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Everything You Need to Know Before Your First Internship

Advice from interns and former interns on how to make the most of interning—and avoid exploitative hellscapes as you go.

by Leila Ettachfini
Oct 3 2018, 9:43pm

My first internship was at a boutique PR firm in the Upper East Side of Manhattan just a couple blocks from Central Park. Yes, that sounds glamorous on paper, but it was actually a living hell. As a college freshman whose only prior work experience was at my parents’ restaurant, a smoothie shop, and ALDO Shoes, I figured that putting up with my boss’s nastiness, doing her personal chores for free, and enduring a knot in my stomach before work each day were just normal in the real world. I didn’t know any better.

Eventually, I learned how to spot red flags at internships the hard way. And I wouldn’t wish anyone the same fate. So, as someone who’s had a Devil Wears Prada-esque internship experience—followed by one I loved and eventually turned into my current job—here’s what I wish I knew going into my first internship, along with some advice from former interns in varying fields.

Don’t accept unpaid internships

I’m aware that paid internships are more difficult to find and to get, but they exist. Apply to everything paid you might qualify for. If you’re an unpaid intern who’s staying at a company for another semester, ask if they might consider paying you this time around—they’re keeping you there for a reason!

Getting paid isn’t all about the money: If a company is wiling to pay interns, it signals that they value your labor. That means there’s a good chance that you’ll be taken more seriously than in an unpaid internship and get more out of the experience. (That said, if you’re rich, go ahead and take the unpaid internships. Leave the rest for the college kids who pay their own rent.)

Most unpaid internships are already illegal. If yours is one of them, and you’re feeling like sticking it to the man, you could bring that fact up to your employer. Standing up for your rights as a worker isn’t always rewarding, but it can be—and voicing dissatisfaction as an employee is the start of how workers’ rights become law.

Lastly, if you are an unpaid intern, ask your boss if they’ll at least cover the cost of transportation and provide a lunch stipend. It’s the least they could do.

Know what you’re getting into

Some internships are strictly coffee runs and ordering chocolate-covered fortune cookie invitations for your boss’s personal dinner parties (a lovely memory from my first internship), while others give you enough experience doing real work to know if a specific industry is right for you. I’m going to assume most intern-hopefuls are looking for the latter, but if your only concern is adding a company’s name to your resume, coffee runs may not be so bad.

There are a few ways to figure out what an internship will be like before you accept it. If the internship is for a large company, chances are you can find online accounts of what it’s like to intern or work there on websites like Glassdoor. If the company is small, you can try asking around at your school for a connection, but most importantly, ask about it at your job interview: “What does an average day for an intern here look like?” or “What will my responsibilities be if I get this internship?” are great places to start.

Speak up

When I started both my internships, I was so afraid of bothering anyone that I hesitated to ask questions and became somewhat of a hard-working but silent yes man. You may think that’s polite behavior, but it can be mistaken for having no ideas or being a lackluster employee. Ask questions! It’s better to understand your assignment and do it right the first time than have to start over later.

“It’s important to be assertive!” says Brooke Kessler, a 21-year-old intern at a downtown New York creative agency. “Speak up during brainstorms or offer helpful feedback to show you’re committed and deserving of being a part of the team.”

Companies are obsessed with young people. You have insight that your older managers do not and it can be a huge asset. Show it off!

If you do ask a question and it’s met with a less-than-enthusiastic response or even goes ignored, remember that it’s likely not about you. Like everyone, your coworkers are trying to make a living under capitalism, meaning they’re probably stressed, overworked, and underpaid. Maybe they haven’t gotten to your email; maybe they were on a tight deadline; maybe they have stuff going on at home and are a little out of it today. You’re best bet is to just move on, give them some time, then politely ask again.

Make connections

“My best piece of advice is to talk to people,” says Noa Azulai, who interned at Broadly this past summer. “Slack may be where you get your assignments, but it's in the everyday conversations, coffee breaks, and elevator rides that you find connections with the people around you.”

Your coworkers may be able to get a feel for your personality in meetings and emails, but making personal connections with them will leave a more lasting effect. Make sure that they know about your interests and passions, and you theirs. You never know who might reach out to you in the future about a job or project. And while you’ll be communicating with your team the most, don’t be afraid to introduce yourself to people outside of your department.

Be helpful and creative

A quick way to get your managers and coworkers to value your work is to make your work useful to them. If you have some downtime, reach out to people individually to see if you can take something off their plate. They’ll appreciate it, and most importantly, they’ll remember it.

Be creative and think of unique ways that you can be helpful with or without having to ask. How can your personal interests be applied to your internship? Companies often have dozens of interns. Think about ways in which you can stand out.

It’s not always going to be fun, and that’s okay

Being an intern is not an excuse for others to disrespect or treat you poorly in any way. That said, you will probably be asked to complete many boring, tedious tasks because, well, you’re the intern. Chances are your coworkers did their fair share of transcribing, filing, and entering numbers into spreadsheets during their internships. Still, if the work gets to be too much, talk to your manager about your load.

Remember: If you're an unpaid intern, you can still ask to get paid for duties that you think overstep the scope of your internship. According to the Department of Labor, an unpaid internship is only legal if “the intern’s work complements, rather than displaces, the work of paid employees while providing significant educational benefits to the intern.” In other words, if you’re doing work that the company would normally have to pay someone to do, but aren't getting paid, it’s illegal and you can talk to your manager about that.

At the same time, don't forget to check your expectations. Just because you’re interning for Rolling Stone doesn’t mean you’ll be cozying up to your favorite Grammy noms. Internships are hardly as glamorous as TV shows and movies make them seem. Don’t expect every internship to turn into a full-time job either. There is value in your experience whether or not it turns into long-term work. Focus on the new skills you can take away and the connections you make that will help you find a job later.

Stand Up for Yourself

“If someone does something or says something inappropriate or offensive at work to you or a coworker, just because you’re an intern doesn’t mean you shouldn’t talk to someone higher up about it,” says Sean Glavin, a 22-year-old film/TV intern. “Bosses wanna hear if their employees are fucks.”

Standing up for yourself applies to situations beyond harassment and abuse; it can be in simple things like learning to say no if you have too much on your plate or not being afraid to ask for a day off. For instance: I neglected my midterms one semester to finish a long transcription I agreed to do knowing very well I would have no time to finish it. If you feel weird about saying "no" to someone, try letting them know what you have on your plate. For example, “I’d love to take this on right now, but I have to finish compiling research and putting together a Powerpoint for Tuesday. Do you mind if I get to it on Wednesday?”

Always remember that you’re never stuck anywhere. If you’re internship is too demanding and/or miserable, you can and should quit. This is true in any case, but especially if you’re working for free.