Starting a summer internship or placement year? Then this is your personal handbook to getting started and making it through your time successfully.
Having just finished my own Work Placement year in London, I thought now would be a fitting time to share valuable advice, insight, tips and tricks to ensure that you make the absolute most out of your upcoming internship. And this won’t just be my perspective either – it includes the advice collated from other students too (which they’ve kindly shared with me). Ultimately, everyone’s experiences have differed depending on the location, industry, firm, team and role.
Before You Start
An internship is no walk in the park.
Generally, this will be the first time many of you will have a taste of what “real working life” is like in a full time role. Before your starting date, there are three key actions you should take to prepare yourself:
I can’t stress this enough – open a savings account if you haven’t done so already. The longer you leave it, the more likely you are to spend money recklessly because of that big bank balance.
Forecast how much you expect to earn (after tax) each month, what your fixed costs are (e.g. rent, food, drinks, travel, gym, phone bill etc.) and then set aside a dedicated amount of your monthly income to your savings. Make sure that this is realistic; you don’t want to have to constantly dip back into your savings to withdraw more money, so make sure you leave some money sitting in your current account too just in case it’s needed.
The amount of research you may need to do is very dependent on your employer’s expectation of you – it’s worth having a conversation with your manager or recruiter prior to starting to check what will help you and them.
In general, however, it’s worth reading up on the industry, firm, division/department and your role. Simply Google search for news articles on your given industry/firm to bring up all of the related articles. For those of you going into banking/finance, have a look at efinancialcareers.co.uk, the Financial Times and the Economist.
Employers are becoming increasingly social media savvy. Look for Facebook groups/pages under your firm’s name or search for terms such as “intern class of 2018” for example. As well as this, you can find people on LinkedIn who currently work at the same company and/or within the same department. Reach out to them (with a well written message) if you’re looking for any advice or just to make some contacts. It’s always reassuring to know people before you start.
On Your Internship
So your internship has begun… You’re nervous, excited or both. Here are the Top 10 actions to take to help you to maximise this opportunity:
- Set goals
Have a clear vision of what you want to achieve and learn during your internship so that you can continuously work towards it. For example, I wanted to become a more confident public speaker; I communicated this with my manager early on so that she could help to give me the opportunities to facilitate this. Similarly, you may want to become more technically skilled, more knowledgeable about a particular topic, more organised etc. It helps to write these goals down and make your manager and/or mentor(s) aware of this so that they can assist you in this.
It’s important to revisit these goals on a regular basis (monthly if you’re on placement or fortnightly if you’re a summer intern). Each time you revisit these goals, you can track your progress and identify how far you’ve come and what you still need to do to be able to achieve your targets. Ensure that each goal has actionable methods of achieving them e.g. if you want to become more technically skilled, pitch for a project that you can work on to sharpen your technical skills.
- Request feedback
In addition to the above, feedback is essential in achieving your goals and continuing to develop your skill set in the workplace. Being able to receive feedback well and owning your development areas is a great way of impressing your employer and it’s very crucial to your self-development. When you request feedback, make sure that you can seek advice on how to work on your development points. The best feedback is generally specific and is given at the time of/soon after the event. By receiving on going feedback, you can continuously improve and re-pivot to assess what you need to do to achieve your desired goals.
- Manage your key stakeholders
Your key stakeholders are the individuals that are responsible for deciding whether or not you receive a graduate offer, for your review and/or may be useful contacts for your future career opportunities. The number of key stakeholders you have is very dependent on your working environment. For some of you, you may only have one key stakeholder, whereas for others, you may have a number of them including your mentor(s), team, recruiters etc.
Firstly, identify who they are (this may change over time). Secondly, ensure that you have regular meetings with them (the frequency of this will vary dependent on the nature of your relationship e.g. you may meet with your recruiter quarterly whereas you may have a one to one meeting with your line manager weekly). Next, prepare for each of these meetings in advance – go in with a few key points/questions to raise and ensure that the conversations are constructive. Finally, complete any tasks that are raised as action points during these meetings within the provided timeframe. Keep these stakeholders in the loop at all times so that they are aware of any information relevant to them.
- Network… Network… Network…
Most of you have heard of “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know”.
This isn’t entirely correct – you should know both. You can either have a great network of contacts to help you to navigate your career but without the knowledge or skillset, you don’t have much market value. In contrast to this, you may be incredibly talented but if you don’t know the right people you might struggle to stand out in the workplace.
Attend work socials and join clubs/communities/networks within the workplace. It’s important to show your face and make the right impression – be impressionable. Meet new people and create a connection with them; introduce and brand yourself well, but remember that people like to talk about themselves most so be sure to ask them interesting, open questions and strike up a flowing conversation. If you feel the conversation going stale, don’t force it – move on. After the networking event or social, follow up with the key individuals after (even just with a quick note to let them know that it was “nice to meet them” and to keep in touch).
In the workplace look for opportunities to interact with your colleagues face-to-face or over the phone where appropriate, rather than resorting to Instant Message conversations and/or email – this is another way to build relationships whilst you’re there.
Also don’t forget about social media – utilise LinkedIn and connect with people that you’ve gotten to know in the workplace.
- Dive head first out of your comfort zone
It’s easy to carry on doing the things which you already do well. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t, but you should also attempt to do the things which you have never done before and the things which you’re not so great at. Your weaknesses will stand out if you allow them to – showcase your strengths and showcase the improvements you’ve made on your development points. The better you become in your weaker areas, the more well-rounded you are in your skillset. This internship is a prime opportunity for you to learn as much as you can from experienced, intelligent individuals who’ve done it all before. Capitalise from this resource and put your hand up to do the things which you find the hardest.
- Manage time, manage expectations
Things won’t always go smoothly. There will come a time when you’re under pressure, managing a number of tasks/projects under a tight deadline. Communicating your workload with your manager/team is helpful for you and them; they can reassess the priority so that you can focus on the most crucial tasks first and the lower priority tasks after. If you’re unable to meet a deadline or complete a task, explain this to the relevant individual(s)/team so that they are aware of any potential delays or change of plans. People like to be in the loop and they definitely don’t like to be surprised with bad news.
In general you will need to learn to be organised. Personally, I wrote a to-do list every morning to clearly define what I needed to do each day and at the end of the day I was able to identify what was still remaining to complete. As well as this, for project work, I created an Excel spread sheet with each project, its deadline and when I planned to work on it over the coming weeks and months. Use what works for you to keep yourself organised and on top of your deadlines.
- Post and publicise
Ultimately, this internship is a long interview process. The employer will be assessing how suitable you are for a full time role after graduating. It doesn’t matter how great you are, if they don’t know it or can’t see it then they’ll never know. Your personal branding in the workplace is defined by your character and your skills/knowledge. If you’ve completed a project or done something well, then inform your manager (and other stakeholders). Of course, not everything is post-worthy. Don’t go overboard and let them know of every little achievement. Some posts can be a quick, verbal note to let them know you’ve completed what’s been asked for. Bigger achievements of greater prominence are worth an email to your manager and/or team (for example). Your achievements should be memorable to your stakeholders.
- Learn more, do more
Similar to pushing yourself out of your comfort zone, it’s important to continuously push yourself to do more. Every time you feel comfortable and content with your circumstances, identify what else you can do to challenge yourself and spark another growth spurt. Of course, don’t take on more than you can handle. Adding just a little more each time is a good way to challenge you without feeling overwhelmed.
Remember, there really is no such thing as a “stupid question”. Feel comfortable with asking even the basic questions to have a better understanding of your role. It’s better to ask questions early on and learn quicker, than to stay silent and make mistakes later. You’re new to the job – people understand this and will be willing to help you.
- Rest for resilience
Contrary to everything I’ve just listed above, it’s very important to also rest. I made the mistake of not taking enough time off and found out about the consequences the hard way. You’re more susceptible to becoming unwell when you’re mentally and/or physically fatigued. Stay hydrated, take regular breaks in the workplace (even just very brief ones) to stretch your legs and give your eyes a break from the screen. As well as this, make sure you book time off to rest and refresh yourself. There are plenty of studies that show time off from work (either resting at home or going away on holiday) boosts your productivity and decreases stress levels. It’s very important for your mental and physical health that you dedicate regular time to relax and get enough sleep.
- Learn to say no
Following on from the previous point, learning to say no to people is an important part of prioritising your wellbeing. Especially for those of you doing a longer internship such as a work placement, you have to remind yourself that it really is a marathon and not a sprint. The summer interns may be working vigorously to impress and earn their graduate offer, but you have to realise that you may not be able to sustain that work ethic over a long period of time. It’s easy to get burnt out, mentally and physically.
As an intern, some people may see you as a “resource” of which they can ask you to take on particular tasks and additional workload. You don’t have to say yes to everyone and everything – learn to say no when appropriate (dependent on who’s asking you, what they’re asking for and what the current priority is). If you feel as though you can’t or shouldn’t take on a particular piece of work, discuss it with your manager. This is the best person to tell you whether or not to say no and they can say “no” on your behalf (as it can be daunting to tell a senior individual that you can’t meet his/her ask).
This applies to your commitments outside of work too; your friends/family/partner will still expect a piece of your time and realistically, you can no longer meet their expectations as you might have before because of your internship. It’s important to have a healthy social life and healthy relationships, but manage this so that it does not feel like a time drain. Communicate to them that you’re tired or busy so that they understand it when you have to say no. It’s not selfish, even if it may seem that way. It’s important to take time for yourself so that you’re able to bring your best self when you do see them and when you’re in the workplace.
Some of you will be moving to another country for your placement (or to study). The information above still applies, but here are 3 additional points to consider:
- Go in with an open mind
Moving to a new location can be tough – most of you have already experienced this by moving away for university. Moving abroad is another level up; be receptive to change, be willing to adjust your habits and go in with an open mind. No culture is the same, so embrace it head on.
- Join clubs, societies and networks
The people you meet and socialise with can make or break the experience. Before you arrive (and once you do) make sure to join any relevant Facebook groups such as travelling groups, study abroad groups and/or work placement groups in your location. If you’re unsure where to start, contact your placement/study abroad advisor to point you in the right direction. You may also find it helpful to make friends with other international students/work placements (from or outside of the UK). They’re all in the same position as you, so it makes it much easier for you all to build a connection together and explore/do things as a group.
- Research and plan ahead
Similar to above, research is crucial. The more prepared you are, the easier it can be for you. Make sure you know about the essentials; travelling, safety/security, healthcare, where to shop for food/drinks, social points etc. You can find all of this online and if you know anyone who’s been before or is currently there, reach out to them for questions.
Here’s Some Final Advice
If you’re ever feeling overwhelmed, it’s important to remind yourself that you were chosen for a reason. They know you can do it – they believe in your potential. Take it one day at a time. Even on your toughest day, the hardship will end and you’ll still return to the comforts of your own home. Don’t ever be afraid to talk to people and ask for help; talk to your manager, your mentors, your friends and your family. Communication is crucial.
As you approach the end of your internship, be sure to reach out to people who you’ve connected with to let them know you’ll be leaving soon. Share your contact information (LinkedIn, suitable email address and/or contact number) with the relevant individuals and note down their contact details where appropriate. Keep in touch with them afterwards and let them know how things are going. Whether or not you intend on returning, it’s useful to have a network – you never know how that relationship may benefit your career or personal life in the future.
This experience is a maturity process that will shape the way you currently think; it teaches you a lot, not just about the industry and workplace, but also about yourself. Regardless of whether you love it or hate it, this time in your life will give you a glimpse of what you want and don’t want, what you like and dislike, what you’re good at and not so good at. Either way, it’s a win-win situation.
This is a learning opportunity that you have the potential to maximise for your personal and professional development.
Shout out to all of you who messaged me with your advice and information – I hope that collectively we can help to guide students and interns. If there’s anything I’ve missed, please leave a comment below and add any useful tips you may have.
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