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How to Avoid Being Confined to the Intern Pool Forever

Evan Taylor

It could be the notion that any job is better than no job, the slow economic recovery, the hundreds of thousands of dollars you owe in student loans or the need to step out on your own that led you to this internship. But now you realize you can't live on ramen alone. You've had an epiphany: "I'm a 20-something recent college graduate and I can't live as an intern forever."

Follow this advice to use your temporary experience as a stepping stone to permanent placement.

Choose the right internship. As with any job, you don't want to hate your work, and you don't want it to be useless in moving your career forward. If you start your post-graduation career with an internship outside your field, it won't do much for you. According to Mark Babbitt, CEO and founder of YouTern, an organization that helps young people find internships, "Internships are all about positioning yourself for the job market. It's an investment in yourself."

[See: The 100 Best Jobs.]

Stop acting like an intern. Yes, you work with the other interns, but that doesn't mean you have to be late, rude, cynical or passive about the work you're doing. You may have the intern title and an intern hourly wage -- assuming you're paid -- but your position may just be the start with your employer. "You have to act like a part of the team," Babbitt says. He adds that interns who take on more responsibility are viewed as indispensable and have an increased chance of staying employed.

Be enthusiastic. You probably work with people who have grown into their positions and don't see the job with your fresh perspective, so be an incubator for ideas and energy. It's contagious. Despite your position on the totem pole, you should project a positive attitude about each task. "As an intern, you may do a lot of meaningful work and some tasks that others don't want to do. You have to do it all with a smile," says Randy DeCleene, senior vice president of communications at the public relations firm kglobal.

Babbitt looks for an entrepreneurial spirit and coachability in interns. "I want you to own your challenges, be competent, be willing to speak up when you need help and take constructive criticism," he says.

Use your position to your advantage. You're on the inside of the organization when most didn't make it in the door. So do some scouting from the inside, and look beyond your duties for ways to leave your mark in the organization. "Interns are in a unique position to network," Babbitt says. "They are surrounded with potential contacts and mentors." He suggests presenting yourself as an eager intern who's interested in learning from seasoned employees. Scheduling informational interviews with employees in other departments is also a good idea.

[Read: 10 Things They Don't Tell You About Your First Internship.]

Be willing to work harder and smarter. Everyone does things they don't like or want to do. Whether you're picking up coffee and doughnuts, making copies, stuffing envelopes or conducting research, work hard and leave after the work is done. Little tasks are the building blocks of big projects. "Interns sometimes think they should be doing a different level of work, and it reflects poorly in their attitude and can spiral out of control," DeCleene says. Babbitt says internships during college are 90 percent about learning; after graduation, it's more about making an impact at the company with 10 percent learning. "Most employers don't expect interns in college to contribute, and they are viewed as a trainee. That's where they can take advantage," he says. "They can contribute for a chance to get a job offer."

Be social and competitive. Make friends with the rest of your intern class, but remember they are likely your competition for the next job opening in the company. Babbitt says some interns fall into complacency. "Sometimes in larger corporations, interns are all together, and they can fall into the lowest common denominator," he says. Avoid getting too comfortable and losing sight of your goal.

[Read: Is Competition Among Co-Workers a Good Thing?]

Cultivate relationships. Remember that networking and building relationships are essential for your future success. Your relationships can lead to jobs and opportunities both inside and outside the company. According to Babbitt, most job offers are a direct result of networking. DeCleene agrees, adding that it's important to make meaningful connections, whether it's over coffee, lunch or just talking about your résumé and experience with others. "It's all about communication and talking to people who can be your advocate," DeCleene says. "You should be as real as possible and give someone a reason to take an interest in you."

Apply your experiences. Even if you leave the internship without a job offer, find ways to apply your experiences to other opportunities. After all, your internships are still professional experience you can add to your résumé. Make it count. While transitioning from an intern to a permanent employee is preferred, a position must be open for you to get an offer, Decleene points out. Even if there are no openings, your experience will still be valuable at another place of employment.

Editor's note: The author is a U.S. News Careers intern.

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