Hiring freezes and budget cuts have led to a somewhat muted, cautious approach to hiring interns this summer. That’s unfortunate, because both sides—employer and talent—need these tryouts with each other more than ever.
I’ve been an intern a half-dozen times in my career, and supervised interns countless more. Internships are a lower-stakes way to understand different aspects of jobs and industries, but also to learn the ways of work, from what time people show up to how they show up. What do employees wear? What work gets priority? How do you banter about, well, nothing at the start of a meeting? For bosses, interns are a constant reminder of not just where we’ve come from, but where we are going—this talent pool offers exposure to new ways of working, training, consuming, and engaging.
But in this moment of economic upheaval, internships and entry-level roles aren’t just harder to find; the rules for how to succeed in them are murky, too.
Take an uncertain job market and add in questions about hybrid work, whether a college degree is even needed anymore, flatter hierarchies and intergenerational conflict, and whether artificial intelligence will make our jobs obsolete anyway, and you start to feel the plight of the summer intern (and their supervisor) right now.
With an eye toward this uncertainty, I asked a half-dozen professionals to offer some guidance and advice with an eye toward what interns and employers actually can control in this moment of uncertainty.
Treat an internship as an audition for a job.
That’s the advice from Anna Tavis, a clinical professor of human-capital management at NYU’s School of Professional Studies. “It is best to work for an organization that approaches internships as a step in their overall recruitment process,” she says. “These organizations give internships the full attention they deserve in terms of management oversight, tools, exposure to other parts of the organization, [and] ability to develop organizational networks.”
Thus, you should approach your internship the same way you’d approach a job interview—every day. That includes setting (and communicating) specific goals around what you hope to learn and how you want to grow in your role. Someone seeking an internship generally will receive a very different response than someone seeking to learn more about how to better market telehealth to non-English speaking communities, for example.
Clarify what you want (and why).
Where to even look, though? Byron Slosar, CEO and founder of the recruiting platform hellohive, breaks it down quite simply into a few questions to guide your search:
- What do I want to be doing? (Job function)
- Where do I want to be doing it? (Industry and location)
- Why do I want to be doing it? (Motivators and culture)
He offers this example: “if you want to work in technology, you don’t have to work in big tech in San Francisco. You can work in a tech role in a financial services firm (industry) and in Dallas (location), because you want to make a good amount of money (motivator being financial security) and close to home (another motivator being you love your parents and don’t want to be away from your dog).”
Making a decision or honing in on what career prospects you want is a learning process on its own. Purvi Tailor, the vice president and head of human resources at Ferring Pharmaceuticals USA, shares this helpful list of questions to ask your recruiter or manager; many apply even after you start and meet other people in the course of your work (read on for why):
- What courses would you suggest are most relevant to a career path in [your field]?
- What qualities do you look for in your interns?
- Is there one thing that’s made previous interns very successful here?
- What are the roles and responsibilities of an intern?
- What are the types of things I will learn as an intern?
- What is the culture like at your company?
- Besides the work I would do as an intern, are there other parts of your internship program I should know about?
- Do you hire interns into full-time jobs after they graduate?
Startups versus large corporate employers? This question comes up often from interns and entry-level hires as they try to navigate learning one aspect of a job in a supportive environment versus many different roles in a scrappier one.
The experts I spoke to suggest both; the ideal would be to plan one internship at each over the next few years. “Think of them as two sides of the same coin,” says Aliza Licht, author of Leave Your Mark: Land Your Dream Job. Kill It in Your Career. Rock Social Media. “Working at a startup will give you access to a broader scope of work where all hands are on deck, and the team will be scrappy and agile. The opposite is true in a corporate environment, but understanding the inner workings of an organization and how the pieces fit together is also an essential and credible experience.”
Research, research, research.
The number of times I’ve met prospective hires and interns who clearly have done zero research is astounding. Make sure your questions—in the interview, yes, but also in day-to-day work once you have the role— reflect care and preparation beyond simply Googling the company and the people you will be meeting with (but definitely do that, too). Look at their LinkedIn profiles and connect with them on LinkedIn. Pull up SEC filings, news articles, press releases. Try to understand their business model and where your work might fit into the bigger picture. Have a perspective on pain points and growth areas.
Learn how to fill your time and be a self-starter.
In my own experience as an intern and discussions with others, a recurring problem that comes up is the amount of down time. Since you’re not quite staff, supervisors may hesitate to pile on work and are still figuring out what you can do. In the meantime, assigned tasks might take as little as a half-hour or a few hours. What to do for the rest of the working day?
Others recount feeling crippled by not knowing systems or communications styles or even etiquette around hierarchy. Can you ask a senior vice president for naming conventions on documents? What if your direct boss is on vacation? Who do you go to when you need work to do?
Your frustrations can help guide your response as you learn the ins and outs of the organization and where you might most make a difference, suggests Elissa Sangster, the CEO of Forté Foundation, which helps women access business education. “Pay attention to where the bottlenecks are in the organization. Is there something you can pick up, take on, or volunteer for that will alleviate that bottleneck and allow a project or initiative to move faster?” she says. Make it easy for your boss to react by creating a deck or one-sheet.
And approach your work through a problem-solving lens, she adds. “What can be annoying is when an intern asks questions or points out issues without an accompanying offer to help or decides to take something on without asking the right questions, creating more work for the rest of the team.”
Additional ideas for making the most of a lighter workday: Try LinkedIn Learning or online education. “You can also ask your supervisor what courses or skill enhancements they recommend,” says Slosar. “This is a subtle cue that you have some time. No one will fault you if you’re caught completing additional skill-building on your own.”
The boss might not be in the office, but you can be.
While internships are generally low-stakes, this time in your life—to learn, make mistakes, improve—isn’t. In a remote environment, out of sight really might be out of mind. Betsy Leatherman, the global president of consulting services for the Leadership Circle, advises going into the office if one exists, being open to meeting new people, and keeping your supervisor’s number handy.
“Do what you need to do to get things done,” she says. “If that means you need to be in an office, even if people aren’t there, do it. Don’t be afraid to ask for direction and get advice from anyone around you, even if they’re not your direct manager… Do the work and be there ready to connect if someone should come in.”
Being in the office, if one exists, also allows for serendipitous meetings with other colleagues—and research has shown that younger workers have more access to mentorship, and training if working in a physical office. “Networking is a huge part of your internship experience,” says Andrew Gold, chief human resources officer at Pitney Bowes, a global shipping and mailing company.
Read the room. It’s a life skill.
Who was the best intern you ever worked with?
“Those who aren't afraid to ask questions, but understand the balance and need for professionalism,” answers Frantz Price Jr., director of international and alumni careers in Columbia Law School’s Office of Career Services. “Ask questions, be eager, say yes as much as you can, but maybe go into the partner's office with a set of well thought out questions rather than bothering them every 20 minutes with another question or email.”
He acknowledges how hard reading the room can be, especially for first-generation college students and students of color, but says to keep an eye on the bigger picture. “It's crucial to get into the mindset of thinking bigger rather than just focusing myopically on the day-to-day work. That work has to get done and done well, but there still needs to be a broader understanding too.”
Importantly, the onus of all of the above falls equal parts on employers, who can help an intern’s passage by onboarding and being available to answer questions. The goal is to elevate the scope and skill of work over the course of the internship—or, put more plainly, to reach a point when the office intern ceases being treated as one.