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What To Expect From Your Internship

By Tom Keppeler

Some interns have done work that can change the world, while others have been locked in the mailroom. Where does the happy medium lie? We'll tell you want to expect and what to avoid in your internship.

We have developed a guide to show you what to expect and what to avoid from your internship.

Elizabeth Tinkler was considering a radio career until her internship at a Boston radio station turned her away from it. She was brought on staff as a "promotions intern," where she thought she would help plan events, concerts, and contests. A semester's worth of Saturdays, thousands of stickers, and one state fair later, Tinkler realized that her true job description meant handing out bumper stickers at local events and gas stations. "Working on a Saturday, watching pigs race at a state fair and handing out bumper stickers was not my idea of career development," says Tinkler, 21.

But what should you expect from an internship? The definition of an internship varies so widely that it's hard to get a baseline for judgment. So we have developed a guide to show you what to expect at the least-and what to avoid-from your internship.

Anticipate some gerbil work
Like it or not, you will be the low person on the totem pole. While you shouldn't be handing out bumper stickers all summer, your boss is not going to give you the company's largest account to handle. An internship lies somewhere in between, says Tinkler. "You're going to be spending a lot of time in the mailroom no matter what kind of internship you do." While some interns might disagree with Tinkler, all internships usually involve some gerbil work-whether it's data entry, filing, or scheduling appointments for your boss, it's coming your way.

Real responsibility
However, interns should be given real responsibility when the gerbil work is done, says Jay Allen, an intern at Ketchum Public Relations in New York. Allen, who is working for the agency's health care division, works hands-on with two accounts, including a campaign called "Have a Heart" in which celebrities raise awareness of high blood pressure. Allen says he has already gained experience juggling accounts and practicing time management skills, which, he says, has largely come from the hands-on responsibilities he's been given. In an average day, his duties range from pitching stories to journalists to helping with organizing Ketchum events. Nancy Waclawek, who coordinates the internship program for The St. Petersburg Times in Florida, agrees with Allen. "You should, at a bare minimum, be given real work to do," says Waclawek.

Expect to be proactive
Tinkler, who now interns at Mullen Public Relations and Smash Advertising, both near Boston, says that she wasn't given real work right away-she had to ask for it. "I'm going up to anyone-whether it's the president of the company or someone else-and saying, 'Give me work to do!'" Her boldness paid off: she's now writing radio scripts and doing other copywriting. And she says she's getting much more out of the experience. Be sure, however, to initially ask your direct supervisor for work. Don't go over too many heads to get an assignment.

Match your personality to it
There are plenty of internships out there. Don't settle for one that doesn't match your personality. "I have a few friends who are working for companies that are very stuffy, and they just don't fit in," says Allen. "Think about matching your personality with the environment to find the best fit." Waclawek calls this looking for a "friendly" company-one with a well-organized internship program, a staff ready to train you, and other perks such as assistance in finding a summer apartment.

Gain insight
Your first internship may be your first chance to see how your classroom learning applies to the real world. Capitalize on this, says Allen, who is completing his second internship. "An internship is the best way to evaluate what you've learned in school and what you need to learn more of," he says. "If you can walk away with that, it's worth your time." Expect to start evaluating your job prospects, too, says Daisey Harris, coordinator for the internship program at The Boston Globe. Harris says some students who start out reporting for the paper discover they like editing better, and vice versa. Some design interns have switched to photography. And at least one has given up on the newspaper business entirely.

Expect compensation
Your internship should compensate you somehow-whether by a paycheck, stipend, housing subsidies, class credit, or other perks, a company should give you more than just its name on your resume in exchange for your work. Brooks recommends finding a paid internship. "Don't take a job unless they're putting money behind it by paying or training you well," Brooks says. "I know I have to get a lot out of our interns because their salaries are coming out of my budget." Look for the green to find the companies that are serious about interns, she says.

Expect to make contacts
Interning should at least be a foothold in the industry you work in. To ensure this, make contacts of your coworkers, says Tinkler. Ask questions, find out how they got to where they are, and find out who they know in the industry. It could just land you a job. In addition, Tinkler says, keep your eyes open during the course of your internship. "You'll get to see what other people are doing," she says. "Pay attention, because that's going to be you in a couple of years."

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