Group of people in a meeting in the office

May 31, 2022, by Leah Sharpe

How Not to Be the Perfect Intern – Part Two

By Anna White, Placement Projects Officer

An internship can be a positive experience where you get a foot in the door to an exciting sector, meet people who inspire you and can finally say you’ve gained that crucial bit of work experience to progress you career, but it can also throw up challenges.

In my last blog, I explored how the pressure to impress can impact your wellbeing and performance. Here, I’m looking at the change of pace from student life, with its academic commitments and exam revision and very own city centre nightclub, to working life with its set hours, management hierarchy and inscrutable dress-code.

The Challenge: Switching from student to professional  

You’ve been offered an internship and accepted! But now you’ve actually got to do it. There’s a train commute. You have to get up at 6am to get there for 8.45am and you’re a night-owl. Once there, there’s a code of behaviour to learn and a whole new lexicon of abbreviations. ‘Onboarding’, the process by which employers introduce and assimilate you into their organisation, varies widely but you can still prepare for the (somewhat) unknown. Here are some practical strategies for navigating the transition from student to professional:

Strategies to tackle it:

1. Plan for the practical things

If you’ve been keeping late hours and studying until 3am, try simulating your work week a few days ahead by setting an alarm as if you’re already in your morning routine and sticking to it. By the time you’re doing it for real, you’re more synced with your new schedule and less likely to fall asleep in your 9am meeting. Baffled by the vague term ‘business smart’ in the dress-code policy? Email HR (or the contact you’ve been given) and ask them, specifically, what people wear in the office. If in doubt, avoid denim and err on the side of corporate with trousers/shirt, you can always dial it down the next day. If the commute is genuinely giving you fear, practising it and researching a few alternative routes in case of emergency will make you feel calmer on your first day.

2. Develop good communication habits

I talk to a lot of employers who offer work experience or employ recent graduates, and a common complaint I hear is on email informality, which employers interpret as a professional faux pas at best and a lack of respect at worst. Show them that it’s safe to put you in front of clients or other important stakeholders by keeping emails professional. This means a proper address and sign off (Dear X, Best wishes, X), no emojis (unless they send you one first) and keeping the exclamation points to a bare minimum. You aren’t in a WhatsApp chat with your friends, keep it professional.

3. Be assertive

This one might sound scary but bear with me. Assertiveness is not loud and self-promoting and it doesn’t get people’s backs up: it is normal and something that adults do. It’s easy to feel like you don’t want to ‘be a bother’ when you’re on work experience, but if that means that you don’t ask questions or feel able to speak up when you have something to contribute, you’re not going to gain as much or demonstrate the value you could add to this potential employer. Examples of assertive and appropriate behaviour as an intern include: double-checking unfamiliar jargon (you’re not stupid for not knowing, they are just so used to the shorthand they forget it’s not a word!), being prepared to contribute when the opportunity arises, and being straightforward and honest if asked for your opinion or perspective. You’re doing this internship because on paper, they think you’re good enough to be there, so take your space and show them what you’ve got to offer.

It takes a conscious effort to shake off habits that you’ve built up as a student which might not be appropriate in a professional setting and sometimes you can only learn by doing, so you will make some mistakes. That’s OK! This is work experience, so if you take the time to reflect on your own behaviour and that of others who you want to emulate you can come away from your internship with a new toolkit of professional behaviours.

A huge upside of all this effort is the likely positive impact on your productivity and communication skills, and being able to bring some of this professional mindset back to university and apply it to your studies. Look at you go!

Explore internships on our website or gain more practical tips on navigating the workplace.

Posted in Careers AdviceInternshipWork experience