4 Things I wish I knew before starting my first internship

Internships are an amazing opportunity with so many unique perks. You’re able to learn about your industry, gain valuable experience, make many connections, and so much more. The best part is that it’s a trial run. If you intern for a company that ends up not being what you thought it would be, the internship doesn’t last forever and you’re free to move on!

With that being said, internships are also very challenging. For many, it’s their first professional work experience. It can be difficult to determine what you want to work on with the limited time you have at the company. And while you aren’t expected to know everything, you’re expected to know how to learn new things and how to adapt which can be difficult at times.

I’ve been on my first internship for about five months now. It has been an incredible experience and I have already learned so much. However, it has not been easy. There have been many challenges and obstacles along the way. While I don’t claim to be an expert at interning, there is a lot that I have learned in these past few months and today I want to share my insights so far with you.

Ask for feedback when you’ve completed a task

The education system teaches us a lot and I would argue that a majority of what we learn is valuable. However, the standard education system doesn’t entirely prepare us for the professional world. One skill that courses don’t teach is how to seek feedback. In school, we are taught that feedback will be given to us always. We receive letter grades for every assignment we do. In a month of schooling, you most likely receive around 2 to 3 letter grades per course. That’s a lot of feedback. However, in the professional workforce, this is often not the case.

Management usually has a reactive leadership style. If you’re producing high-quality work, your manager will look at it and think, “Great, they’re doing their job.” and move on with their day. On the other hand, if you’re producing low-quality work, your manager is going to discuss it with you because your work is impacting the company’s performance. Due to this, a lot of positive feedback often goes unheard. If this seems strange, think of it like this. How many times have you had a meal at a restaurant and loved it? Now, how many times have you thought to yourself, “I need to tell the chef right now how great this meal is!” Usually, that thought probably doesn’t run through your head. That’s because you expect a quality meal when you pay for it. Just as your manager expects quality work from you.

So if you want to know how you’re doing, just ask! It’s best to ask for feedback through email or some form of online communication. If you approach your manager in person, they may feel pressure to be kind rather than being honest. That won’t do you any good. When you receive feedback, be open about it. Ask questions and learn from your actions. After all, the purpose ofan internship is to learn.

Timelines are much longer

A “project” in school is usually 3 to 4 weeks long. A project in the workplace can last for months or even years. If a new project is proposed during your internship, don’t be surprised if it takes a month or two of planning before you begin working on it. This can be challenging as you’re often eager to start working right away and you want to gain as much experience as possible. But when it comes to projects, companies are creating products for actual customers. There’s a lot more on the line compared to the school projects you’re assigned. So companies take a lot of time planning and preparing to ensure that when they create a product, it comes out right the first or second time.

As well, your co-workers often have a lot more on their plate compared to you. Depending on their role in the company, new projects may not be at the top of their priority list. The best thing you can do is be patient and offer to contribute to new projects. This is a great way to show initiative and to gain control over what experience you want from your internship.

Memorization isn’t realistic; asking questions is

Another flaw in the education system is that there is a huge emphasis on testing and memorization. There’s no such thing as closed-note / closed-book in the workforce. If you don’t know something, you research it. Or you ask your colleagues.

As a programmer, at least 20% of my day is spent on Google searching an error I got in my debugger. It’s unrealistic to expect that an intern (or any worker) will know absolutely everything. Rather, it’s expected that when you encounter a problem you don’t know how to solve, you find or create a solution. There’s an art in Googling and researching. Learn how to do it well as it will help greatly you in the long-run compared to memorization.

And while on the topic of seeking help, it is critical to ask questions. I’ve heavily mentioned in this piece that you aren’t expected to know everything, and I keep emphasizing it for a reason. There have been multiple times where I’ve been stuck on a coding problem for the entire day. I research, debug, try new solutions, and nothing is working. Once I’ve given up, I’ll ask a co-worker for help and 80% of the time they’re able to help in under 5 minutes. Sometimes I feel silly for not asking sooner. So, never feel afraid to ask questions. If you’re at a company which discourages that, most likely you aren’t at a great company and you should consider other options in the future.

You’re more valued than you think

It’s easy to fall into the mentality of “I’m just an intern”, “They have me doing busy-work”, “I don’t contribute anything”. That couldn’t be further from the truth! Yes, you may not be working on the flashiest projects or the most sophisticated work. However, your work goes miles farther than you may think.

As an intern, you bring a fresh new perspective to the company. You’re still in school and learning so much. Many employees become fixated on a certain way of solving problems that they don’t learn new trends in your industry. However, you provide a more neutral bias since you’re new to the workforce. Every opinion is valid and can contribute something. You’d be surprised how many times employees will come to you asking for your help with a subject.

This next point assumes you’re in a paid internship (which is much more common nowadays). A company most definitely won’t give you busy work or waste your time if they’re paying you. Doing so wastes the company money. They’re going to push you to your potential to get the most bang for their buck . It’s a win-win!

In conclusion

Internships take your educational experience to an entirely new level. You learn more than you could ever think of. Just being in industry alone teaches you a lot. But on top of that, you learn technical skills and see how they’re applied in the real world.

I hope these pieces of advice help you with your internship. It’s a very intimidating experience, but one that you will come to enjoy and will gain so much from. Good luck!