Recipe for Success: Tips for a Stellar Summer Internship

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Professional Development - Tips to Build Your Career

Recipe for Success: Tips for a Stellar Summer Internship


Kerry Kidwell-Slak, Assistant Director of SPS and Sigma Pi Sigma

SPS Summer Program Interns are deep in research with mentor, John Suehle at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, MD. Photo courtesy of AIP

Day one of your summer REU or internship. It feels like you’ve already done the hard stuff: prepared a stellar one-page resume that highlights your most relevant skills, gotten recommendations from your professors, maybe written a cover letter or personal statement about why this internship is exactly what you want to do, and perhaps even navigated through a challenging technical interview. Now it’s just a matter of showing up, right? Not quite.

Many organizations hiring interns see a summer position as a 10-week-long job interview. While they hope and expect that you will make some concrete contributions, they are also continuing to assess your suitability for the field and whether they would want to bring you on as a professional colleague someday. According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, employers made job offers to 72.7% of their interns.1 Having gone through an application process does mean that your organization believes you have a lot to offer and that you are capable of doing the work, but there is still a great deal you can and should do to make the most of your experience. Here we’ll lay out some of our top tips for impressing your supervisors and hopefully leveraging your summer experience into one more step on your career path.

1) Learn all you can.

You are in charge of your learning. Taking on an internship means engaging in an experience in a professional setting where you are going to be challenged to learn new things. But, unlike school, there’s typically no syllabus to guide you and no final exam to assess what you learned. Take the reins to make sure you learn all you can. One of the best ways to do this is to meet with a supervisor early in your internship to talk about what you both expect from the experience and lay out concrete learning objectives and how you will work to achieve them. For example:

a. Learning Objective: Author a white paper on a technical topic suitable for an audience of policymakers.

b. Action Plan: Read a variety of sample papers and develop drafts with input from my principal investigator.

Take time to formally revisit these objectives throughout the summer to make sure you are making progress and get feedback on your work habits.

2) Engage in some anthropological research.

Integrating yourself into a new organization requires doing some research. You may have done this during the application process, using websites or by talking to other current or past interns, but for many interns this research begins in earnest on your first day. Observe those around you, paying close attention to the people you are going to be working closely with. What do they wear? How do they interact? Do people practice an open door policy and pop in to one another’s offices, or is e-mail, phone, or instant messenger preferred? How do meetings run? Taking the time to understand and apply these “unwritten” rules of your organization shows savvy and will get your summer off on the right foot.

3) Respect the clock and calendar.

Being punctual and meeting deadlines isn’t just being polite—it’s showing respect for your colleagues and reflects on how seriously you are taking your responsibilities and the experience. Plan to be at least five minutes early for meetings and complete tasks before the day they are due. If you know you are going to be late, don’t wait until the deadline or meeting time to tell your supervisor. Give them early notice of delays and work with them to brainstorm ways to possibly bring in additional resources to get the work done on time.

4) Build a strong relationship with your supervisor.

The supervisor-intern relationship is one of the most critical. Your supervisor will likely be the one who decides what kind of projects you will work on, how much autonomy you will have in your work, and will play a role in getting you connected throughout the organization. Hopefully, they will also end up being a reference and mentor for you. Laying the groundwork to have this person in your camp is key! Spend time with your supervisor to understand what is really important to them. Early on in your internship it may be helpful to have short check-in meetings with them every few days to make sure you are on the right path, get feedback on your assignments, and ask questions. As you gain more confidence, these meetings can become more infrequent.

But what if your supervisor seems too busy for you? The odds are they are busy, but you are an important part of their work and by hiring you they assumed the responsibility of helping you learn and grow. This is an occasion when it is critical that you step up and take a leadership role in the relationship. See if you can schedule just 30 minutes once a week on their calendar, or, if they are better over e-mail than in person, get in the habit of sending them a message every week with the tasks you are working on and asking for feedback. Also, make sure that when you do meet with them, you are making the most of the limited time you have. This means writing down questions in advance and making sure that you have done all you can independently to find answers in advance. Navigating this kind of relationship may be a challenge, but learning how to make the most of it may be one of the most important things you do as an intern.

5) Be a communications expert.

Every workplace is unique when it comes to how people like to communicate. Whether via in-person meetings, over the phone, e-mail, memos, or newer technologies like Slack or Basecamp, you’ll need to understand what the expectations are for each medium and navigate them appropriately. Be sure that you always give context for your questions and updates and keep your professional exchanges concise. Take the time to read over anything you write before hitting that “Send” button. If it’s a difficult message, like admitting a mistake or asking for an extension on a deadline, consider whether an in-person meeting might be better received than an e-mail. When you receive an e-mail that needs a response, be timely with your followup.

Body language is also important and you should be mindful of your posture, stance, and expression at all times. This means not slouching or putting your feet up at your desk and making eye contact and smiling when you are walking the halls. You never know who is watching and if inadvertent sloppy communication might give someone the wrong impression about you.

6) Open yourself up to something new.

During your internship, there may be times when you are asked to take on a task you have never done before or occasions when you see a project you don’t know much about but are interested in working on. Or perhaps you find yourself with some down time and see a previously unidentified task that your colleagues haven’t had time to tackle that would benefit from your skills. Take advantage of these opportunities to show initiative and jump in feet first. Use your colleagues and the internet to do research and ask questions of your supervisor. Undertaking new challenges is how we all grow and learn.

Every workplace is unique, and this is just a short list of some of the ways you can make sure your summer experience is a success. Keep in mind that you are representing yourself and your school through this experience and take pride in what you do. You may be “just an intern” today, but, by playing your cards right, you may be the one supervising the interns soon.

 1. National Association of Colleges and Employers, “2016 Internship and Co-op Survey: Executive Summary,” May 2016

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