Questions to ask before, during and after you start your internship
By Richard Lucas
This article should be useful to companies designing or running internship programs, who want make them successful, and to interns who want to make sure that they end up in the right sort of company where they are appreciated and valued.
For interns, few things in life are as demoralizing as being ready to commit and help an organization and then to find that the company is not interested or aware of their commitment and potential contribution. Sadly some companies systematically inflict this on interns because interns are regarded cheap/free resource so it doesn’t seem to really matter if not much advantage is gained.
For companies, this is a big mistake for four reasons.
For interns – finding and working in a good company can change their experience from being a way to get something useful looking on the CV/resume to a life changing experience.
- Internships are a highly visible and public way of spreading information about your corporate culture and company among active and ambitious students around the world. If you screw interns around you are destroying value and your reputation.
- Internships are a very cost effective way of conducting long term recruitment, because there is easily time during an internship to assess whether an individual has the potential to make a long term contribution to the company and is a real high flier. In a standard recruitment exercise executives get an hour or two with the candidates before taking a decision that is expensive for the company and life changing for the candidate. In an internship, there are several months in which both intern and company can check each other out.
- Interns tend to be young, full of energy, and are capable of making a valuable contribution to a company with a new perspective, and time to work on special projects that regular staff have little time for.
- Interns are people. It is obvious that interns are not as experienced as long standing key employees, but they are still human beings. Just as you can assess the character of successful person by the way they treat people in “low status” jobs, a good indicator of a company’s core values is how it treats “low status” positions. If no one cares about the interns, then there is something badly wrong with your company.
What can a prospective intern do to avoid being stuck in a Dilbert www.dilbert.com style company?
- Review your objectives
Maybe it is some (or all) of the following objectives come to mind
to assess and bridge the gap between perception/imagination and the reality in the targeted industry/company
to experience the difference between working and student life
getting ready to enter the job market
Earn some money
Improve your CV
Have fun, make new friends/ get a new girl/boyfriend
Learn something new
Live in a different country
Get away from my parents/home town/existing relationships
Get a long term position in a target company
Get experience of a business /sector
Whatever it is, it’s obviously good to think it through, and know what you are looking for. You are far more likely to get what you want if you define it in your own mind first and act accordingly. Going through an organization like Aiesec to a thriving lively city (like Cracow in Poland where PMR is headquartered) see Cracow-life.com to get feel for it, means that you arrive to a city with an instant network of people to hang out with from different parts of the world. Even if the internship is really dull at least you have a bunch of people to hang out with and grumble with.
- Remember that recruitment is a two way process.
It may seem like there are hundreds of candidates and a few good companies, but equally there are only a few good interns and hundreds of companies are interested in hiring them. A good company certainly has senior people actively looking for good people all the time. If there is a specialized human resource function, they should be able to tell you how it works in their company. If a company or organization does not have the time or culture of answering straight forward questions from you when you are considering who to work for, what is it going to be like when you get there?
If you are going for an “A brand” employer like Goldman Sachs, The Economist, Deutsche Bank, Wahaha, Mitsubishi, or SAB Miller things are different in two ways. There can be a power imbalance meaning that the people dealing with interns in the well known company have the
“you are so lucky to work here”
mentality, and don’t appreciate being quizzed about what actually happens to interns. If this is the case, maybe you should steer clear and work somewhere where you will be appreciated.
The other more obvious point is that you will have a lot of competition and need to be a bit smarter than the average to get in as an intern. For example:
A Chinese speaking student might be more valuable to a consulting company not in China which needs the skills more badly than companies in China. Think about what you’ve got that the average person hasn’t and to whom that might be valuable
Check if any of the senior executives of your target companies have publications, speeches, presentations, Linkedin type identities and approaching them first rather than going direct to the HR dept can differentiate you completely from the average candidate. If the intern program manager gets an e-mail from you saying “I am writing to you on the recommendation of the CEO /Director of international marketing /whatever” it obviously improves your chances.
- Do your homework/research
Use company web pages, Facebook, Linkedin, Myspace, the Blogosphere, Google and personal and institutional networks to research the company, country, town, function and position. It is much easier than it ever has been to get information about companies and the culture of the internet makes it feasible to ask people questions. If you are a member of www.aiesec.org or another “internship” type organization, they for sure have alumni associations and through them it should be possible to make contact with interns from previous years. The questions become very obvious. “Which companies are good for an intern in town X for someone who wants to get experience in Y?” The more knowledge you display of your target company in your application the better (“I can help with your latest project launch as per your web site”) looks very powerful in an application.
- What does an internship look like?
Does the company have a defined concept of what interns are for and what will happen to them. The “cheap labour so it doesn’t matter” attitude is the one to be most sensitive to. No one will tell you that openly so you have to read between the lines. If there is no policy and program for interns, it increases the chances that no one cares. An intern should know what sort of tasks can be expected and it is good to have a project or some tasks where if they make an effort it is clear that they have succeeded in something.
- Is internship a route to job offer?
A good company will screen interns early on after they join to assess if they have the potential to be a long term employee. The definition of a high flier will mean different things in different companies. At PMR we are looking for people who are friendly, with high levels of energy and commitment, intelligence, a willingness to work hard and acquire new skills, who are ambitious but not arrogant. If an intern is doing well, does the company have a means of making sure they get to meet staff who can take a decision to hire them.
- Are interns treated as employees, invited to company social events, formally induced and introduced to the company.
Not every smaller company will have as formal a policy as Microsoft, where there are special codes for interns email@example.com . For a funny description of how Microsoft intern Jeff Maurone experienced being invited to dinner with Bill Gates click here . Anyone who has read about Bill Gates involvement and attitude to recruitment may reflect on the degree to which his active example of leadership in high flier recruitment may be part of the Microsoft’s success. The nightmare situation that interns can find themselves in is sitting at a desk in a large office, being referred to as “the intern” and not being introduced to anyone. Any company that treats a human being as a noun is to be avoided. Going to company parties and social events is a way of getting to know other staff and departments, and for the intern to decide if this is the sort of place they want to work. If they are doing well, the word should have spread around and it is a chance to build a network even before the job offer comes in.
- What happens at the end of an internship?
A good company will review what went well and badly, and how the person feels about their experience. No company or organization is perfect and the first step to continuous improvement is assessment of what is going on and has happened. A good company will be open to constructive criticism and feedback.
- Is the company you are applying to doing well, thriving and prospering?
Many people do not think about this issue when they are job hunting, for whom it is even more relevant than for an intern. Not all companies are doing well in the basic business sense of making healthy profits and having happy clients and staff. If there are problems with profitability, and falling sales, is likely to impact on the atmosphere and the difference that you can make. At the very simplest level, it may well be that your supervisors are firefighting or worrying about job cuts rather than paying you attention. Equally if you have a project to do there may be less money available to pay for research or travel connected to it.
Can you have the e-mail and phone numbers of previous interns to talk to them
If the company and intern program is good this will not be a problem at all, and indeed it is highly likely that some of the people whose contact details you are given will be full time employees who joined the company through the intern route. Any company that makes difficulties or cannot give you good reasons should be Googled for example with the company name and “boring internship” as key words.
- Have you got the right attitude?
My first full time job was with Westland Helicopters in Yeovil, England in 1984, and I was very critical of the experience (it was one of the things that led me to consider setting up businesses of my own). I was very keen to work hard and had only a few challenging tasks while I was there. With hindsight in some ways I was too demanding of the company and had little concept of the pressures of being a European defence contractor at a time of recession with huge pressure on military budgets. I didn’t have experienced people giving me advice at the time. What I tell people now, is what I wish someone had told me then and in my view, give a view to the attitude that makes for a successful intern (or staff member of a good company). In my view, it is vital to have a “get your hands dirty” attitude. The “get your hands dirty” attitude means a willingness to take the rough with the smooth, doing dull stuff with a positive attitude without thinking “someone else ought to do this - I am too important/talented because I am a student at a top university.” Good senior managers usually got there because they were ready to do the tough stuff, and will notice if you get stuck in. A good attitude also means that you think and contribute your own ideas to the company, making suggestions and asking questions.
I don’t think I can do a better job than Steve Jobs – speaking to Stanford graduate as they started their time at university. I strongly encourage you to watch the whole 15 minute speech, which can influence the way you live. Many people who have seen this lecture talk about it, though some find it somewhat idealistic. Students who are considering an internship or employees of a company that has internships reading this article should aim high as possible. Steve Jobs argues that no one should settle for less than the best, which means to him doing things that that they love doing.
If you work for a company, review your intern processes to make sure that they are as good as they possibly can be. The trigger for writing this article was meeting clearly intelligent and motivated interns in Aiesec Krakow complaining about the boring days they were having in their companies. This article is being reviewed by our interns at PMR and our recruiters for feedback. We don’t want to be criticizing others without having good practice in house.
If you want to be an intern, take the effort to find a great company and fight like a tiger to get in. Good luck.
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