After I finished college, I had a string of internships in the hopes I would finally figure out the answer to that annoying question, “So what do you want to do with your life?” Because I had no idea. My indefinite intern status became something of a joke with my family and friends, and even now I have mixed feelings about whether it was the right path to start post-college life on. And while it’s easy to blame a company for a bad internship or experience, I can now recognize a lot of mistakes I made along the way.
Luckily, all the internships I completed were paid, but even a paid internship can be a strain on your financial life. The one universal truth about internships is that they don’t pay well. I struggled to find affordable housing when I did an internship in California, and “affordable” ended up being over half of my paycheck going to rent every month. I convinced myself that it was worth it because I loved the company and the job. I believed that if I worked hard and suffered now, it would pay off later on, because I had paid those dues. I now know how important it is to be practical with yourself, look at your finances, and decide whether an internship is feasible for you.
Know what you want going into an internship. Do you want to learn a specific role or function? Are you trying to get a full-time position at the company? Whatever your goal is, besides (hopefully) a paycheck, be open and honest about what you want. Tell your coworkers what you want to learn, ask to help with projects you’re interested in, and regularly meet with your supervisor about new opportunities and improvements you could make.
I was afraid to talk to one manager when I was an intern about how passionate I was about the job we were doing and how I really wanted to stay with the company until it was way too late for anything to happen. Spending the last day of your internship crying in your boss’ office is definitely not something I’d recommend to anyone else. There were a variety of things at play here, but being consistent about your interest and talking about it loudly and often is only going to help show that you could be an asset to the company long-term. Or, if that’s not a possibility, it should at least get you a good recommendation for a job later on. It’s also a sign of a true professional looking to grow, and not how I probably came off, as a spoiled college kid who wanted everything handed to her.
The biggest benefit of being an intern is that by definition, this is not just a 9-to-5 job to make ends meet. It’s a learning opportunity, which is how companies get away with paying you significantly less, or nothing at all, to begin with. Any decent internship program should include some level of communication between you and a manager or supervisor about what your aspirations are and what they can do to help you at least get some exposure to people doing similar work. This can be anything from setting up coffee between you and someone on the social media team or giving you a day to shadow the marketing director to see what their professional life is like.
Part of why I bounced between internships was because I didn’t want to make any real decisions about my professional life. I had rushed through college and finished my degree as quickly as I could, but I didn’t actually know what I was working towards. Without any plan when I graduated, I couldn’t find any full-time jobs I was really passionate about (or that wanted to hire me, for that matter). I started taking internships because they felt like a baby step into the professional world, with a set end date on every job and no consequential responsibilities to speak of.
Going into an internship because you want to move to a certain city or because you don’t want to commit to staying in a job you already have is a terrible way to live. An internship is still a job, and it can’t stop time. You’re going to continue getting older, and responsibilities are going to pile up (as are bills). Being an intern gives you lots of opportunities, but it’s also not sustainable to constantly have to worry about where you’ll be in six months.
Whether you are an intern, a manager, or a CEO, a company employing you to do a job inherently sees value in that job. Understand that even if you are “just an intern,” you are fulfilling a need, and the longer you’re there the knowledge you gain continues to make you more valuable. It’s important to catch onto the hierarchy within a company, but being an intern doesn’t make you any less valuable an employee than someone who’s full time. Just like anyone else, your time and experience deserve respect.
I would have done a lot differently if I could go back and redo my first years post-college, but I had to learn these things the hard way. My internship phase is over, but I’m a better employee and coworker because of the rocky start I had.