Interns must find the middle ground between meek and prima donna

intern tipsA few weeks ago, in my first "Internship Insider'' column, I offered a few bits of common-sense advice from professionals for would-be interns, pointing out some frequent (and not-so-frequent) missteps made by students during the application and interview process.

It seemed a logical step, then, to ask current and former interns for their own advice for peers. What are the things they've learned from their experiences, and what would they have done differently?

A common theme among the responses is that interns should view the professionals they're working with -- or even just come in occasional contact with -- as tremendous resources for information and advice. Sometimes interns can feel shy and intimidated when surrounded by people who are working in their chosen field, and they're tempted to remain quiet and inconspicuous, flying under the radar of those around them. But many interns who are successful – and who sometimes have parlayed an internship into a job after – say that respectful curiosity can be a better approach.
"I found that everybody that you intern for are pools of knowledge and are happy to talk about what they do, in any workplace,'' says Hannah Ferdinand, who interned at several media outlets during college – including WGN Chicago and the Chicago Reporter -- and was hired by the last place she interned, Kurtis Productions, when she graduated. "I always asked questions and just talked to people. I asked what they'd done, what they'd learned to get where they are. Therefore, I understood the different aspects of how things worked...and got an understanding of how the whole organization flowed."

"Some students were so single-minded,'' she says. "Don't narrow yourself -- keep learning and keep a sense of openness around you. It sounds corny, but I saw a lot of interns come and go who acted like they didn't need to know things (outside their immediate areas) wasn't beneficial to them.''

That's a great point. Understanding the way all the working parts of an organization or business come together can not only make for a more meaningful experience, but can impress a boss. Which is more attractive: a potential employee who takes the time to learn about how and why various departments intersect, or a potential employee who might be good at what they are assigned but display no curiosity about the employer in the "big picture"?

Miles Maftean, who interned in the Washington, D.C. office of U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning (R-KY) as part of The Fund for American Studies' Capital Semester program, cautions that a dose of humility can be advantageous. "If I were to give advice to other interns, I would have to say this: Don't act as if you know everything going into the internship," Maftean said. "The reason an individual becomes an intern, is so they can learn the ropes. Just like rookies make mistakes, so will interns. The best advice I can give is to try your hardest and don't act as if you hold the answers to all the questions. When I did go into an internship thinking that I knew all the answers, it was difficult for me to really learn anything new.''

Just as there are some interns who might tend toward meekness, others come across – likely without meaning to – as prima donnas, or sporting a "what are you going to do for me'' attitude. Striving for a balance between friendly confidence and deference is a better approach.

And then, the end goal of a permanent job should always be kept in mind.

Lea Erwin, who was an intern at the Federal Reserve Bank while in graduate school, and has worked there post-graduation as well, advises that interns keep on their toes for opportunities to sell themselves. "Always keep your resume updated, business cards handy and master that 60-second pitch, because you never know who you are going to meet or what that next conversation might lead to,'' Erwin said, adding that this means interns always want to look presentable.

She's right, and on more than one level. While you might spend most of your time working in a cubicle doing largely solitary duties, you could also end up running into people at unanticipated meetings, during a luncheon, on an elevator ride or at the vending machine. The day you take short-cuts in your appearance, throwing on the shirt or shoes you know are just a little too casual (or too something) might well be the day you run into the person who is going to be in charge of hiring an entry-level position a few months down the line.

While my own experiences as an intern took place more than two decades ago, I do know that some basic tenets never change. Dependability and professionalism are valued, and your supervisors as well as your peers should be seen as the beginnings of your professional network. A fellow intern I hung around with during a summer internship way back in 1988, turned out not only to be a lifelong personal friend, but a valuable professional contact, going on to an impressive career covering the NFL for Sports Illustrated; he now is a columnist for Yahoo! Sports. Other fellow interns from that summer went on to the Washington Post and the New York Times, among other media outlets, Another is a professor at Georgetown University.

Brent White, who interned at the Chicago Tribune and In These Times magazine, sums it up succinctly: "Act like you're an employee, whether you're paid or not. Build relationships.''

Jennifer Halperin is the internship coordinator at Columbia College Chicago, and Money College's Internship Insider. Her columns run Wednesdays. Send suggestions for story ideas to Jennifer at
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