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Surviving A Bad Internship with Your Dignity Intact

November 11, 2011

Emily Matthews is currently applying to masters degree programs across the U.S., and loves to read about new research into health care, gender issues, and literature. She lives and writes in Seattle, Washington.
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By Emily Matthews

There are a choice few who are fortunate enough to land dream internships. Ohio State University students write about their experiences in glowing terms. They describe everything you’d hope for: being treated as an equal, attending sporting events and swanky receptions, working on projects that are both fun and provide solid experience. It doesn’t take a masters degree to understand that a dream internship is probably just that: a dream. In most average cases, the extra perks of an internship may be less fun.

At my first internship, I was asked to clean out an editorial assistants desk, and was then handed whatever loose change and candy I found in the desk as a reward. That $2.25 may have paid my bus ride home, but it certainly could not salve over the damage to my self-respect. On the flip side, that intriguing small non-profit may leave you with little to do but look out the window while your boss takes phone call after phone call, and finally remembers your presence halfway through the day.

Even if there’s a friendly vibe in the office, being a new person is difficult under any circumstance, and being a new, young, temporary person is especially hard. In some cases, the company may be as nervous about you as you are about them. Forbes magazine shares tales of thieving, lazy and inappropriate interns.

“…don’t let the experience damage your sense of self-worth.”

Even the most well-reviewed of companies can prove disappointing, whether it’s because of a put-upon employee who resents the burden of supervising an intern, or because of a corporate hierarchy that believes that all internships should be demeaning because, “Well, that’s what I went through.” Of course, some people are just jerks, and treat everyone badly.

If you get stuck in one of the less-than-desirable internships, here are a few things to try:

Meet with your supervisor or your academic adviser.

Talk about the problem. Think about ways in which you’d like to see things change, whether you need more things to do, or more meaningful tasks.

Be firm.

If you’re asked to do something far outside your job description, or something you’re not comfortable doing, say no.

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Keep it in perspective.

This is not a life sentence. It will be over in a few weeks. Get what you can from it and move on.

Don’t let the internship from Hell consume your summer.

While it’s a bad idea to call off or leave work early just because you’re having a bad experience, make the most of your time off. See your friends, hit the beach, get your quota of fair food.

If things go really badly, get out.

You don’t have to tolerate sexual or racial harassment, verbal abuse or requests to do anything illegal.

Above all else, don’t let the experience damage your sense of self-worth. Keep your sense of humor, keep perspective, and remember these experiences when it’s your turn to supervise an intern.

What advice do you have for someone who is in a bad internship? Leave it in the comments below.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

connect2capetown November 23, 2011 at 5:43 am

If you are treated badly as an intern, it is important to realise that the problem is not yours. If things are not going well, your manager should be able to point this out respectfully and give you guidelines on how you can change things. Take bad treatment as a lesson of how NOT to manage in your future career,

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