Six best practices in internship supervision
ARTICLE BY PHILIPPE MARCHAND
Recently, a colleague at Environics Research wrote an article about their experience as an intern. Reading their five tips for co-op students prompted me to reflect on my years supervising internships. I’ve had both great and challenging experiences. And I believe I’ve been both a good and not-so-good mentor to interns.
Thinking back on my experience of supervising over 30 interns, I asked myself what are the best conditions to offer interns to ensure a successful experience for them, and for you. Here are six actions mentors can take in support of effective and beneficial internships:
- Check In
- Have fun!
All right, let’s dive in.
Talk to your team about upcoming projects and tasks. Determine whether the intern’s work will focus on a single main project (or supporting one person’s work) or will involve different projects and people. If their work will span multiple projects and teams, make sure there’s a single liaison between the team and the intern in order to manage their workload. If team members send all their requests directly to the intern, the intern likely won’t know who or what they can say no to, and may say yes to everything, becoming overwhelmed. Be the gatekeeper to keep their workload under control.
When choosing projects or tasks to assign to interns, take into account the profile of each student as well as the team’s needs. Test and discuss interns’ interests and skills in interviews.
Also, consider assigning projects with different deadlines, so that interns can practice setting priorities. It’s a good idea to task interns with some long-term tasks or projects that they can fall back on by themselves when short-term jobs are completed or when you’re not around.
On the first day, bring your intern to a team meeting and introduce them to everyone, explaining who each person is and what they do. Whether you’re working in person or remotely, you can also arrange for each colleague – and management if possible – to meet the intern individually. This will help everyone get connected and make the intern feel part of the team for the coming months.
Have your intern’s back; don’t be on their back. Mistakes will happen, and it’s okay – as long as they’re acknowledged. Who can learn from mistakes by pretending they didn’t happen?
An internship is an opportunity to experiment and try new things in a professional environment that should be both open and safe. A good mentor sets the parameters of tasks, points out potential obstacles, and then lets go. Don’t look over interns’ shoulders all the time. They will find their own ways. Let them be proud of their achievements, and aware of their mistakes, in a controlled environment. It’s ok to let them lose time and spin their wheels a little bit, too. When you show them easier ways later, they’ll better understand the value of such tips – both giving and receiving them.
Trust also applies the other way round. Interns need to be able to rely on you. They need to know that you’ve got their back in front of others, that you’ll give them constructive and honest feedback along the way, and that you’ll give them what they need to succeed.
4) Check in
Don’t wait until the end to give important feedback or make adjustments. When I first began supervising interns, I would check in occasionally to see how things were going, but focused mainly on mid-point and end-of-placement evaluations. But one experience taught me this approach was not sufficient, especially when things aren’t going well and need to be put back on track.
After receiving a quite negative internship evaluation from me at the end of their experience, a student told me they wished they had known earlier they were doing some things wrong. And they were right. Nobody likes to find out belatedly that they’ve been off-track for a while without realizing it, especially when they’re just starting their careers, with little experience and perhaps a shortage of confidence.
After this episode, I introduced weekly face-to-face meetings with the interns I supervised, focused on quality feedback and two-way discussions. These don’t have to be long. Sometimes 10 minutes is enough. The important thing is avoiding the easy trap of skipping these brief check-ins, which are a small investment of time that can make a big difference – ensuring the success of the internship, reinforcing learnings, and generally helping things go smoothly for everyone. These days, if the intern works from home, it’s beneficial to have check-ins more often, probably every morning, and to be available online to answer their questions.
Embrace interns’ fresh perspective. The thing I enjoy the most about working with interns is getting their outside point of view, a valuable perspective that even the sharpest people on your team can’t offer.
I worked in politics for several years. When we had interns in the office and were designing a new communication piece for the public (say, a leaflet), I would send interns a draft of the document to get their raw feedback. They were our first public: readers outside the political “bubble.” If they didn’t understand a passage, how could the general population?
If you make it comfortable for them to do so, interns will question things that may seem obvious to the rest of the team, and that no one else has thought (or maybe dared) to question. This questioning is healthy and beneficial to your project. For your team, it offers an outside perspective, raises flags, and brings in new ideas. For the intern, it encourages reflection on why and how things are done, and to feel professionally useful and valued.
6) Have fun!
Internships are often people’s first real professional experience. You are responsible for helping interns get their careers on the right path. Part of that responsibility means showing them that work is not all about tasks and deadlines. Working is also about culture, sharing ideas, building projects together, developing skills, being recognized for who you are and what you do, setting boundaries, and meeting people from different backgrounds with different experiences and perspectives. If you’re going out for lunch or after work, invite the interns. Show them that work is not about working all the time.
On a related note, it’s important not to think of interns as cheap labour for your organization. Give them meaningful work. If you ask them to do less fun jobs, why not do some together? Got labels to stick on envelopes? Do some too. Got data to compile? Do some too. Your interns will understand these are not the most challenging tasks, but they must be done. And it’s not only faster, but also more fun to do them together.
Being a mentor is about sharing trust, respect, and support – and maybe it’s your turn
I’ve developed these six best practices through experience (good and bad) but also by learning from the mentors I’ve had along the way, especially from social service teachers during my Cégep years in Montreal.
I will always be grateful that these teachers trusted me, said “yes and” when I proposed initiatives, made me feel like an equal, and were always available to chat – about school, news, or what was happening in society. They were amazing role models of social engagement and commitment to their students.
One teacher’s recommendation of a book to deepen an interest I had shown – Le Bien commun: Éloge de la solidarité (The Common Good: An Elegy to Solidarity) by Riccardo Petrella – had a great impact on me, contributing to shaping my education and career path.
From my first intern supervision experience until today, I’ve always enjoyed working with these early-career colleagues. I like seeing them learn, grow, and build their careers, and I welcome having a chance to pay forward the trust, respect, and support I received earlier in life. Students who are genuinely interested and curious, keen to learn, open to feedback, and eager to jump into projects also bring freshness to a team – a great addition in itself! If you’re wondering whether it’s worthwhile to take an intern on board, think back on the mentors who have helped you along the way. Maybe it’s your turn to be that mentor for someone else.
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