Six Lessons I Learned From My Four Internships

By Kwan Jin Yao

Throughout my four years in university, I interned for four different companies – a tuition and enrichment centre (for one-and-a-half years), a bank (for three months), an events and media startup (for six months), and a non-profit platform for Asian philanthropists (for three months) – and while each stint provided insights into working for companies of different sizes, companies in different industries, and companies with different management policies, there were similar lessons consistent across the companies. These were lessons learned through first-hand experience, and through conversations with those I worked with, and worked for.

This is not a guide to getting an internship, though keen competition means the applications – some with three or four rounds of tests, interviews, and assessment centres – open months in advance. Another point to highlight is that while internships are useful, some companies do not offer allowances, and in this vein such opportunities may hence advantage privileged students (like myself) from the more well-to-do families, who do not necessarily need the income. Monthly allowances for my internships ranged from $800 to $2,600.

1. Be on time.

The notion of punctuality – coming to work early, sticking to your lunch hours, and even knocking off on time – may seem straightforward, yet no fewer than three of my past bosses have cited late-coming as the major bugbear. Some will also turn away job applicants if they do not arrive on time. In fact, they have no expectations for their employees and interns to stay beyond official working hours, and they often frown upon “facetime” too (that is, staff hanging around in the office or working longer hours, just to prove their worth).

In the mornings I arrive at my desk half an hour earlier, because I have a routine of having breakfast, scrolling through Twitter, and reading the news or email newsletters at the desk. Very rarely do I stay beyond the expected hours, and actually earning the trust of my bosses – that I can be on time, for instance – makes it easier to apply for the occasional time-off too.

2. Ease into lunchtime conversations.

Especially in companies where work hours are hectic, lunchtime is often the only opportunity for interns to interact with their colleagues and bosses. Hanging out with the other interns may be more convenient, yet conversations with the people who have worked in the company for years are – I think – the best way to understand industry roles and responsibilities, and perhaps even career prospects. And it is not about trying to impress or pandering to what the other employees may prefer. Some of the most enjoyable chats revolved not around the office or work, and were instead on the PSLE, community service and volunteerism, and the future.

Initiating conversations is intimidating. Just ask anyone from my former companies, how long it takes for me to warm up to a new group and to go beyond a few sentences. For someone as awkward and reticent as I am this initial phase can take weeks, before I ease into chats.

3. Do not feel pressured to find a fit.

After my second year in the business school I landed myself a job in a bank, all ready to apply what I had learned and to go on to take a finance specialisation, before securing a full-time position through a conversion offer at the end of my three-month internship. After all, so many of us in the school clamoured for a high-paying, benefit-laden, and image-defining bank job.

Yet finding out that I was ill-suited for a career in the finance industry was the best thing that happened to a wide-eyed me. While I was at ease with my assigned duties, I was never at ease with what I perceived to be the incompatibility of the financial and social capital created, and as a consequence thought my future lay elsewhere. I had regular conversations with my department head – who had taken me in despite my lack of industry experience, and confession that I was therefore in the bank to hear as much as I could – and despite us disagreeing on how we saw the value of the finance industry, he only gave me more work opportunities to grow.

While I did not dread going to work, I rarely felt that sense of excitement or fulfilment.

4. Do not shun business-as-usual activities.

Another common frustration is the reluctance of interns to do business-as-usual activities, such as penning meeting minutes, handling some administrative duties, or taking over tasks which may be more routine. This usually happens when interns on short stints are assigned a research project for which they are directly responsible for, and everything else is seen to be ancillary. In the extreme cases the human resource executives are taken aback by how they are treated by their interns, who take for granted support services provided.

There is, of course, a line drawn when interns are asked to run personal errands. Coincidentally two of my previous bosses – from the get-go – made it clear that I was not in the company to fetch coffee, and this was communicated to the department or organisation (in fact, many superiors I worked for made coffee runs for their employees instead). A guide I use for business-as-usual activities is whether my colleagues are expected to handle them, since I would have to get used to them if I did join the company in the future. And when it comes to event or project management, regardless of your position, it is always all hands on deck.

5. Do not be too eager to compare with other(s) (interns).

We are competitive creatures, which maybe explains tendencies to compare with others. Am I assigned more work and responsibilities, which – in some strange way – shows I am of greater value to the company? Will I be getting better work appraisals or reports at the end of my internship? And especially when conversion offers are made at the end of stints, I also need to know if I am likely to get good testimonial from my boss or colleagues? Yet getting caught up in such details can be problematic, when one loses sight of the broad objectives of an internship: to learn more about a company and its industry, to gain from the experience and expertise of the people within the organisation, and to finally assess the fit (or not). An internship is not a competition.

What many might also be surprised by, is that to do well interns just have to focus on the tasks they are assigned to do.

6. Under-promise, over-deliver.

Which leads me to my last, and perhaps most important lesson. Companies form impressions of their hires within their first few weeks, so performance on the first assignment is usually a good gauge of abilities. Under-promise, because one will need time to get used to how things work within the organisation, and over-deliver – in terms of submitting the assignment ahead of time, or producing a high-quality piece of work because it shows the aptitude and commitment. To the best of one’s abilities, a well-done assignment sets the pace for the weeks or months ahead, as he or she is entrusted with more roles or responsibilities.

At the end of the day, nevertheless, this rhythm must be anchored by a commitment to work hard, to both learn from and contribute to the company. My most meaningful internships were marked by trust, especially after the first assignment: the trust of my bosses to give me the independence to work, and the trust in me to ultimately deliver.

This post was first published over at the blog of Kwan Jin Yao on 2 August 2016. It is reproduced with permission.


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