Do you have any advice for those who are interning for the first time?

A student sent me this question:

Do you have any advice for those who are interning for the first time? I’ll be interning soon this summer and I’m afraid that I’d be clueless towards some very important things.

Yes I have some advice about what to do when you embark on an internship or your first job:

(1) First, you need to go in with a mindset change. I’m aware a lot of students think that they should do jobs where they know they are already good at (or think they’re able to do well in). This is a bad mindset. If you do this, you will have no room for development and growth. You’ll stagnate, or worse, regress!

So let me share with you the words a wise professor shared with me when I confided in him my worries about work after I graduated. He said, “When you go to school, you are paying to learn. When you go to work, you are being paid to learn.”

So, it’s all about being open to learning. Be hungry to learn and gain as many new experiences as possible. Don’t just do things that you’re comfortable with. You should at least have one project that’s outside your comfort zone to constantly challenge you to grow.

I have a personal philosophy when it comes to work: “Say yes first and figure it out later.” This has been my guiding principle for a lot of the new projects that I take on. I wouldn’t have gained such a wide array of experience and skills if I didn’t give these things a try.

The working world is very forgiving about failure, esp. if you work very closely with your supervisor, as that means that you have many opportunities to refine and improve the thing you do. This way, you’ll develop many achievements that you can proudly pin on your CV that will help you move on to your next job.

(2) Secondly, I’ve noticed that many students treat the work assigned to them like school assignments. So they’ll keep quiet and struggle to complete the task without consulting anyone. This is bad!

You need to have the humility to seek help from anyone and everyone. We owe our success to the people around us. And the most successful people are those who know how to seek help from people both inside and outside the organisation. This includes your supervisor, your colleagues, and even friends from school. You should NEVER struggle in silence, or just rely on Google.

To go far in your career, you must know how to tap on your social network – not just use them in a very utilitarian way for your own personal advantage, but to always collaborate and find win-win situations from everyone, esp. the people you seek help from.

Even when I started GET1050, I didn’t come in knowing everything that I taught. I didn’t know how to do data analysis or code in VBA. I spent a lot of time watching YouTube videos and also seeking help from friends. I also relied heavily on the first generation of TAs to help me come up with learning activities that would be fun and effective for students.

I know it’s very scary to go about doing things that you don’t know. But this relates back to the first point. Work means we’re being paid to learn, so we should do all we can to learn as much as possible by our own, and from the people around us. No challenge, no growth. So keep challenging yourself and learn from others.

(3) And this brings me to my third point: You must develop a close working relationship with your supervisor. Update him/her regularly (even if it doesn’t sound impressive), and seek clarifications when you’re unsure. You need to put yourself in your supervisor’s shoes. Imagine you’re a supervisor. If your subordinate doesn’t talk to you, would you know whether your subordinate is doing work? No. Would you be able to trust your subordinate when s/he’s silent most of the time? Again, no!

So you do need to talk to your supervisor regularly. Be proactive about it. Don’t wait. And do not give the excuse that you’re afraid of troubling your already-busy supervisor. It’s better to trouble him/her to clarify than to submit work that’s done completely wrong too close to the deadline. You’d be troubling him/her a lot more if you do that.

I’ll illustrate with a real incident: Not too long ago, someone did work for me. She had forgotten what I taught her and she didn’t consult me to clarify. She submitted work that was done wrongly. It was very close to the deadline for releasing something (she had one month to do it). And because of that, it was incredibly stressful for me as it meant that I had to give up on sleep and redo everything in about 20 hours to get the thing out on time.

It’s things like this that will sour your relationship with your supervisor.

So make it a point to update your supervisor on a regular basis. Not complete? That’s fine. Have the humility to report everything – the good, the bad, and the ugly. Have the humility to ask for clarification all the time. I’d rather have someone who clarifies and does the work correctly, then someone who doesn’t clarify and gives me the wrong thing at the end, only for me to redo everything.

One further point, trust is cultivated not by doing work well. Trust is cultivated by regular and quality communication. If you want your supervisor to let you in on more important tasks, or trust you enough to do other interesting projects, you need to cultivate that trust by checking in regularly and talking to him/her regularly. If you don’t dare communicate with your supervisor, it reflects badly on you as it shows that you don’t trust your own boss enough to seek help from him/her.

(4) Fourthly, don’t be passive and wait for your supervisor to give you work! Either ask for more if you feel you’re not being challenged enough, or better yet, take ownership and initiative to improve things on your own! Sometimes, they are unable to assess whether you are able to cope with the load, so they err on the side of caution. However, if your internship is too comfortable for you, it means that you’re wasting your time, because you don’t get to accomplish many things during your internship. You won’t have much to show on your CV.

Supervisors love it when you help to add value to the organisation on your own initiative. As it is, supervisors are already busy with their own workload, so it can be very difficult for them to find work to give you. If you are able to find other projects to busy yourself with (that will help your supervisor), oh you are going places!

Of course, don’t be too over-enthusiastic in wanting to change everything on Day 1. Spend the first week or two to understand EVERYTHING in the department – the people, what each one does, the kinds of problems they encounter, the problems your supervisor encounters, the kinds of problems you encounter in the course of your work, etc. Spend moments of each day thinking how you could improve the process, or what interventions can help make things better. And then find the time to share these ideas with your supervisor. S/he will really appreciate it, and can help give you deeper insights on the matter, and maybe connect you to other people to assist you with improving things.

Now, the things I said above may sound like common sense, but shockingly they are not practised by everyone (it’s human nature to be lazy or find the easy way out). So if you do these things, you will actually stand out in any and every organisation.

And I want to end by saying that good talent is actually rare and hard to find. Companies will do everything in their power to retain good talent if they come across one. If you do the things I mentioned above, you will not only gain the attention of your immediate supervisor, but also the attention of senior management. And they will go out of their way to take care of you. If it’s an internship, they’ll reserve a permanent position specially for you when you graduate.

This is already happening with some of my students. So it is well within your power to achieve all these when you go out for an internship. So go out and make us proud!

All the best!

Author: Jonathan Y. H. Sim

Jonathan Sim is an Instructor with the Department of Philosophy at the National University of Singapore. He is passionate about teaching and he continues to research fun and innovative ways of engaging students to learn effectively. He has been teaching general education modules to a diverse range of undergraduate students and adult learners at the University.

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