Common Internship Situations and Questions

Being a good intern — one who's likely to get recommended or offered a full-time job — usually requires a lot of attention to detail. But by working hard, following some universal guidelines and asking the right questions, you'll be sure to get on your employer's good side.

Keep reading for help navigating some of an internship's trickier situations.

How do I improve my relationship with my boss?

If you feel that your boss doesn’t give you enough time or that your relationship is floundering, please don’t take it personally. Your boss may be overwhelmed with work and under lots of pressure to produce from his/her boss. Here are a few tips to improve your professional relationship with your boss:

  • Make sure that you perform your assignments quickly and accurately. Then, ask your boss what you can do to help him/her. Working together on a project is a good way to improve your professional relationship.
  • Demonstrate that you’re a professional by getting to work early, staying late, and working weekends if the boss needs extra help. The best way to establish a professional relationship is to be a professional yourself.
  • Earn the respect of your boss by dressing professionally, limiting casual conversation in the office, and presenting new ideas on how you can improve your assignments.
  • Ask your boss if you can attend some meetings with him/her either at the company or at a professional organization. Show your sincere interest in the relevant field and your enthusiasm at learning more, ensuring that your boss will react in a positive manner.
  • Thank your boss for all the help that you receive at your internship and compliment him/her on being such a great role model for you. By the time your internship is over, your boss will consider you a professional partner.

Meeting with a disappointed boss

Before you start the conversation, create a game plan to ensure that the meeting is successful and accomplishes your goals. Your proactive approach is admirable. You may be helping your boss start a sensitive conversation that he/she has been postponing. Here are a few tips for a meaningful meeting:

  • Set up an appointment at a time that is convenient for your boss and estimate how long you think the meeting will take, so he/she can be available. Prepare an agenda that covers your crucial concerns.
  • Phrase your points with questions, making it easier for your boss to respond. For example, “In what areas do you think I need to improve?” or “Do you have any suggestions on how I can meet company expectations?” Keep your questions to a limited number, such as six.
  • Present the agenda to your boss before the meeting, ensuring that he/she has time to reflect on the questions and deliver helpful answers. At the meeting, make sure you have a notebook and write down the answers as a sign of your commitment to change.
  • Listen respectfully to what your boss says. Refrain from interrupting or from giving long excuses as to why you haven’t met expectations. Your boss wants to clear up miscommunications and help you meet expectations as much as you do. Both you and your boss want the internship to add value to the company.
  • Keep in mind that an honest conversation is a good goal. But “honest” means in a proactive way that will yield positive results. For example, honesty doesn’t extend to telling the boss that you don’t like your co-workers or that your office is too small, which is why you aren’t meeting expectations.
  • Use diplomacy. The meeting is a tool for you to improve your situation, not to bring up negative issues that may be irresolvable. Before the meeting is over, ask your boss to help you create revised expectations, so you have a new method to assess your performance.

How do I graduate from getting coffee?

That’s a tricky question and the answer depends on many variables. Before you say no to coffee running, let’s examine the various scenarios:

  • Reread the description of your internship, checking carefully to see if running errands, such as getting coffee, is included. If not, you have the grounds (sorry about the pun) to ask your intern supervisor if that’s one of your legitimate duties. He or she may be unaware that you’re getting coffee and can arrange to have you reassigned to more responsible duties. At the very least, your intern supervisor can advise you on the office dynamics, which could mean that you’ll continue to get coffee.
  • Use coffee as a networking tool if you’re being asked to get coffee or tea. It’s a good opportunity to get to know your co-workers and build professional relationships that will translate into help when you’re working on more important duties or need assistance with office technology. Someone has to get the coffee and if you’re the most junior person in the office, you’ll probably be given the task. So you might as well smile and be pleasant and get to know who likes cream and sugar. You might find it an opportune moment to start a conversation with a staffer since many people like to chat over their coffee. You could find yourself asked to participate in a meaningful project as a result.
  • Consider if your internship is paid or unpaid. If it’s paid, you probably don’t have a very strong case for refusing to get coffee unless your work description says so. Even full-time employees get coffee. Rather than finding the duty demeaning or discriminatory, consider it your rite of initiation into the office community. It can also be a test to see how you fit in to the team environment. All businesses and jobs have menial aspects that affect everyone. Famous chef Thomas Keller of The French Laundry and Per Se has been known to clean dishes when the dish room is backed up. 
  • Research alternatives to getting coffee. Find out if there’s a coffee self-service company or a coffee delivery option in the neighborhood. Look for a new high tech coffee machine that would be enjoyable to use, ensuring that co-workers would want to go get their own coffee. An improved coffee delivery system might improve office morale and be a status symbol for the administration. Present your report to your intern supervisor, who will decide how to process it. If you still end up getting coffee, make it fun for everyone. You could give an impromptu weather, sports or news report, or quote for the day along with the coffee. Your co-workers will like you and may choose you to work on their team someday.

How to act at work socials

You want to have fun and meet new people at a work socials. But remember, it’s still work even though the atmosphere might be relaxed and informal. It can be an opportunity for improving your image and your career future, or it can be a disaster that sidelines your internship. Here are a few tips for capitalizing on a super opportunity:

  • Dress appropriately. You might have some funky outfits that you wear when you socialize with your friends, but they may not be right for a work function. Be careful about plunging necklines or short skirts as well as tacky t-shirt slogans. If in doubt, dress conservatively.
  • If you aren’t 21, don’t drink alcohol. If you are old enough to legally drink alcohol, limit your intake. Or, better yet, don’t drink any alcohol just to be sure that you don’t slip up and say what you really think about one of your co-workers or the food in the company cafeteria.
  • Monitor your food intake. Don’t park yourself beside the buffet table and eat up all the best food. And don’t stuff any goodies in your pocket or purse to take home for a snack. No doggie bags, please.
  • Be proactive. Introduce yourself to people and start conversations. You may want to talk about the event, summer vacations, the weather, or other topics rather than work. But don’t participate in any gossip. And do mingle with lots of different people rather than chat with only one person.
  • Act friendly, but not familiar. Keep a comfortable amount of personal space between you and the person with whom you’re talking. Touching is not appropriate, even if it’s a work social. And no flirting.
  • Watch the clock. It’s fine to be one of the first people at the social event; it shows that you’re looking forward to engaging with employees. And don’t be the first one to leave because it looks like you’re not having a good time. But be sure not to be the last one to leave either because the people who are closing up are clock-watching.

Asking for bigger challenges

Your interest in taking on more responsibility should generate better assignments; plus, you’ll learn more new skills. And when you finish your internship, you’re sure to receive rave recommendations. Here’s how to ask for more challenges at your internship:

  • Make sure you’ve done a great job on the assignments that you’ve completed. Can you document that you’ve finished all your responsibilities ahead of time and exceeded expectations? Your ability to demonstrate why you should have more challenges impresses your boss. He/she will know you take your internship seriously and want to add value to the company.
  • Be careful not to belittle any efforts by other interns or even co-workers who may be performing the same tasks as you. Choose your language carefully when your boss asks why you want more responsibility. Instead of using words like “boring,” or “repetitive” to describe your dissatisfaction with your assignments, explain that you want to do more to develop your skills and to help the company reach its goals. You may even add that you’re willing to continue your original assignments but want more challenging work in the company, even if it means working longer hours.
  • Do some research before you approach your boss. In other words, be careful what you ask for because you might get it. You can ensure that your new tasks will be ones that you’ll enjoy if you have participated in selecting them. Also, you’ll be much more successful if you pick fresh challenges that showcase your talents. If you’re excellent at research, ask if you can work on a research project. If you’re a computer whiz, suggest an assignment in that area. Prepare a brief report, outlining potential new challenges along with goals and timelines. How can your boss say no?

Chatting with higher-ups

First impressions are really important, and the first words out of your mouth are usually someone’s name after you’ve been introduced. Introductions usually follow the same etiquette. In general, the person who does the introducing uses both the first and last name of each individual. However, that doesn’t automatically give you permission to address the person that you just met by their first name. Here are a few tips on how to address your co-workers, mentors, and superiors and some ideas about what to talk about:

  • Co-workers: Co-workers can include other interns, junior colleagues, secretarial or support staff, and service personnel. You can usually call them by their first names. There are some exceptions, including an older person or a person who calls you by your last name even if you’ve suggested they can call you by your first name.
  • What to talk about with co-workers: Acceptable topics range from asking about families, weekends/vacations, hobbies, interests, work history, etc. The secret to a good conversation is to ask questions of others, rather than rambling on about yourself.
  • Mentors: A good rule of thumb is to address each mentor by their last name, such as Mr. Jones or Miss Smith, unless that person tells you to use their first name. A mentor is like a teacher who may appreciate the sign of respect you show by using their last name.
  • What to talk about with mentors: Ask questions about the job or the assignment. Be sure to thank the mentor for all the help and advice. Other safe subjects are the weather and sports. Unsafe subjects are money, religion, and politics.
  • Managers: Always address managers by their last names, such as Mr. or Mrs. Bond even if they call you by your first name, unless they tell you otherwise.
  • What to talk about with managers: The conversation will probably be brief, and could include the weather. If the company has received a large contract, new business or has made the news in a positive way, you might want to compliment your superiors on their achievements.

Networking outside your department

When is networking outside your department appropriate? The short answer is when your intern supervisor or department head says so. The long answer gives you more leeway to build your network on your own timetable and in your own style. Here are some points to ponder:

  • After your first week has successfully passed, ask your intern supervisor about the best way to meet people in other departments. Explain that you’d like to have a better understanding of how the business works as a whole. In response the intern supervisor may escort you around to the other departments, introducing you to various members, who might offer to discuss their work with you.
  • When you’re sure that your department head likes your work, follow up by asking him/her if it’s permissible to visit other departments to learn what they do, especially departments that interface with yours. Then, the department head may take you to other departments and ask them to spend some time with you, so you can learn more about the operation.
  • If your department holds daily or weekly meetings, ask if you can attend. Or if your department head and intern supervisor belong to professional meetings that welcome students, ask if you can go to a meeting with them. Be prepared to pay for lunch though most department heads or intern supervisors will pick up the tab. Professional meetings are great places to network for future internships.
  • Another way to stimulate networking outside of your department is to develop a school assignment that requires you to interview employees in different departments. If you’re earning academic credit, you may indeed have to produce a paper researching some aspect of the company. If you’re not getting credit, you may still have an upcoming course that would benefit from a report based on the company. Professionals are usually glad to help students because they remember their own student days and class assignments.
  • Other places to network informally outside of your department are at coffee breaks, in the cafeteria or fitness center, and at social events. Thanks to most companies issuing ID badges with employee names and departments, you can quickly scan ID badges and learn enough to start up a conversation. Some interns make it a practice to sit at different lunch tables every day in order to meet more co-workers. Be sure to attend any social events at your internship, getting to know as many people as possible. And, you can also volunteer for one of the non-profit causes sponsored by your company. You may find yourself dishing out food in a soup kitchen beside the company president. Now that’s networking!

Asking for help

Everyone finds they're in over their head at some point, even full-time employees. Whether it’s a regular job or an internship, a challenging experience will teach you new skills. Understandably, however, you feel uncomfortable admitting that you don’t know how to do your project or that you need help. Try the following tips to solve your problem:

  • Most projects are team efforts. If you have other people working on the same project, ask them for help as soon you run into trouble. Or, if you have friends or fellow interns at the company, you might want to ask them for advice.
  • For a better understanding of your project, do some research on it. Obtain some reports or documents that detail its history, goals, timeline, personnel etc. Once you see the big picture, your part of the project will make more sense to you. You may find it helpful to sit down with the project manager and find out more about your role.
  • If your confusion stems from a lack of certain technical skills, you may be able to develop the necessary proficiency in a short time. You could also simply be experiencing stress at performing your assignment in a large project. Feeling overwhelmed can block your ability to move forward. Try doing one small step at a time in hopes that the next step will become clear as you move forward. Consider your project a giant puzzle and place one piece at a time.
  • If none of the above tips works, you may have to be honest with yourself and admit that this project is not for you. Then, set up a meeting with your intern manager and explain your dilemma. Emphasize that you don’t want to hold your team back, and problem solve with your manager the best way to handle the situation.
  • This same advice applies to a situation in which you really dislike your assignment although you understand how to do it. In either case, ask your internship manager if you have any other options. Your own time is valuable and should be spent in a positive manner. It’s probably that you’ll end up with a much better review and recommendation if you like your work and perform to the best of your ability.

How to prioritize assignments

If you're extremely, busy at your internship, take the overload as a compliment. Obviously, the company believes in your ability to accomplish multiple tasks in your internship. You’ll master new skills, and time will fly when you’re busy. Some interns complain that they have nothing to do except to sit around and watch everyone work or go fetch coffee for the office staff. Don’t panic or complain to your supervisor or other staff about your assignments. Instead, follow these tips to manage your time effectively:

  • At the end of every day, make a list of the next day’s assignments, arranging them in order from most important to least important. If you’re not sure, ask your intern manager to help you prioritize your responsibilities.
  • Check to see if your assignments are the same ones that were in the description for the internship. If you see lots of new additions, it’s perfectly fine to question them. Don’t feel shy about asking for advice. Remember, people like to be asked for help because it makes them feel important.
  • After you organize your list, allot a specific amount of time to each item. Note deadlines when necessary. Make sure that you do the top items to the best of your ability. You can probably do the least important items quickly. If you run out of time to complete the list, you could shift the bottom items to the next day.
  • Make sure to get to your internship early every day, even if it’s only 15 minutes before the rest of the office. You’ll make a great first impression, which is the lasting impression. People will automatically expect that you’ll do an excellent job since you’re so enthusiastic that you even arrive early. Then, if you don’t get everything done, it won’t be a disaster because you’ve already established yourself as a thoroughly competent person.
  • Maintain a positive attitude even if you feel frantic about the pile of work on your desk. However, it’s acceptable to sit down and talk with the intern manager, explain the overload, and ask if some items could be deleted from the assignment list. Emphasize that your priority is to do to a really good job. But with so many assignments, your work could be compromised.
  • Take advantage of your many assignments as a way to prove that you have multiple skills. You’ll be more valuable to the company.

How can I still benefit from unpaid internships?

Many internships don’t offer pay or credit, but you’ve still made a solid investment in your career future. Here are some ways that you can maximize your internship experience:

  • Networking:  The most effective way to find other opportunities for yourself is networking, which is acknowledged as the primary method to get a job or an internship. A July 20 article in The New York Times says that dozens of young people with connections to Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s friends, business associates and government appointees have been awarded internships at City Hall. You’ve probably started a good network for yourself at your internship. Make a list of everyone at your internship and find out if he/she can suggest any other internship possibilities. Keep in contact with people through a social media outlet. Remember, you’re part of their network, too.
  • Next internship:  Your experience at your summer internship is a great building block for your next internship. Now that you have mastered the art of being a professional in a work setting you’re ready to advance up the ladder. With excellent recommendations in hand, you can apply for more advanced assignments at more prestigious firms. A potential internship supervisor knows that you’re a proven quantity and will “fit in” nicely to another internship. Also, your past summer internship may have opened your eyes to the fact that you don’t really like that field or industry. Now you have time to change your major and explore other fields before it’s too late in your academic career.
  • Course paper or class project:  Every summer internship provides endless resources for a course paper or class project. And you’ve already done the research if you use your material from one of your internship assignments. You can incorporate case studies or company reports (unless they’re confidential) to support your paper. Or if you are a member of a class team that is instructed to collaborate with a company on a project, you could ask your former internship company to fill that requirement. Another way in which you can tap back into your internship is to ask someone at your internship to be a speaker for a campus event. You’ll soon see that an unpaid, no-credit internship is a priceless experience.