A Field Guide for Interns
Five tips for co-op students (that I wish someone had given me)
ARTICLE BY Jordan Warren
I’ve got a pretty classic type-A personality. I don’t like unfamiliar situations, I don’t like when things change suddenly, I don’t like not knowing what to expect, and I certainly don’t like feeling like the person in a room who knows the least about what the heck is going on. But all of these experiences, my friends, are integral to the life of an intern.
For the past few months, I have had the amazing opportunity to work as a research intern on the Corporate and Public Affairs team at Environics Research. After completing the 8-month, curriculum-based portion of the Marketing Research and Analysis post-graduate program at Algonquin College, my cohort and I have spent the summer semester taking what we learned in the classroom and applying it to the workplace. This, as I’ve learned, is quite an adjustment.
As I’ve navigated the unfamiliar waters of the corporate intern experience, I’ve sometimes thought of how useful it would be to have some sort of handbook—a field guide, if you will. The co-op prep course my college offered was a good foundation, but I found myself wanting more detail. I was lucky that I received some extra guidance from a collaborative and team-based company where plenty of people have been willing to help me navigate my first professional experience. Having benefitted from their insights and my own learning, I realized that my new knowledge might help others to navigate their own internship experiences—so here are the top five things I wish I had known about being an intern:
It can be awkward at first.
It’s not just you. Working online is weird for everyone, but don’t let it be a barrier to asking questions and being an active part of your team. Whether you connect via Slack or Teams or some other tool, reach out to colleagues – and don’t stress if you don’t get a reply right away. Go into the office regularly – maybe more than you’re required to – to benefit from facetime with coworkers and to have more natural conversations. A coworker who joined the team after me set up one-on-one interviews with the entire team, to get to know people and understand their roles better; I wish I’d done that myself. Online or in person, you have to learn how things are done at your specific company; you can’t learn that anywhere else, so soak up as much as you can.
You’re not going to do everything right the first time.
You’re going to find some areas that are challenging for you—and that’s okay! For me, it was data storytelling. When you encounter these hurdles, don’t stress—remember that if your job was easy, your clients would do it themselves. Don’t be discouraged when your work gets corrected by your team. You’re there to learn. As a student, people don’t expect you to be the most knowledgeable or skilled person in the room. In my opinion, the best thing an intern can do is show genuine interest and a willingness to learn. One thing to learn is the specific conventions and standards of your firm. Unlike being a student or working independently, as an intern you are part of a corporate team, and corporations have parameters in many, many areas (as I learned when I added my own flourishes to a presentation deck template and then had to spend hours restoring the shared format).
Rely on your team.
If your team is supportive, as mine has been, you’re lucky – take advantage by asking questions and learning as many ropes as you can. Believe it or not, people want to help you and see you succeed. At the same time, be judicious in seeking help and advice. Keep messages few and brief, don’t nag if people don’t reply immediately, and don’t rely on one person for everything.
There’s something for everyone out there. From data analysis to project management to client engagement, you can find a specialization that matches your strengths and interests. Try to use your internship to become well-rounded, learning about the range of work that’s available. You might be surprised at what grabs you. I was all about qualitative research, but as I spent more time putting together quantitative reports and visuals, I came to really enjoy digging through the data. If you’re interested in a project, ask if there’s any room for you to help, or even sit in on a meeting.
Don’t forget—you’re a smart cookie.
You may be early in your career and have lots to learn, but you have your academic training and your own experience and perspective. Don’t be afraid to contribute to conversations. I found that the transition from school to work was less of a leap than I’d been expecting; work felt like an extension of school in some ways, which I think speaks volumes about the value and relevance of specialized grad programs like the one I pursued.
I realize that every internship, every student, and every company is a little bit different, but I hope that my list of tips will help other interns to feel prepared, and enter their placements with a bit of extra confidence. Of course, my guide is by no means comprehensive. I hope others will share their own secrets to success to co-create a truly complete field guide to help future interns give their best and get the most out of the experience.
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