'I Have Nothing to Do at My Internship'

It’s not a “good problem to have” when you're hoping to actually get your career started.

by Alison Green; illustrated by Koji Yamamoto
Jan 14 2020, 1:30pm

Three weeks ago, I started a new internship at a large design office, and so far I have not been assigned any real work. I have been asked to do small tasks like cleaning a shelf or compiling information that takes me less than an hour to complete.

I’ve brought up that I don't yet have work to do and that I'm happy to help on any project to the person in charge of staffing my office many times, talking to her every day she's in the office in person and emailing her as well. (My coworkers recommended this and said it's completely normal to let her know when I don't have any work to do.) She always says, “OK, I’ll let you know if anything comes up,” and has yet to assign me work. She has also repeatedly said many times that interns should not go around asking for work themselves from other people and must go through her (though I have to admit that, at this point, I've been asking people who I know are busy to please let me know if they need any help, because I’m desperate).

Part of me wonders if maybe they don’t think I have the skill set to do the work they hired me for, but I don’t know how they could judge that, since I haven’t been given the opportunity to work on something and prove myself, even though I’m already a quarter through my time here. I’m really frustrated and starting to regret not taking one of the other internship offers this year.

It's surprisingly common for companies to hire interns without fully thinking through whether the amount of intern-level work they have will truly keep someone busy or not. Or they underestimate how much time it takes to train and supervise someone brand-new to the work world, and by the time they realize it, it’s too late—you’ve already been hired. It’s incredibly disappointing to interns when this happens… and it should be really embarrassing to the employer, who should work to make it right, although they don’t always do that.

The next step here is to talk with your manager about what’s going on. I know you’ve been asking her for projects, and so you might assume that she’s already well aware of the problem—but the piece you haven’t done yet is the piece where you tell her that you’re concerned about the situation and not getting what you’d signed up for out of the internship. You might figure that’s been implicit in your repeated requests for work, but weirdly enough, people in her shoes don’t always connect those dots. She might not have paid enough attention to realize just how little work you’ve been given or, who knows, she may think you’re perfectly happy to watch YouTube videos all day.

So schedule a meeting with her and say something like this: “I wanted to talk with you about how my internship is going. When I was hired, we discussed my working on projects like X, Y, and Z. We’re about a quarter of the way into my internship, and, so far, I haven’t been assigned much at all. I’ve been given the occasional small task like cleaning a shelf or spending under an hour compiling info, but 80 percent of my time [or whatever percentage is accurate] ) has been unfilled. It’s really important to me to come away with the sort of experience we talked about during the hiring process, and also to earn a good reference here. I’m not expecting high-level work, of course; I understand that I’m an intern. But I do want to make sure I’m busy and contributing. Are there a few longer-term projects I could work on for the remainder of my time here?”

This should nudge her to realize that the organization isn’t meeting its end of the bargain, and, ideally, should pay off in more work. But if that doesn’t happen—and sometimes it won’t—your best bet is to propose work of your own. This can be tough as an intern; you often won’t be in a position to see what would be most useful and can’t do much without stepping on someone else’s turf. But if they’re truly leaving you with nothing to do, see if there’s an unattended problem you can solve, a proposal you can write, or a project you can start. (Don’t touch anything official without approval, though! For example, it’s fine to write up a proposed social media plan, but it wouldn’t be OK to commandeer their Twitter account without permission.) You’ve got to do this with the understanding that they may not use it, but it’ll at least give you something to do, and possibly something to put on your resume too. You can also ask if you can sit in on meetings, invite coworkers to get coffee and talk about their career paths, or even spend your time on some kind of independent study. That way, you’ll still get something useful out of your time there, even if it’s not what you signed up for.

Get more good advice from Alison Green at Ask a Manager or in her book. Do you have a pressing work-related question of your own? Submit it using this form.

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