Making the Most of Your Internship

NEW!  Online Internship Orientation
To improve your navigation of your internship experience, you will be required to complete a brief online Internship Orientation (and quiz) prior to beginning your first internship.  Upon registration, you will receive an email with a link to this page, and our office will be informed when you have successfully completed the quiz.

Orientation to the internship

All learning is contextual, and your internship will be all the more productive if you use your first two weeks to get acquainted with the work setting, your co-workers, and work activities. This is also a period when you are being assessed by those in the workplace.  They will be looking for signs you are a competent, motivated, inquisitive, and respectful person worthy of their time and energy.   If you are assigned some mundane tasks at the beginning, assume they are watching to see how you work and handle yourself.

Areas to attend to in your orientation:
  • The organization (mission, overview of organization, your department, your role, etc.)
  • The office (co-workers and their roles, dress code, attendance, work station, etc.)
  • Operations (communications, computer use policy, meetings, key employment policy, etc.)
  • Your specific role (daily tasks, projects and timelines, skills needed, training provided, ways to access info, etc.)
  • Functioning (supervision and feedback, problem resolution, boundaries, etc.)

After completing your first 1-2 weeks, complete and submit the Orientation Check-in form to the Internship Program office.

Expectations for an intern

Although you are not a regular employee at your organization, you are expected to perform in a professional manner consistent with organization norms.

  • Be punctual. If you are going to be late or miss a day, notify your supervisor in advance and arrange to make up the time. Remember that attendance standards in the workplace are likely higher than in school.  If you are perceived as being unreliable, it will affect your rating and the importance of the work you are assigned.
  • Dress appropriately to the standards of the setting.
  • Express a positive attitude and a desire to learn.
  • Take initiative. Get the most out of your internship by tackling new challenges and learning opportunities.  However, be careful not to over-commit.
  • Ask for what you need. Your lack of information, confusion, or boredom is probably not as apparent as you think. It is your responsibility to keep your supervisor and faculty sponsor informed about your progress.
  • Meet your deadlines. If a proposed time-line seems unrealistic to you, discuss it right away with your supervisor--don't wait until the last minute and let her/him down.
  • Be respectful of co-workers and clients of your organization.
  • Keep your faculty sponsor informed about your activities.
  • Discuss problems as soon as they arise. Most issues can be worked out through simple communication, so address the problem quickly and directly with co-workers or  your supervisor.  If you need help, do not hesitate to consult with the Internship Director or your faculty sponsor for guidance and support.

Learning beyond your internship role

Beyond the primary role and function of being an intern exists a wealth of opportunity to learn about functioning in the workplace, an absolute necessity in a successful career.  Many students find the most valuable lessons in an internship lie in exploring/navigating organizational dynamics, both positive or negative.  This is why even internships in organizations in transition or under stress can still be quite informative.  Pay attention to things that contribute to a healthy, functional organization and things that are detrimental and undermine its operation.  

  • Bosses/supervisors/leadership styles
  • Co-workers and organizational behavior
  • Politics in the work setting (observe, interns should not participate!)
  • Boundaries, personal and professional
  • Communication, formal and informal
  • Management of deadlines, work performance, stress, conflict
  • Organizational stress/transition/turnover
  • Organizational structure

What are you learning about your own personality and work style?  What do you need to have in terms of the above factors for you to be happy and productive?  What skills and attitudes do you need to develop to be more comfortable in future work settings?

Reflecting upon your experience

The very foundation of experiential learning is reflecting upon what you are doing in the here-and-now through journaling, and at the end of your internship through a summary reflection paper/project.  Both of these are standard internship assignments required of all students.  The daily or weekly journaling serves to record data and insights (activities, situations, challenges, observations, questions, etc.), as well as facilitate catharsis (letting go of stress).  The summary reflection paper/project requires you to comprehensively review all this information and explore more deeply patterns of behavior, insights, connections, etc. that will impact your course of study, career, and personal development.

Journal Writing

Download more journal writing tips

Maintaining some type of a journal is one of the most helpful ways to track and learn from both routine and significant developments in your internship.

  • keep a record of your work activities and accomplishments
  • capture ideas, questions, and insights stemming from your work
  • record information and observations in order to analyze an experience
  • identify key issues and patterns
  • serve as an emotional catharsis/outlet for processing experiences
  • measure growth over the course of time
  • make connections with your academic studies
  • react to ethical dilemmas brought to light through the workplace
  • identify personal strengths developed and demonstrated
  • recognize shortcomings to be addressed in the future to be successful

If you do not regularly keep up with this, you will lose sight of much of this rich material, and your final reflection project will suffer significantly.

Journaling formats to choose from:
  • Personal journal
    This free-form, “dear diary” style allows you to write unedited, unguarded thoughts, develop ideas, amplify thoughts and consider questions and answers. This journal is a conversation with yourself.  Think about yourself as a learner, and the conditions under which you are learning.
  • Structured response journal
    More structured, this style asks you to regularly address the same three areas each day. You can pick the topics of most interest to you based on what you hope to get out of the experience. One example of a helpful constellation of questions is:
    • ID one thing I learned about my discipline.
    • ID one thing I learned about my skills or knowledge.
    • ID one thing I learned about myself.
  • Double entry journal
    One column of the page is devoted to objectively recording select workplace events, situations, or tasks. In the second column you record your feelings, reactions, and thoughts/challenges associated with what you wrote in the first column. This can be as simple as disciplining yourself to writing down the five most interesting things encountered each week and then responding to each.
  • Critical incident journal
    This model is more useful for unpacking and understanding a major event that has had a significant emotional impact on you.  Describe what happened, in what order, and how it started and ended. Include the people, things and actions that affected the event. What was your part in the interaction?  This will help you understand how and why the incident developed, and provide insights into what you can do differently the next time you encounter a similar situation. If possible, this is good to review with another person who can further help you process the situation.  These are invariably vital learning experiences.

Summary Reflection Paper/Project

Looking back on your internship will help you recognize all the things you experienced and learned, how you have grown, an appreciation for your strengths, and perhaps a healthy awareness of challenges you still need to address in the future.  This is most commonly done as a paper, but can certainly be in an alternative format (e.g. poster presentation, class presentation, portfolio of work done, etc.).  

However you structure this paper/project, you need to:

  • Describe your organization, your role, and your activities/accomplishments
  • Discuss the connections with your course of study/interests
  • Examine implications for your professional development and future career plans
  • Explore any ethical dilemmas or issues encountered in the work setting … the ideals of academia are often not so clearly defined in the real world.
  • Examine the personal impact of the experience, identifying strengths and areas you need to address in the future to be successful