Internships: A Guide from Experience

Now it’s almost the end of the DukeEngage in Durham program. In hindsight, I realized that I did well in some parts of the program but not as well in some other parts. I found there are several factors that are important to a good internship experience but are sometimes neglected by people.

Be motivated

Motivation is what drives you to overcome obstacles and improve yourself during internship. The easiest way to stay motivated is to do things that you are interested in. Following your interest at work makes work a fun job. It keeps you awake at night to contemplate on the project you are doing and pulls you up early in the morning to prepare to implement your idea from last night. However, the reality is not all the work you do is interesting, especially as an intern.  Then you need something else to motivate you. To me it is a sense of urgency. You want to learn more about yourself; you want to learn more about the organization and the people there; you want to learn a new skill; but you only have a limited time to do all these! The urgency that you experience when you are pounding on the table because you suddenly realize that only one week is left in your internship but none of the objectives you outlined 2 months ago are reached will definitely pushes you hard, but try to have this feeling early and utilize it to drive you.

Choose being good over looking good

As an intern, I often found myself in such a situation: I have a question about something, but it seems everyone else around me knows the answer. If I ask the question, I will know it once and for all, but I may seem dumb to my coworkers. Should I ask the question? I think of this situation as a choice between looking good and being good. If I keep quiet, I will not risk revealing my ignorance, therefore looking good; if I ask the question, I will improve myself and become good. Choosing being good over looking good is an imperative step to gain the most from an internship. It is hard sometimes, but it is an unavoidable growing pain before real advancement.

Conform first

Most groups have their own culture. To respect the culture of the group in which you intern in will help you build benign relationships with your coworkers. These relationships are often the biggest sources of learning. To respect the group culture often involves conformity. Often times you need to embrace the group norms to be fully accepted by a group.

Start networking

Networking is one of the most beneficial parts of an internship. However, it is frequently overlooked. Especially if you are a goal-oriented person, it is tempting to spend all time on projects and try to finish them quickly, with little time left for networking with people. Talking to people has given me more knowledge and influence than my projects have. To gain knowledge from projects, you need to generalize from a large amount of information; from other people you can directly tap into their knowledge base that has been condensed over years, sometimes even decades, of life and career experience. Other people can also offer different perspectives and vast opportunities that are seldom present in projects.

Be mindful, be reflective.

It is easy to get lost during the internship: before internship, you had a list of objectives to achieve during the program. Not far into the internship you were given a long list of projects, and you want to finish them as soon as possible. So you worked hard on them without thinking much about your objectives. However, near the end of the internship you found you hadn’t get what you want from the projects. “I should have done something else with my time”, you said to yourself with regret. Therefore it important to be mindful of what you want to get out of the internship and constantly question yourself: will the things I’m doing help me reach my goals? If the answer is “no” for too long, you should consider finding a way to use your time on things that are more meaningful to you.

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