most of a summer
internship -- and stay a step ahead of the rest of the pack.
Know your place
Interns may have a lot to offer to employers but nobody has hired you to
become chief executive officer. As much as you may have to offer, you're at
the bottom of the corporate food chain, a point lost on many students.
"I've seen kids who are far more intelligent than the next guy, but they
have a bad attitude," Mr. Fedorko says. "It comes back to humility, to just
doing your work."
In other words, don't be upset if you're not asked on your first day on the
job to develop the company's new strategy for expanding into emerging
"Don't expect to be doing the major work all the time," advises Gregg
Blachford, director of career placement at McGill. "Sometimes you need to do
the routine work."
Being saddled with less-than-challenging work is probably going to be
frustrating, Mr. Fedorko acknowledges, but what will get you noticed is if
you remain focused and keep plugging away. "The big things will come."
Be clear about your goals
While completing menial tasks may be what occupies your time at first, it's
important to let your employer know about your own career aspirations and
After all, by hiring an intern, "a company has taken a responsibility to
help with that students' education," Mr. Blachford notes.
But students are often reluctant, shy or even forget to be explicit about
their own goals and interests, denying employers the chance to give them
work that better suits them, says Sharon Irwin-Foulon, director of career
management at the University of Western Ontario's Richard Ivey School of
"You want to be transparent and clear with your own goals and many people
won't because they think, 'Oh my gosh, they will think badly of me,'" she
But "the No. 1 thing is make sure you have an open dialogue with the
Jenny Hui, a second-year MBA student at Ivey who is working this summer at
UBS Securities Canada Inc. as a banking intern, has made sure to speak up,
taking the initiative to arrange regular meetings with her boss.
Her purpose is twofold: not only to make sure she's
meeting expectations but also to make sure her boss understands what Ms. Hui
is hoping to get out of her time at UBS.
"Setting expectations at the very beginning is something that you would want
to do," she says, adding that she's keeping the discussions a continuing,
While Ms. Hui speaks of her interests and skills, her supervisor provides
feedback and suggestions, leading to a better experience for everyone
In the world of internships, it's almost axiomatic that there are more
interns than there are permanent job openings. The one clear way to rise
above the crowd is, of course, to do more than is expected of you. And so,
whether the task is tedious or exactly the challenge you hoped for, your
goal should be the same: Wow them.
"I think it's definitely important to exceed expectations," Ms. Bouchard
says. "I take initiative to get things done that my boss may not have asked
me to do, or things that will really help them out."
One example: After initially struggling with getting up to speed on some of
the information she needed to know to do her job, Ms. Bouchard realized that
it would be helpful for future interns if she wrote a manual to help
acclimatize them to the plant.
Her boss hadn't asked her to produce one, but was pleasantly surprised when
Ms. Bouchard says the key for her was "thinking of little things that may
not have been something that [her boss] specifically asked for," but would
Stand out smartly
Sure, it's important to rise above the crowd -- but interns need to be
careful about what makes them stand out among their peers.
Besides the obvious -- you don't want to be the intern who is habitually
late, for example -- don't fall prey to the common mistake of becoming your
boss's resident sycophant, spending all your time trying to schmooze and be
extra-friendly, the experts warn.
"Don't go in hoping that they'll like you. Go in hoping that they'll
recognize you as a bright, competent individual," Ms. Irwin-Foulon says.
"Present yourself as a professional, not as a friend."
"You do want to stand out, but you don't have to be the ingratiating guy,"
Mr. Fedorko agrees. "If you want to stick out, you want to stick out with
Seek feedback -- good and bad
Part of being a professional is asking for feedback.
And while compliments are welcomed, so, too, should you be capable of taking
bad news in stride, another point often lost on students, Ms. Irwin-Foulon
Soliciting feedback is crucial so you can understand what your weaknesses
are and work actively to improve upon them.
"Some interns are reticent to do that because they don't want the bad news,"
"But it demonstrates a real curiosity to learn."
Network, network, network
While it may not be smart to become the office socialite, that's not to say
there isn't a place for interacting with colleagues and building
In fact, networking, Ms. Irwin-Foulon and others agree, can be one of the
most important rewards an intern can take away from the experience.
But most students don't take sufficient advantage of networking
opportunities, the pros say.
So don't just have lunch with fellow interns or exclusively with junior
colleagues. Instead, move out of your comfort zone and take the initiative
to ask if senior colleagues -- particularly those whose career and work
interests are similar to yours -- wouldn't mind joining you for a bite to
eat or a cup of coffee.
And keep track of who you've met so you can get in touch with them in the
future, Ms. Irwin-Foulon suggests.
Ms. Hui says her mentor at UBS took the time to set up "15- to 20-minute
chats" with colleagues in different areas of the company so that she could
build contacts and gain exposure to multiple aspects of the bank's work.
And she plans to take advantage of them.
"You've been able to establish a relationship so you feel comfortable
approaching them with any questions," she says.
That's the way to keep such relationships going, Ms. Irwin-Foulon says.
"These people are now part of your network."
At summer's end, you want your employer to speak well of your time with the
company -- perhaps in a letter of recommendation that you request and keep
You also need to be able to do the same. Simply listing an internship on
your résumé won't mean much if you can't offer the substance of the
experience to back it up -- and, make no mistake, employers will ask for
that supporting evidence.
"You have to come up with stories or one-liners to put in your CV about how
you made a difference there. . . . The more detail, the better," Mr.
The kind of material you want to include, he says, amounts to "What did you
do that was special or different?"
Be honest with yourself
As your internship draws to a close, it's also important to be honest with
yourself: Is this the kind of job you want?
Since an internship was meant to let you test the waters, to see if, say,
technology consulting, not horticulture, is your true passion, don't be
afraid to learn that maybe your heart isn't in consulting. Better now than
when you're in a full-time job.
"I think one of the worst things you can do is to not be true to yourself
and come in and be someone different and try and fit into a culture you're
not comfortable with," Ms. Hui says. "If you do and end up passing that
test, you're going to be miserable."
Ms. Bouchard, for one, hopes that she is making the most of her internship
-- and that her employers agree.
"I'd definitely be interested in coming to work for Kraft," she says.
© The Globe and Mail.