How to Make the Most of Your Summer Internship

Summer is coming and many of you have lined up summer internships.  Way to go!  An internship can be very valuable to you IF you make the most of it.  Cheryl, who hopes to become a research scientist, has an internship lined up in a research laboratory for the summer.  She is going to be there for six weeks and she’s curious how to make the most of the internship.  We have three suggestions for her (and for all of you who have internships).

1.  Make a list of the experiences you want to have and share that with your supervisor. 

We know that you are used to having the “program” laid out for you; that is the way that “school” works and, to some extent, it is the way your whole life works up to the point that you become an adult.  But here’s the thing — that is not the way that successful professionals approach their lives.  Successful professionals design their own “programs;” they set their own goals for what they want to do and achieve.  An internship is an opportunity for you to shift into “successful professional” mode and get some practice setting your own program for life. 

What is it that you want to do during your internship?  Think about it and make a list.  Be as specific as possible.  If you don’t know enough to make your list, then you haven’t done your homework preparing for your internship.  Get more information about what people do at the company or organization where you will be interning.  Find out what people do there.  Then make your list.  We suggest you have one “goal” for each week of your internship.  That is usually manageable, but still a bit of a challenge.

In Cheryl’s case, she is going to be interning at a research laboratory known for its cutting edge research on the brain.  They have five projects going in the lab.  Her list could include:

  • having some time to work on each of the five projects;
  • getting to work with one-on-one with researcher x;
  • attending one of the semi-monthly neuroscience lectures;
  • developing microscopy skills;
  • learning how to read a brain scan; and,
  • contributing enough to be listed in a footnote of a published research paper.

After you have your list, share it with your supervisor.  Some of you will be reluctant to do this.  Cheryl was.  She felt like it was a bit presumptuous of her to “tell her boss” what she wanted to do.  And we agreed with her — it is presumptuous to tell your boss what you want to do.  But that is not what we are suggesting.  We are suggesting that you speak with your boss about your goals for the internship.   You are not issuing demands or defining your job; you are politely describing what you hope to do while you are an intern.  You ask for feedback and you accept whatever the supervisor says.  If a goal isn’t doable, then leave it for another day and move on the goals that are.  In the professional world, you are expected to have goals and taking the initiative to share them with your supervisor will earn you the positive reputation of being a “self-starter.” 

Here are the talking points we worked out with Cheryl for her conversation with her supervisor:

  • I’m really appreciative of the opportunity to be an intern in this lab.
  • I’m looking forward to the work you are going to assign me; I know I will learn from every experience I have.
  • I’ve taken a little time to think about my goals for my internship and I wanted to share those with you. I’m hopeful that at some point during my time here, it will be possible for me to….. Which of these goals seem doable to you; which are not?  Are there any additional goals you would suggest to me?
  • What are the next steps that I should take with regard to the goals that are doable?
  • Thanks so much for your time. 

2.  Treat every assignment as a MAJOR opportunity.

Your work as an intern will not be the “highest level” work.  Why would it be?  You are a novice and there to learn.  So it is appropriate that you get the low level work.  Your attitude should be that no work is beneath you and that every assignment is a major opportunity for you.  And frankly, every assignment is a major opportunity for you if you treat it that way.  The magnitude of the opportunity will be directly proportional to the magnitude of your curiosity about the assignment.  Let’s say Cheryl is asked to wash and sterilize a bunch of beakers and test tubes in the lab.  That’s right, she is given an assignment equivalent to dish washing in a diner.  Cheryl could simply grit her teeth and do it OR she could treat it as a MAJOR opportunity.  How does she turn dishwashing into a major opportunity?  She gets curious.  She asks questions.  Why don’t they trash the beakers and test tubes - aren’t they worried about contamination?  What kinds of experiments are they doing that require beakers and test tubes?  How do you decide what lab equipment is best for a particular experiment?  Why are these beakers and test tubes different from the ones she has used at school?  Her list of questions could go on and on.  Her questions provide her with an excuse to talk to others in the lab.  As she engages with them, she learns and they see that she is a curious colleague.  One researcher who she asks about choosing lab equipment invites her to work with him on researching and identifying the best equipment for an experiment he is including in his next research proposal.  And that is the kind of assignment she wanted, but never would have gotten if she hadn’t treated her dishwashing assignment as a MAJOR opportunity. 

3.  Keep track of what you are learning.

The purpose of an internship is to LEARN.  So your accomplishments and achievements during your internship should be documented in terms of what you learned.  The easiest way to do this is to keep a daily journal.  At the end of the day, jot down 2-3 things you learned that day.  They could be big; they could be small.  But they should be significant to you.  Do go to the trouble to get the details right — you’ll learn that the details are what you want when you are putting together your college application.

Cheryl’s entry for a day might be something like this:  learned how to use an confocal microscope and looked at cool slides of kangaroo cells and heard a lecture presented by an expert in helping kids with epilepsy (and asked her about my cousin).

When it comes time to write a blurb about your internship on your resume, put it in your activity list or feature it in an essay on your college application, this daily journal will be priceless to you.  It will give you all the information you could possibly want.  If you fail to track as you go, you will forget these details  that can serve you so well.  So just do it.  A few minutes each day for documenting what you learned is all it takes.

Comments or Questions?

Post your comments or questions about making the most of a summer internship.  We'll help you like we helped Cheryl!

Alison Cooper Chisolm heads the college admissions consulting practice at Ivey Consulting. She came to private consulting after working in admissions for more than 10 years at three selective universities (most recently at Dartmouth College). She works with students and families throughout the U.S. and abroad.  Follow Alison on Twitter (@IveyCollege)