Internships. The most undervalued opportunity to not only get a job, but also grow and learn massively (for free) in a short amount of time. An internship can change the course of your career, but only if you know how to do it right.
Most of us have a wrong understanding of what internships are. They’re not here to serve you, but they exist for you to soak up as much as you can, to prove yourself and gain entry to an exclusive playground of mentorship and opportunities. Whatever your age, it’s never too late for an internship. Here’s how to get the most out of them.
1. Treat it like a real job.
This is a given, but you should assume your internship will lead to a permanent job. Show the effort and dedication of a new full-time employee, not someone who’s just trying to check a box or fulfill a class credit. Make yourself indispensable so the end of your internship feels like a tangible loss to your team. Make them want to keep you.
2. Find your own work to do.
You don’t want to be that annoying intern always saying, “Hey guys, I’m bored. Anything you want me to do?” That person is a burden rather than a help, because everyone feels like it’s more work to explain or delegate a task than just do it themselves.
Observe keenly and listen for every opportunity to take on more work — especially the tasks nobody else wants to do. Be useful. Go out of your way to do even the lowest tasks on the totem pole humbly and with joy, whether it’s emptying the office dishwasher, organizing files on the server or brewing the first pot of coffee every morning. Those tasks seem small and menial, but people will appreciate your attitude and effort – I promise.
Once you’ve proven yourself with the small tasks, ask for work you could put into your portfolio. Volunteer to help on the big projects even in small ways. You can share those projects in your portfolio as long as you explain your role and provide proper credit to the full team.
"You’re trying to prove yourself and you have all the resources, tools and people you need within reach. Take everything you can."
3. Go above and beyond.
When someone gives you a specific task or project, don’t just put in the minimal amount of work to get the job done. If someone asks you to give 100%, give 150%. You’re trying to prove yourself and you have all the resources, tools and people you need within reach. Take everything you can.
If you’re designing spec work, present it like your employer is your client. Explain your thought process and why you made the decisions you did. If you have time, explore an idea as far as you can take it; try new angles or even share a few options.
This is your time to try everything and risk failure. Don’t be afraid to step out and accept a task you’re not quite sure how to do. Figure it out as you go and ask questions along the way (you're basically getting free education here, or maybe you're even getting PAID, just to learn). As an intern you have more freedom to explore what you enjoy, collaborate across teams and touch high-level work you might not even be qualified to do. An internship is your playground, so have fun with it.
4. Remember you are not the expert.
You are here to learn – that’s the point. So swallow your pride and open yourself to soaking in as much as you can, whether or not you think you know already. Accept feedback or advice gracefully and apply it as best as you can.
5. Don’t make the same mistakes twice, or make someone teach you something twice.
On that note, read #6.
6. Take notes religiously.
This is helpful for many reasons:
You’re often learning and moving fast as an intern; you may think you’ll remember later but you might not, and you don’t ever want to ask the same questions twice.
Most people absorb information better when they take notes, especially if you have to process them for the team to read later.
Your notes could serve as a helpful guide to other interns in the future, which will leaving a lasting impression of you at your workplace.
7. Show your appreciation and ask for a recommendation BEFORE you leave.
Thank every person who helped you along the way and be sure to trade contact information so you can stay connected.
And request a letter of recommendation at least a week before your internship ends. It’s much easier to get what you need while you can remind your boss in person, rather than sending polite / desperate email reminders later.
8. If you can afford it, do a free internship.
I know this is not common advice and no one should ask you to work for free, but staying open to unpaid or low paid internships can lead to more possibilities than you might experience otherwise. And this piece of advice is more for those who are switching careers rather than students. Of course it doesn’t hurt to ask for a paid internship and you don’t want anyone to take advantage of you, but if you really like a specific studio’s work or admire a specific person in the industry and want to get your foot in the door, do whatever it takes and then prove you’re worth paying full-time.
But once again, before you read this the wrong way: NO ONE should ask you or expect you to work for free. I personally did many free or low paid internships simply because I reached out to a mentor who wouldn't accept internships in general, so I offered to show up for free part time and soak up everything I could. If someone would ask you to work for free in the first place, that's a red flag. It always depends on the scenario, but I wanted to include this advice here, even if some might misinterpret it.
Of course, some internships are more valuable than others, but I believe we miss out when we think of internships as settling or fulfilling some obligation. Through an internship, we’re getting a shortcut to a company’s resources, wisdom and clients. If we look at it that way, internships seem almost too good to be true.
Hi, I'm Tobias, a German designer living in New York. I'm the author of this blog, nice to meet you!