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How to Make the Most of an Awful Internship

Marcelle Yeager

Data entry. Filing. Copying. Cleaning up after events. Getting coffee for your supervisor. Sitting at your computer all day doing nothing. This is definitely not what you expected when you signed up for this internship and not what you went to college or graduate school to do.

If this sounds like an internship you've had, have or maybe will have in the future, there are many ways to turn it around and make it benefit you. Even if it doesn't help a lot with the present situation, you can learn and obtain valuable things to help you in your future job search and jobs. Down the line, you're going to need references for jobs and recommendation letters, so what you do now counts. Employers typically ask for professional references from your past few supervisors from internships, jobs and possibly from other colleagues, so act now to set yourself up for success.

Participate in social events in and outside the office. Talk to co-workers of all levels casually as much as possible, whether it's at lunch (and yes, you can and should ask people to go to lunch) or after-work social activities (happy hours or sports teams). Ask about what projects people are working on, what they like about working for the organization and how they came into their profession and this particular job. Also ask them whom they recommend you meet.

Talk to your intern coordinator or supervisor about getting more involved. If you're not working directly with this person, she may have no idea of the type of work you're being asked to do (or not do) by co-workers. Perhaps this meeting will prompt her to address it and get you more substantive work. This meeting also gives you the opportunity to ask for materials to learn more about the company (especially good if you're bored) and to suggest areas you're interested in and where you might assist. Ask whom else you should meet, and if you can sit in on meetings and attend brainstorming sessions.

Seek out a mentor. This isn't necessarily your coordinator or supervisor, and it's best if it's not because you want to develop a wide network while you're there. Through chatting with colleagues, identify a person who has gone down a career path that is similar to what you envision for yourself. Set up a coffee or lunch meeting with that person and ask for advice about the present situation and future. " Mentor" is usually not a formal designation. It's typically a relationship that progresses based on common professional interests and chemistry, so you don't have to ask, "Will you be my mentor?" It's up to you to keep the conversation and relationship going.

Find opportunities on your own. You may need to ask colleagues how you can help, rather than waiting for projects to come to you. This can be intimidating, but think of it as an investment in your future. Taking action shows your co-workers that you're proactive and have a lot of initiative. Eventually you'll need recommendations and may even want to apply for a position within the company, so make yourself known. Check with your internship coordinator to ensure it's OK to do this so you're not going over anyone's head and causing friction.

Make a list of your internship's pluses. Look at this every day before going to work, because starting with a positive mindset going into your day will help. Here are some things to consider as you make your list.

-- What skills or knowledge have I gained from the tasks I've been given?

-- Whom have I met? Write down one thing each person has taught you, or a way in which you think he or she can help you at present and/or in the future when you're job hunting (e.g., by giving you a reference, recommendation letter and/or introductions to others).

-- Who in the company has gone down a career path similar to what I'm interested in? Have I met with him or her to ask how he or she got to this point and to ask for advice? Don't forget to ask how he or she suggests you make the most of your current internship.

Store your experiences in your memory bank. Many internships and jobs are helpful because you learn what you don't want to do, or you may discover a company culture you want to avoid for your next position. Write those lessons down to keep them fresh in your mind. One way to do this is to brainstorm potential questions you could be asked in a future job interview and draft your answers. This may also help you discover new ways to make the present situation better.

-- Describe a situation where you didn't feel challenged. What did you do about it?

-- Have you worked with a difficult co-worker? How did you handle it?

-- How would your friends and co-workers describe you?

Lots of internships don't come as advertised but you can change both your mindset and what you're getting from it with a little extra work. When you have discussions with colleagues, stay positive and save complaints for a friend outside of work. You want to be remembered as the proactive intern who got things done on time and went above and beyond. You're going to need good references and possibly recommendation letters for school or jobs down the road, so don't let the internship get you down. Figure out how to make it work for you.

Marcelle Yeager is the president of Career Valet, which delivers personalized career navigation services. Her goal is to enable people to recognize skills and job possibilities they didn't know they had to make a career change or progress in their current career. She worked for more than 10 years as a strategic communications consultant, including four years overseas. Yeager holds an MBA from the University of Maryland.

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