Hate your internship? Learn a different lessonNow that many interns are settling into their summer work sites, emotions can be all over the map. Some will be thrilled with their new duties, others challenged and for some, the jury might still be out. Unfortunately, disappointment might be part of the equation. Perhaps the opportunity an intern thought sounded so appealing isn't turning out to be quite what they expected. Maybe the tasks at hand aren't what was anticipated – or even described.

But just because the work itself is less than helpful, the experience as whole has a lot to offer interns.

A conversation this week with Donna Farrugia, executive director of The Creative Group recruiting firm, reinforces the idea that there are positives to be gained from nearly every internship experience, and that perhaps the most valuable things to be gained aren't the ones you go in expecting. This is a great thing to keep in mind when facing a scenario where expectations aren't meeting reality.

The Creative Group, a division of Robert Half International, is a specialized staffing service that places professionals into a variety of jobs, both full-time and project-oriented, focusing on marketing, advertising, web and creative positions. It conducted a national survey of advertising and marketing executives released last year and found the value of internships might in fact lie more in their intangible benefits than, say, the technical skills involved.


Executives were asked: "Aside from pay, what do you think is the greatest benefit to students or graduates who participate in an internship program?"

Thirty-one percent of the respondents answered that the opportunity to experience different work environments was the greatest benefit, while 24% said the opportunity to improve so-called "soft skills'' was of highest value, including learning how to communicate effectively and mastering diplomacy. Acquiring technical skills or knowledge was cited by 22% of those respondents, while 12% thought that making industry contacts held the most worth. Learning to navigate office politics as well as other issues in the workplace were the skills cited by 9%.

Farrugia points out that interns are not only being assessed on their performance in the office, but also on their attitudes and people skills shown during off-hours. If an intern is invited to a party, or to participate in an office softball game, it's not only a good idea to take part -- it should be considered mandatory.

"Don't think, 'Oh, it's not important.' You really almost can't say no,'' Farrugia says. "You must go. Your attitude is one of the greatest factors considered by employers. They're watching how you fit in. Show a little chutzpah while still acting professionally. Always maintain professionalism, but it's very important to show that you're a team player.''

Along these lines, the Internships.com website's Intern Coach offers some solid advice to those venturing into social situations stemming from their internships. The most important thing to remember is that these are opportunities to help -- or hurt -- an intern's professional image.

Among the tips mentioned:
  • Even in an informal atmosphere, be careful when selecting an outfit. You're not out for an evening with friends; these are possible future bosses, references, or connections to jobs. When in doubt, err on the conservative side of your wardrobe.
  • If you're under 21, do not drink alcohol, and even if you're 21 or older, either limit the amount you drink or abstain altogether. You don't want to get so comfortable that you share opinions about co-workers that are best left inside your head.
  • Venture beyond the food table. Make sure you mingle, and make sure you avoid packing up any "leftovers'' to take home.
  • Don't be afraid to begin a conversation but steer away from gossip -- or flirtation. Asking people about their jobs, their professional paths or planned summer trips can be good icebreakers.

The overall lesson for interns is that not only their work, but their ability to navigate the world at large is being evaluated. Even in situations that seem flawed professionally, there are positives to be gained, even if those positives come in the form of making the best of something unexpected. This might not be a fun experience at the time, but it makes for a great life lesson, and something even to showcase in future interviews.

Jennifer Halperin is the internship coordinator at Columbia College Chicago, and Money College's Internship Insider. Her column runs every Wednesday; send suggestions for story ideas to Jennifer at MoneyCollege@walletpop.com.

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