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What to do if your internship isn’t going to plan


Your internship was supposed to be the springboard that started a long and successful career. You were going to blow their socks off, network with people in high places, and acquire bucketloads of new marketable skills. Unfortunately, your internship isn’t going to plan. In fact, it’s shaping up to be a spectacular waste of time and is not what you signed up for.

You may be anxious, scared, and greatly confused about what to do next. Do you stay and hope it gets better? Or should you pull the plug and start looking for new internships?

In this situation, it is important to keep your chin up and keep moving forward. It’s never as bleak as it first appears.

At Capital Placement, we have a great deal of experience in helping interns overcome challenges with their career and understand that every persons’ problem is different, with no one size fits all solution. However, in this blog, we have put together some of our top tips on how to try to get your internship back on the right path. As well as discussing ways to help prevent these problems arising, if you are currently applying for internships, so that you can focus on gaining valuable experience and continuing building your career. In addition to that, if you are in a full-time position, tips are still applicable for you to use.

Before we go straight into our tips, we’d like to take a second to encourage you to also speak to somebody, whether it is a university career advisor, friends, family or an internship provider like ourselves.

Talking to someone else can help you understand if the problem is something that is common for many people and can be fixed or if it is something more severe, and you should consider finding another internship. That being said, let’s dive deeper into some of our tips on how to deal with some common problems you may encounter during your internship.

Prevention is better than cure

Even if you’re a newbie intern with limited work experience, you’re always in the driver’s seat. Don’t let yourself believe otherwise. There’s a lot you can do to make sure your internship goes to plan:

  • Ask for a job description: This isn’t relevant if you applied for an internship through a job portal or after seeing an advert. However, a large number of interns get a position via a direct referral. They aren’t provided with a formal job description upfront. This can cause misunderstandings and misplaced expectations when the internship begins.
  • Do some research: Conduct some background research about the company. How do they treat their interns? Look at the reviews and testimonials written by past interns on platforms like Glassdoor. This should help you avoid nasty surprises later. If interns are having a generally bad experience somewhere, you might want to avoid working there.
  • Ask questions during the interview stage: When you are interviewing for the internship, be sure to ask questions about what the typical intern’s work week looks like to get insight into what you may be doing. Also, be sure to ask if you’ll receive a training plan going over what you will be learning during the internship. You could also consider reaching out to past or current interns via LinkedIn to get some feedback on their experience before accepting the internship yourself.

Of course, hindsight is wonderful, but while you now know what to look for when applying to internships in the future, this won’t help you with the problems you are facing in your current one. You have no choice but to deal with them. But how do you do that exactly?

Find the root cause

First, we recommend that you identify exactly why your internship has gone off the rails. What’s the root cause of the bad experience? Are there multiple obstacles? If you know the challenges you’re facing, you’ll be better able to deal with them.

In our experience, new interns usually face one or more of the following problems during the first few weeks of their internship:

1. They promised you the moon

There was a lot of big talk during the interview. They told you about all the exciting new projects the company was working on, how experienced the team was, and how much you would be learning. You were assured that joining the company was the best decision you’ll ever make.
However, you are now well into your internship, and they have failed to deliver on their promises. While it’s true that the company is working on a big new project, you’re barely being given any responsibilities. Your role on the team is unclear. You’re not learning much, if at all. Your supervisor or mentor may not have enough time for you.

Advice: Initially, it’s common for interns not to be given too many responsibilities. As time goes by and you gain your team’s trust, you are likely to be given more tasks to perform. However, if you feel you are not being valued, you’ll need to do something about it. Have a chat with your manager and ask for greater responsibility or to work on a particular project.

Ask them to explain why they are unwilling to give you responsibility. They may not have realised that you want more challenging work or they may highlight some weaknesses that you have and tell you how to improve these so they can give you greater responsibility. They will be pleased that you are showing initiative and a willingness to challenge yourself.

2. You would like more mentorship and career advice

It’s common practice for interns to be assigned a mentor during internships. This mentor is responsible for training the intern, introducing them to the company, assigning them with tasks, keeping track of their progress, and troubleshooting any problems that may crop up.

Mentors aren’t perfect, however. There are many demands placed on their time. They may not have enough time for you because they’re so busy with other work. As a result, you may feel like you’re not learning much from your mentor and subsequently that the internship isn’t going to be valuable for your career development.

Advice: Self-learning is the most valuable kind of learning. Try to support yourself as much as possible. Look for help from other interns and older colleagues, many of whom will be happy to teach you if you approach them. Don’t limit yourself to a single mentor.

If you are struggling to connect with your mentor or they are swamped, then speak to someone and see if you can be assigned a new mentor. If this is not possible then try to get, your mentor to schedule regular weekly catch-ups so that you have a set time each week where you can sit down and discuss your progress and any concerns you have.

3. They treat you like a gopher

Interns being little more than errand runners is a popular cliché in modern-day TV shows and films. In reality, while you do have to perform menial tasks on occasion, you should also be given real responsibilities. A good company will train you on how to be a competent full-time worker.

Some rare few companies really do treat their interns as gophers, however. You may be asked to perform menial labour and little else. This may include cleaning offices, fixing the lighting, running personal errands, and fetching everyone’s coffee.

Advice: As a newbie intern, you need to be prepared for some grunt work. It’s par for the course. However, that doesn’t mean it’s all you should be doing. Menial work should be balanced out with real work that teaches you something. If you aren’t getting enough responsibilities, ask for more, if you were promised meaningful work when you applied, then ask why this isn’t being given to you.

At the end of the day, an internship should provide you with skills that you feel like you can use in your future career if you have highlighted that this is not happening and you feel like you are not being treated well then consider finding a new internship.

4. They don’t compensate

As a new intern, you won’t always be paid a lot of money. You may also only get part-time hours. But companies do compensate their interns in some way, if not pay them directly, or at least, they should. Some of the compensation you may receive may include academic credit, a travel allowance, food money or free housing.

Some companies won’t always pay you what you’re worth, however. They may see you as a source of cheap labour. They may assign you many responsibilities while only paying you a pittance.

Advice: Figure out if you’re making enough. This doesn’t always have to be money-wise – experience and learning count too. However, don’t let them take advantage of you.

If you feel your company is giving you too much work and not paying enough, speak to your mentor and see if they can help. When applying to internships, always be sure that you and the company understand what you will be receiving. If this is not being adhered to then raise this with them.

5. All you do is twiddle your thumbs

Some interns have too much work. Then some interns have too little. This may seem like a good problem to have on the surface, but it can be harmful in the long run. After all, you’re interning so you can learn and gain work experience.

It can take time for newbie interns to get into the groove. Your workload should be light initially but will increase over time. If it seems as if your workload is decreasing instead, you have a problem on your hands.

Advice: Ask for extra work instead of being passive and expecting work to come to you. Volunteer to help your colleagues or other interns with their tasks. Request your manager to give you extra mentoring. Use any spare time to study or take training courses and learn how your company works, even small overhead tasks for the company can help you gain experience.

6. You’re having trouble adjusting

Internships are difficult. They give you your first real taste of the working world. Newbie interns will often struggle in the new environment. You may feel as if too much is expected of you, and that you are struggling to meet deadlines and complete tasks.

As an intern, you may also have trouble connecting with other colleagues and feel like you are not part of the company. This can lead to anxiety problems and leave you feeling like you have to struggle through it alone.

Advice: Your work environment will take some getting used to, but it’ll feel more and more like home as time goes by. Don’t isolate yourself. Keep trying to build connections with people. It’s important you take care of your health from the very beginning.

Develop your soft skills, aim for a healthy work-life balance, continue to have fun and seek small victories. Ask for the support of your friends and family. If necessary, go to a mental health counsellor. For more advice on coping with work anxiety, read our blog.

7. It’s not fulfilling

By the time you sign up for an internship, you probably have a good grasp of your strengths, weaknesses, likes, and dislikes. You have a general idea of what kind of career you want to build for yourself, in line with your education and current skill set. You’ll sign up for an internship in a field that interests you.

Halfway through the internship, though, you find that the work isn’t to your liking. It isn’t fulfilling, even though you have a good mentor and a supportive team, you’re having trouble drumming up any passion toward the internship, and you’re having serious doubts about doing this for the rest of your life.

Advice: Knowing what you don’t want in a career is just as valuable as knowing what you do want. Once this internship is finished, it might be a good idea to intern for another company in the same industry and see if you still feel the same way. A change in environment may be what you need.

If that doesn’t work, you may want to look for internships in a different field where you can still utilise your current skill set. It’s important not to panic. Many people don’t discover their desired field until much later in their career and still go on to be successful. Be patient and if needed, take a number of different internships to help you find the career that you enjoy.

8. It’s not me, it’s them

Occasionally, you’ll find interns who are given enough work and mentoring. They’re also learning a ton and are reasonably satisfied with their line of work. But they’re not happy. Why? Their coworkers or bosses are giving them a hard time.

Unfortunately, office politics, bad bosses, and backstabbing work colleagues aren’t rare. It will be something you’ll be forced to deal with now as an intern and later as a full-time worker.

Advice: Learn conflict management skills. Talk to the other party and try to come to an agreement. You don’t have to be friends, but you can still have a cordial working relationship. Don’t take abuse from anyone—set boundaries. If the situation doesn’t improve no matter what you do, speak to colleagues or friends, you trust and have an exit strategy in place.

What now?

Now that you are aware of some of the common problems that you may face or may be facing currently with your internship, you should be able to determine what you need to do next. It’s essential that you take the initiative. Here are some tips to help you along:

1. Ask yourself these pertinent questions

Try to rationally analyse the situation, without letting your emotions sway you too much.

  1. Is the problem major or minor?
  2. Will the situation improve if you wait?
  3. Can you handle the problem yourself, or does your supervisor need to step in?
  4. Is there room for improvement in this particular situation?
  5. Is resigning the best course of action for you?

2. Talk to the other interns and your colleagues.

Remember – you’re not alone! There are probably several other people interning with you. Talk to them and ask them to share their experiences. Do they have problems similar to yours? If they’re in the same boat as you, consider approaching the management as a group to get them to take you more seriously.

Approach people who have been working at the company for a while and ask for their assistance. They will probably be willing to help you out. You could also try to convince them to put in a word for you.

3. Ask for help from your supervisor.

Don’t hesitate to request help from your supervisor. You’re at least partially their responsibility. Keep them in the loop about the problems you’re facing. If you have unfulfilled expectations, communicate what they are. Be polite and respectful, but firm.

4. Continue or not to continue?

Note that no internship will ever be perfect. It’s okay to have a quibble or two with yours. Do your best to overcome the challenges you’re facing.

In most cases, your problems will be resolved with little effort. If the problem comes back, though, or if they dismiss your concerns, you might want to hand in your resignation.

Speak to friends, family, and career/internship advisors to discuss your options, if you feel like the problem is severe and cannot be fixed then consider finding an alternative internship. Being stuck in an untenable situation isn’t going to help you. And there are innumerable opportunities out there waiting for you.

Final Thoughts

No matter what happens, it’s not the end of the world. There’s always a silver lining. A bad experience during your internship will allow you to acquire and develop some much-needed problem-solving skills and help prepare you for problems that may arise in your future career.
Don’t let your problems bog you down.

Countless interns just like you have gone on to build amazing careers for themselves despite a rocky start!

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Julia Hurtado

Julia Hurtado

Having spent an entire summer dedicated to travelling abroad, Julia now focuses on helping other students experience life outside their home country. As an American now working in London, Julia enjoys sharing advice on interning abroad, sipping tea (with 2 sugars, 1 milk please) and reading in her spare time.

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