How to handle 5 internship disasters

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What should you do if your summer internship is starting to feel like a dud – if you're bored, doing different work than you were promised or struggling to make ends meet on the low pay? Here are five of the most common ways internships hit the skids and what you can do if it happens to you:

1. Your internship is turning out to be mostly clerical tasks, but you were expecting more substantive work.

Some amount of clerical work is normal in most internships, and it's not uncommon for interns to come in expecting to do more glamorous work than what they end up with. The reality is that many internships offer you the chance to get work experience and exposure to your field in exchange for what can be, yes, drudgery. After all, you haven't proven yourself in the work world yet. Ideally, you will be given more interesting work if you excel at those boring tasks and do them cheerfully.

However, if you were promised types of projects you aren't getting, or if you're just going stir-crazy from too much filing and coffee-fetching, talk with your manager. Say you understand the need to do the work you've been doing, but that you also want to ensure that the summer is a learning experience for you. Add that you're hoping for the opportunity for exposure to more substantive work as well. And if you discussed specific projects during the hiring process, now is the time to mention those. Ask if it's possible to carve out time to learn about and contribute to other projects your team is working on.

2. You're not getting enough assignments, and you're bored.

Talk to your manager. Tell her you have a lot of down time, and ask what additional projects you can take on to keep you busy. Some managers take on interns without considering the time investment they'll need to make in generating and overseeing projects for them. You might have one of those types of managers, so ask whether there are longer-term projects you can take on that will keep you busy for a good chunk of time and won't require you to keep checking back for additional work.

You can also ask if you can offer to help others in the office when you have down time. If you get permission to do that, you might find that others are happy to fill your plate when your manager won't.

3. You're not getting much feedback or guidance on your work.

Be clear about what you need! When you're given an assignment that's unclear, ask questions. For example, you could ask if there are samples of similar work that has been done in the past that you could look at or for a clear description of what a successful end product would look like.

You could also consider having a big-picture conversation with your boss and explain that you're not always sure how to tackle your assignments. You could suggest having a weekly check-in meeting so that you have a set time to talk about what you're working on, ask questions and get feedback.

4. You're not included in meetings and discussions around the office, and wish you could be part of them.

In order to keep meetings short and focused, managers will often try to limit participants to a low number, often including only those with a deeper background in the issues being discussed or those with decision-making authority. So it isn't always appropriate to include extra participants – but including observers is another thing. Try framing your request as a desire to sit in and observe, rather than as a participant. For example, you could say: "Would it be possible for me to observe some of the website strategy meetings? I'd love to sit in to get more exposure to that work, just as an observer."

5. You receive an internship stipend, but it's not even covering your travel to and from work.

It's not unreasonable to ask for some assistance with expenses. It may or may not be in your team's budget to cover it, but it's not outrageous to inquire about it. Try saying something like this: "I'm finding that my stipend isn't fully covering my expenses getting to and from work each day. Would it be possible to get some assistance with those expenses, so that I don't lose money by coming to work?"

(One caveat here: It's always better to negotiate this kind of thing before you accept an internship offer. It's usually harder – not impossible, but harder – to change the terms of a job offer once you've already begun to work.)

Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog, where she dispenses advice on career, job search and management issues. She's the author of "How to Get a Job: Secrets of a Hiring Manager," co-author of "Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Manager's Guide to Getting Results" and the former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management.

Copyright 2015 U.S. News & World Report

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