‘Be a sponge’ and other advice to help students succeed at summer internships

Four tips for having a career-changing summer

As students begin to leave campus for the summer, many will head off to internships, hoping to add to their classroom experiences and enhance their future opportunities by immersing themselves in the real world of work.

It’s a great way to spend the summer, said Mark Smith, Washington University in St. Louis’ associate vice chancellor for students and director of the Career Center, but to get the most out of the experience, it’s imperative that students have a clear plan.

“An internship can be the start of a great career, a way to make some money, a way to find out what you really like — and don’t like — a way to confirm and fulfill your passions,” Smith said. “But you need to have a plan and the people you work with and for need to know about it.”

Essentially, Smith said, it comes down to these questions: What do you want to know about yourself, the industry in which you are working, and the function you are performing? And what can you can learn by the end of the summer and incorporate into your career planning and course choices when you return?

Smith offers four tips that will help make a summer internship more meaningful and productive.

1. It’s essential to communicate upfront to your supervisors what kinds of experiences you want to have before the end of the internship.

“Don’t assume that the people you are working with will automatically know what you want,” Smith said. “You need to communicate the learning experiences and exposure you’d like to get in this very short time frame. Don’t let past interns determine your summer. Your needs and goals are unique to you. Be professional, be clear, and don’t give up. Most everyone at your firm is inclined to want to see you have a positive experience. Let them know what that experience looks like from your perspective.”

2. Find informal ways to meet others within the organization.

“Grab some coffee with folks you don’t work directly with,” Smith said. “Set up lunches every week with people who are interesting to you, outside of your area. People love to talk about their work and careers — their achievements, their challenges, where they want to go next, and what they would recommend to you. By doing these things you will stand out, build a network of associates, and most importantly, learn what you need to know about where you want to direct your career passions when you return to school.”

3. Set high expectations and make the most of the experience, especially in the first four weeks.

“Be a sponge,” Smith said. “Do more than expected. Contribute in ways outside of the scope of the role they gave you. It will open opportunities that they, and you, hadn’t considered at the beginning of your program. If you don’t do this at the start, and you wait for the internship to evolve, you won’t optimize your learning experience.”

4. Keep a journal and ask yourself questions such as:

• Do I really like working for this size of an organization?
• Is this type of organization the best way to start off my career?
• Would I want to spend eight hours a day working with people who do this kind of work?
• Would I be happy starting my career in a rigid culture that pays well, but which doesn’t offer me the personal independence I am used to?
• Is it critical to get a graduate degree to be promoted in this industry?
• Where do those around me get their personal and professional satisfaction?
• How do professionals in this organization keep up with all the new developments?
• How do you get promoted in this industry?
• Which are the best organizations in this industry? Why are they the best?

Smith emphasizes that upfront planning and hard work are the keys to a successful internship.

“Every summer thousands of interns realize, too late, what they could have experienced, if they only communicated at the beginning what they wanted, and given 110 percent from Day One,” he said.