It’s officially July, which means that most of you, youngsters, are in the middle of your summer internship or are about to start/finish one. You might be super happy or you might be dreading waking up in the morning, whatever is your current situation.
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As you probably read here already, you know that when I first moved to London, my English was very poor, but thankfully the lady who hired me was impressed by my energy, enthusiasm and willingness to learn. I would have done anything for that opportunity and she knew it. So here’s my experience of my internship abroad.
So, here is your first advice on your internship abroad: show enthusiasm.
When you are young and inexperienced, you are yet another (hopefully) bright brain coming out of university. You are a blank canvas, nothing else. Sorry to sound harsh and blunt, but contrarily to what your parents always told you, you are NOT special. Yet. At that point of your life (aka just out of uni), you are one out of million (professionally-speaking).
So, never – ever – never act arrogantly or show off, not during your interview nor internship, just chill and sharp your personality instead. Don’t ever think that some tasks aren’t worthy of your talent or capabilities: you are there to learn and even making coffees and print stuff can teach you loads of things, for example what’s your place in the chain of command. You have to, and I had to, learn the basics before getting my hands dirty.
1. Show enthusiasm / but only at appropriate times, when you are actually ready to go.
I was terrified to pick up the phone and since my English was quite bad, I understood very little of what people were saying.. One day, I saw it was ringing, but I wanted to be “alone” before picking up so I decided to let it ring for a while hoping it would go to voicemail. It didn’t and two rows behind me, the colleague who was calling asked me why I wasn’t picking up before coming over to my desk and very nicely saying “Oh! Your volume is all down, that’s why, let me fix that for you!” She then put it back to a normal volume and from that day I had to pick the phone forgetting about any kind of privacy and facing my struggle to understand people.
2. Don’t act a smart a, the sooner you face your fears and deal with them, the better.
Another day, I had to pick up lunch for my boss and she wanted a ham, cheese and salad one. I proudly run to the Italian deli around the corner, sure that what she wanted was Parma ham, mozzarella cheese and lettuce. When I got back, handed her the sandwich, she got a disgusted look on her face: she wanted a normal ham, normal cheese and normal salad. I had to keep the sandwich, run to the store again AND pay for the expensive sandwich I cheerfully had requested for her.
3. Double, nope, triple—check all assignments, yes, even the food orders.
A few weeks later, I was talking to one of my colleagues who was asking about how I felt and I was doing, I was naïve then (I still am now!), and I told her that I felt a bit under-utilised, that I wanted to do more, get involved in the big, tough projects and play with the grown-ups. I would have never expected her to go to my boss and spill out the beans immediately. The day after, she called me into the office and gave me one, huge, useless project with a ridiculous deadline just to keep me busy.
4. Never, ever make comments about your boss or colleagues. Not even to the ones who you think are your friends. Just don’t. Period.
Towards the end of my internship, when I thought I had already learnt quite a lot about the British etiquette and style and I also managed to create a very nice group of local friends, I sent an email to my entire team (about 50 people internationally) ending in “xxx, Sab”. Now, there are worse mistakes than this, but what was a silly mistake could have been avoided if I actually knew the meaning of “xxx”. Considering the million acronymous English speakers use, I simply thought it was another way to say thank you, it turned out it wasn’t…. When people pointed out that to me, I wanted to dig my own grave, thankfully, most people laughed about it, but I surely didn’t.
5. Proofread your emails and documents, don’t use expressions you are not familiar with or at least check their meanings!
One day, my boss gave me a project and even though I didn’t have a clue about what she wanted, while I was leaving the meeting I said something like “Of course! I’ll get it done in no time!” She looked blankly at me and said I could go. Once I got back to my desk, I realised I was in deep s**t trouble. I didn’t know where to start or what to do, so after wasting half a day, I tried to ask a friendly colleague but she also didn’t know what I was meant to do. Later on, after several failed attempts at guessing what she wanted, I had to face the truth and admit to myself (and my boss!) that I failed to understand her instructions. And I didn’t ask for advice.
6. As soon as a doubt arises, ask for more details. Don’t be afraid to look stupid as I did, admit your limits and ask. Ultimately, you are there to learn, not to be nominated CEO.
I really enjoyed working on a project with another colleague, she was friendly, an outstanding and natural teacher and great fun to work with. We worked really well together for a few weeks and she was always supportive and generous with compliments of my work. However, one day, she told me that what I brought to her was totally disappointing and pointless. That comment brought tears to my eyes – it was coming from the one person I trusted the most and I thought she was my “friend”. She was right of course, I had rushed that piece of work, because I had been busy on other projects, but my mistake was that I took her criticism personally.
7. Constructive criticism is part of the learning process, and you need to learn to take them on board. Save the tears for your pillow.
Last, but not really least,don’t let people take advantage of you.
Ever. As a rule, you should never accept an unpaid internship, but as the current economy is a bit tricky right now (erm…since 2008?), you might have to be flexible on this one. Still, whether you are paid or not, you should really put a fine line between what is fair and what is not. If your boss only asks you to make coffees, get his shirts from the dry cleaners and buy presents online for their children day after day, an alarm in your head should ring: you are not learning anything. On the other hand, if you feel overworked (are you? or you are just very slow?), make sure to check that the amount of work is suitable and reasonable for your experience.
Good luck. It’s a hard job, but certainly worth it. In some cases.
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