Thursday, June 07, 2007

A Realist's Guide To Internships: 7 Ways to Succeed

USA Today's Craig Wilson says it's intern season in offices across America, and seeing them in the newsroom bright n' early at 9:30 a.m. only perpetuated his disdain for them.

"I hate them all," he writes. "With their white glimmering teeth and black shiny hair, they exude a certain confidence that can come only with youth."

His short piece goes on from there, lamenting his age, experience and ability to drink alcohol as he learns from these new presences in his newsroom that any one of them "was born, got potty-trained, played with Barbie, experienced her first kiss, went to the prom, graduated from high school, then went off to college all in the time I sat at a desk typing."

Wilson's frustrated. Whether it be because he can't remember his college newspaper experience or because his colleagues are repulsed by the interns' "baseless" confidence in their presence, Wilson's animosity toward the young whippersnappers is hardly welcoming.

Welcome to the internship world, young journalists.

In honor of Wilson's diatribe against his fresh-faced interns -- many of whom probably read his piece online before Wilson woke up the next day -- here are some tips for interns on their first day:

1. Make Friends With the Receptionist

Many people often suggest being friendly with the receptionist or the janitorial staff because they hear everything that happens between the walls of the office. Problem is, there's almost no chance of them ever sharing that with you. The real reason to make friends with the secretary -- and why I've chosen to make this my first point -- is because he or she is often the first person you'll say 'hello' to in the morning. This cheer-up moment might just be the saving grace in a no-good, very bad day.

2. Control Your Confidence

That's not to say you should reel it in, nor is it to say that you should be cocky. What this piece of advice means is that no matter how much experience you have proving otherwise, your higher-ups will not use you efficiently. Chances are, you have the exact same skill-set that many of the editors claim to have, only they have the knowledge of how those skills apply at their publication. Know this. This nuance is what gives them their superiority (well, that and the stack of business cards strewn about their desk). To use your own skills wisely -- since many of your higher-ups won't bother teaching you anything that could help the publication at large, but merely what would be most helpful to them -- see No. 3 below.

3. Use Your Time Wisely

If you find yourself with the urge to break out a hardcore game of solitaire, resist. Even though most of the publication might be running around with their heads cut off, they're unlikely to involve you in any sort of way short of as an outlet for the frustration they're accumulating doing other tasks. To avoid this, keep yourself busy and rewrite some unpublished stories you may have lying around. Pitch them out, even to the smallest of publications. After all, they're doing nothing for you in the depths of your hard drive. And if nothing else, you're getting the clips you need, instead of waiting for your internship to dole them out to you.

4. Make It A Learning Experience

The point of an internship is to learn, right? What you're really learning is that offices are extremely inefficient: Copy flows are less like rivers and more like lazy rivers (until just before deadline, that is), and interns are nickel-and-dimed even though they might make less than one-third the income of their supervisor (who themselves were an intern two years prior), assuming the intern has an outside job other than the internship -- after all, most interns don't get paid! Note how even the nicest of people become short with you when the deadline's on. Note how many people don't dress to code, install illegal software, play solitaire themselves and take extended lunches. Be amused, stay out of their way and keep on repeating No. 3 above.

5. Don't Wait Up

As seen in Craig Wilson's reaction to his interns, don't bother assuming anyone really cares about you. Don't expect to be taken to lunch -- hell, don't expect anyone to go with you, either. Financially, you're in the position of using a legal loophole to offer free labor, but socially, you're a liability. Don't try to make comparisons you can't handle: For example, don't talk about your age. It's a constant reminder that you're out of place. Chances are you're only building walls, not bridges, and if you're gonna connect with someone at the office, it's gonna be over a TV show, a sports team, a hobby, or a hometown. It's clear you're younger than everyone in the office -- you're the intern.

6. Know Your Worth

As an intern, you're eager to make a positive impression, and even more eager to do any task, no matter how menial, at the drop of a hat. Instead of reflecting positively on your person, this actually reduces your perceived worth. I'm not saying to not do these things -- please, if someone asks you to do something, do it with a smile -- but anyone can take commands. You're not proving anything substantial. This is a journalism internship, right? No one's gonna be impressed by how thoroughly you mastered the sort-staple mode on the Xerox machine in the back, even if what you give them looks like the work of a professional printer.
7. Network -- But Not In A Schmoozy Way

Everyone always tells interns to 'Network, network, network!' I'm here to tell you that's a misconception. Sure, it's great to make friends and go out for a drink, but that says nothing of your professional abilities. Your continued published writing is what's most impressive -- it shows your professionality to make business deals and your maturity to follow through. So as you're busy doing No. 3 above, keep great contact with whoever you write for and whoever you write about. Those people won't perceive you as an intern -- they'll perceive you as a real journalist. Which is fine. Because you are one. Because if you don't get the kind of chances or respect you expected at your highfalutin internship -- you know, the one you spent more time perfecting your application for than for college itself -- you can at least make mature connections with others. When you pitch, your work speaks for itself. If your internship superiors aren't willing to listen, someone else probably is -- and that's real networking.

Now these guidelines aren't for everyone, nor are they complete. There are certainly rewarding internships that integrate you into the team and treat you like an employee -- and those are great. But these guidelines are for those that aren't: The ones that treat you as inferior on all levels, or don't treat you as anything at all (i.e. just ignore you and bide time until your stint is up). In this case, even the modest, kind and cordial intern is in a poor position to reap a positive experience.

So when you walk into the offices at USA Today on your first day, and Craig Wilson makes a crack about how old he is, bite your tongue, wait until his shtick is over, and don't dare say anything complementary. He probably doesn't care, even if it's true. He's just a normal guy looking for someone to have a drink with, to relate to. He's not looking for competition. And that's something you won't learn on the clock at an internship.

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