One of the best benefits of an internship or cooperative education experience (co-op) is that it can serve as your passport to future employment opportunities. Getting your foot in the door by landing the internship or co-op is only half of the challenge in turning your career dreams into a reality.
The more vital half is to build a reputation during this career experience that will culminate in receiving a full-time job offer.
A growing number of employers are using internships as a way to gain a first in-depth look at prospective employees. In this respect, both you and your employer have a common goal-namely, to determine if there is a good fit between you.
Here are ten tips to becoming a savvy intern and making powerful career moves:
1. Exhibit a Can-Do Attitude
Pass the attitude test and you will be well on your way to success. Attitude speaks loud and clear and makes a lasting impression, so make sure that yours is one of your greatest assets. Take on any task assigned-no matter how small-with enthusiasm. Take the initiative to acquire new skills. Accept criticism graciously and maintain a sense of humor.
2. Learn the Unwritten Rules
Get to know your co-workers early in your internship. They will help you figure out quickly the culture in which you will be working. Being the "new kid" is like being a freshman all over again. You will need to adapt, observe, learn and process a large volume of information. Watch closely how things get done. Ask questions and pay attention to how people interact with each other.
3. Take Your Assignments Seriously
Build a reputation for being dependable. Be diligent and accurate in your work. You may encounter a great deal of ambiguity in the work environment, so seek direction when in doubt and do whatever it takes to get the job done. As an intern, you will generally start out by performing small tasks, asking a lot of questions and learning the systems. Your internship supervisor knows that there will be an initial learning curve and will make allowances for mistakes. Learn from your errors and move on to your next task. From there, your responsibilities and the expectations of others are likely to grow.
4. Meet Deadlines
Always assume the responsibility to ask when an assignment is due. This will help you to understand your supervisor's priorities and to manage your time accordingly. Alert your boss in advance if you will be unable to meet expectations. This will show respect and professional maturity.
5. Set Realistic Goals and Expectations
Invest actively in the most critical element of your internship-that is, the learning agenda, which you set up with your supervisor at the beginning of the assignment. Your learning agenda should target specific skills and competencies that you wish to acquire and demonstrate. After all, the learning agenda is what distinguishes a short-term job from an internship. It is up to you to establish a correlation between your learning goals and the daily work you are asked to perform. Maintain a journal of your activities and accomplishments in order to monitor your progress. Seek regular reviews from your supervisor to assess your performance and reinforce the fact that you mean business.
6. Communicate Respectfully
Assume that everyone else knows more than you do.
However, don't be afraid to present useful ideas that may save time or money or solve problems. Make sure, however, that your style does not come across as cocky. Employers value assertiveness but not aggressiveness. Find out the proper way to address individuals, including customers. Maintain a pleasant and respectful demeanor with every person, regardless of his or her rank.
7. Be Flexible
Accept a wide variety of tasks, even those that may not relate directly to your assignments or those that may seem like grunt work. Your willingness to go the extra mile, especially during "crunch time," will help you carve the way to assuming greater responsibilities.
8. Be a Team Player
Learn how your assignment fits into the grand scheme of things and keep a keen eye on getting the job done. In today's work environment, success is often defined along the lines of your ability to get along with and interact with others. You're a winner only if your team wins.
9. Get a Mentor
Identify at least one individual to serve as your mentor or professional guardian. It should be someone who is willing to take a personal interest in your career development and success. Once you know your way around, begin to network wisely and get "plugged in" by associating with seasoned employees who may share their knowledge, perspectives and insights. Get noticed, because many more people will have a role in determining your future than you might at first realize.
10. Have Fun!
Last but not least, enjoy learning, sharpening your skills and developing professionally and personally. Participate in work-related social functions and become an active member in your work community.
Make your internship or co-op experience work for you. It can be the first link in the chain of your career.
Written by Lina Melkonian, Director of the Cooperative Education
Program at San Jose State University.