Friday, June 5, 2009

Building structure around an unstructured internship

Thanks to Shawn Graham of Courting Your Career for guest posting!  We hope to return the favor!

You approach a small company or start up who has never hired an intern before about the possibility of working for them over the summer. They are interested in bringing you on board, but they don’t have a formalized training program or even much of a position description.

If they decide to make you an offer, should you just accept it on the spot so you know you’ll have something on your resume? Possibly…but that’s a risky bet. To make the most of your summer, your internship needs to be meaningful. And the best way to ensure that it’s meaningful is for you to take the lead on giving it some structure.

First things first, you need a job description 1) because you want to know what you’re signing up for and 2) it gives you something tangible that you can refer back to throughout the course of your internship so you can make sure you’re getting the experience you need to position you for full-time employment and your employer is getting the help they need to grow their business. Because they’re a small company, it’s usually much easier for you to pull something together for them to react to than it is to expect them to come up with something on their own.

Once you have a mutually agreed upon job description, you can initiate a discussion about a midpoint and final performance review. Doing so will put you in a position to receive actionable feedback that you’ll be able to address before the end of the summer and see how you throughout the course of the internship--this is especially important if you think there might be a shot at them hiring you on full time as you want to make sure you’re meeting their expectations and performing at the highest possible level.

If they don’t have a formalized training program, there’s a pretty good chance that it’s going to be up to you to get up to speed on your own. Take time to familiarize yourself with their business including their products and services. Listen for clues from management and coworkers about the challenges they’re facing as they could give you an idea for a project you could help get off of the ground.

And, speaking of which, don’t forget to speak up. Managers get busy. A typical 10 week summer internship goes by pretty quickly. If you find you’re spending most of your time on busy work or no work at all, approach your intern employer with ideas of how you might be able to help out on specific projects. You don’t want to come across as telling them what to do, but you do want to offer to help.

Adding structure to an unstructured internship is the best way to ensure a positive experience for the company and for you as their intern. The more meaningful your experience, the more meaningful it will be on your resume as you search for a full-time job.

Shawn Graham is author of Courting Your Career: Match Yourself with the Perfect Job and a career expert blogger for For more information about Shawn, visit his blog at


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