I’ve been experiencing whiplash for the entire summer: I, a 2014 college graduate with less than a year of work experience under my belt, have an intern. I didn’t expect this intern, and her appearance in my midst felt to me a bit like a sudden appearance on the terrifying TV show “I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant!”. I’d interviewed Holly*, the girl who would become my intern, but she’d been assigned to another department that my boss oversees. On the day Holly was due to start, my boss popped her head into my office and said “Holly’s coming today, and I’m heading down to Washington. Do you have…”
“Anything for her to do?” I supplied. “Yeah, sure, we always have more work in here.”
After making that offhand comment, Holly stuck to me for the rest of the summer.
Since Holly’s unexpected arrival, I’ve learned a few really helpful things about supervising an intern when you yourself are a relatively young/new employee. Here are some essential tips that I feel can benefit anyone who has the responsibility of managing an intern, and ones I feel can translate into larger more managerial roles as well:
Make your expectations of work clear, on both sides.
Holly’s needs were basic: a solid month of 40 hour work weeks, culminating in a capstone paper. Mine were a bit more complicated. Figuring out what your department needs done by someone smart but unskilled throws its strengths and weaknesses into relief. I assigned Holly to produce a series of articles and infographics for our organization, something I strongly suggest for interns. If you can give your intern specific projects with a deadline, they’ll be able to handle their time more wisely. It’s better for them to deliver a white paper than to “assist in daily office operations” or something similarly vague.
Make your expectations of compensation clear, on both sides.
I work at a non-profit organization, and Holly was working for college credit, not money. The debate around unpaid, apprentice-type positions could fill a book. The important thing to remember is that there is no such thing as free work. If Holly had worked for our normal part-time wage (substantially above minimum wage, something for which I’m very proud of my workplace), I’d have felt comfortable handing her the data entry work that I didn’t have time for. However, because she was working for credit, I made sure that her work was useful to her almost all of the time. That actually took a fair amount of effort. Holly used the opportunity for her internship to the fullest – she demanded my attention and feedback. I enjoyed mentoring her, which probably took an hour out of my workday on average. Your company will either pay for your intern’s time, or they will pay for your time spent mentoring them.
Plan your intern’s time with organization.
Lay out their work week-by-week. This isn’t about not trusting your intern to manage themselves, it’s about respecting their limited time with the organization. A great way to start planning is to take your intern out for a working lunch on their first Friday at the office. Buy them lunch, point out good places to eat or play (post work) around your workplace, and ask them about their career goals.
They’re not trying to impress you as much as they were in their interview, and will give you better information about what they want out of their internship. After you get back to the office, hash out what they’ll be doing week-by-week. That’s a lot of work, but it’s important for an intern who will only be around for a few months.
Respect yourself as a boss.
You may only be a couple of years older than your intern (if that), but you are the expert at your job! If your intern wants a perspective you can’t provide, find someone in your organization who can, and connect them. You’ll be making connections for yourself along the way. You should handle your intern in the same way your supervisor/boss would handle a brand new employee.
While Holly might have been a surprise to me, she was definitely a happy accident. I had to play catch-up with her, but I’m proud of the work she produced over the summer and of the experience she had with us. Mentoring Holly provided her with valuable industry insight, but it also taught me skills for how to be a better manager and team player!
Internships have gotten a (sometimes deserved) bad rap over the past few years, and yet they don’t seem to be going away anytime soon. If you’re young, and you’ve recently interned yourself, you have an opportunity to give your intern a great professional experience and a chance to contribute to your organization’s mission. It’s a fantastic experience that I think is valuable for everyone to have!
*Name has been changed for this article
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