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Internships: Taking the Next Step April 17, 2012

Two weeks ago I started a new internship with a literary agency.  Writing and editing are my passions, and after working at the Writing Center for the past few months and at a small press in Wicker Park, I definitely felt ready for a more intensive internship.  Around Christmas, my boss at the small press job mentioned that her friend at another company was looking for interns, and after an interview and a lot of emails, I started work there.  I’ve had one in-house internship before and have, of course, worked on writing-based jobs before, but this was different.

Internships are always rough because you never know what you’re going to be asked to do, or how far your job extends, and you’re always on different footing from salaried employees.  In this case, the roles were less defined, the stakes were higher (a good performance here could lead to a recommendation elsewhere), and I had never been more nervous to start work somewhere.  With that in mind, I’ve come up with a few tips for prospective interns, or rather goals for myself.  A good internship exploited to its full potential can lead to your dream career – here’s how.

1. Be up for anything (or mostly anything)

One of the hardest parts of an internship is being asked to complete tasks you may not be familiar with, or may not have tackled before.  Instead of hemming and hawing or saying you’re not ready, just go for it.  Try it out.  If it goes badly or if you do it wrong, you’ll get some feedback from the boss and know better next time.  Also, be sure to ask if there are any examples of previous interns’ work – one of the first things I was given at the literary agency was a binder of “reader reports” done well, and seeing an example of good work helped to improve my own (or at least gave me an idea of what I was supposed to do).

2. Pay attention

So you’re pretty low on the totem pole at this job – doesn’t mean that overhearing shoptalk can’t be helpful.  Your boss might be in contact with other companies looking for an intern or an entry-level employee, and in any case it helps to be familiar with who your company works with.  Listening in on meetings can also help to give you an idea of the “language” of the business.  What are the technical terms?  What’s the order of the agenda?  All important things you can learn just by listening.

3. Talk to your coworkers

Establishing rapport with your fellow employees is key.  Good recommendations may come from the boss, but bosses notice if you’re friendly with the rest of the staff, and will take it into account.  Other employees can also give you a better sense of your own role in the office, and are usually eager to help (when they’re not busy).

4. Don’t turn up your nose at making the coffee

Look, we all have to start somewhere.  In between relevant work, you may be asked to make more coffee or print out some envelopes or see if you can get the copier working.  It’s not ideal, but it is part of your job – and willingness to help out around the office will only improve others’ impression of you.  Of course, if you’re only ever doing these things, it might be time to ask your superiors for more work or find another internship.

5. Think ahead

Internships are not, of course, forever.  The literary agency hires new interns on three month cycles, and at the end of that, it’s time to find new (and hopefully gainful) employment.  Ask your employer about other opportunities in the field (after, you know, you’ve been there for a few weeks – don’t start off the conversation with where else you want to work).  Talk to your coworkers about how they started out or where they’ve worked before.  Keep your résumé updated and remember to look at job search sites regularly – and keep track of the skills you’re acquiring at this internship.

6. Have fun

Internships are your chance to explore your interests and take a dry run at the career you really want.  Enjoy yourself as you figure out if this is the field for you, or where you see yourself in the field.

7. Use your tutor experience!

Working at the Writing Center has, for me, been a great way to develop my interpersonal skills, learn the metalanguage of writing, and practice analysis of my and others’ work – all things that come in handy with an internship at a literary agency.  Think of the skills you’ve gained and how many practical applications they have.

Now, go forth and internship!


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