Working so your internship works for you

You can impress senior executives or you can get stuck cleaning the lab. The choice is yours.

Congratulations! You’ve landed yourself a summer internship. In today’s difficult job market, that’s quite an accomplishment. However, that same difficult job market is going to make excelling at your internship even more critical. While you might be using your internship to get real-world experience, escape the ivory tower for a few months, or just to earn some extra cash, remember this: companies use internships to evaluate potential future employees.

Aside from a possible future job offer, internships can offer a wide variety of learning experiences that you just won’t get as part of your normal MIT education. Moreover, by doing a few simple things, it is pretty easy to turn almost any internship into a great experience. However, you only get out of a summer internship what you put into it.

After my sophomore year, I spent an entire summer essentially twiddling my thumbs while interning with a medical devices company. I was bored out of my mind. I blamed my boredom and dissatisfaction on a variety of factors: the company was too big, I didn’t have a good boss, the work was not mentally stimulating, my coworkers didn’t appreciate me — the list goes on.

The fall after that disastrous internship, I joined the Gordon-MIT Engineering Leadership Program (GEL), and learned a thing or two about how to be effective in industry. The following summer, I worked in the R&D department of a large British company, and it was possibly the best two months of my life. While it’s true that I was working in a field that interested me more, the critical difference was my attitude.

You are responsible for making your summer internship fantastic, and if you put in the effort, you will reap the rewards. So to make your internship a great one, I’ll summarize a few simple yet effective tips and tricks.

Tip 1: Take initiative. No one is ever going to stop you from trying to make something more efficient, more reliable, or easier to use. As long as you get your assigned work done, no one is going to tell you not to work on your own independent project, provided you can show it benefits the company.

Last summer, my work led me to believe that my company could drastically improve product quality by introducing new hardware. I approached my boss and asked if I could pitch the idea to some people around the company. He thought it was a good idea, and I spent the next week making some mock-ups with a coworker. I eventually ended up showing the idea to the head of R&D and the CTO.

No one told me to do that. I saw a problem, and I took the initiative to fix it. Industry is filled with inefficiencies and half-baked ideas just waiting for someone to take them on. You will stand out from the other interns and impress a lot of people if you take initiative to fix problems or innovate to start new things.

Tip 2: Find a mentor in the company. Last week’s article talked about finding an industry mentor. I was lucky because my boss acted as my mentor in my company, but this won’t always be the case. It is very important to find someone in your company with whom you connect and who can show you the ropes and make connections for you. I won’t belabor the point — if you want to know more, read last week’s article.

Tip 3: If you do things for people, they will want to do things for you. You’ll be more effective in your own work if you try your best to help the people in your team — especially your boss. Be honest: Aren’t you more likely to help out a friend if they’ve helped you in the past?

Now, this doesn’t necessarily mean torturing yourself with grunt work so the rest of the office can go out for drinks after work. People who have worked at the company a long time might be bored by tasks that you find super interesting. Offer to take on those tasks, and you’ll learn a lot while building strong connections with other team members. Helping others is the best way to build trust and loyalty within a team, and you’ll be surprised how many people will be there for you when you need something.

Tip 4: Be enthusiastic. A very wise grad student who had spent a lot of time in industry once told me: “you can’t trust someone if you think they don’t care.” If you want your boss to trust you, give him or her a reason to do so.

Not every minute of your internship will be interesting or stimulating. However, if you really forge ahead and show that you make the same intense effort for work that you don’t necessarily like, you will likely find that you are eventually given more interesting jobs. Your attitude in the first few days might determine if you spend the last week of your internship on the presentation to senior managers or on glassware cleanup. It’s up to you.

Tip 5: Prove yourself. Don’t feel entitled to respect and interesting work just because you go to MIT. Yes, we spend all year here feeling important and smart and better than the little red brick schoolhouse up the river, but if people in industry get the slightest whiff of that attitude, you can expect to be eating lunch alone.

You will need to prove yourself just as much as every other intern and employee, so apply the tips in this article, power through the work that you think is “beneath” you, and have a heart-to-heart with your boss or mentor afterwards showing what you’ve already accomplished. Then explain your interests so that you can find some relevant tasks that might be better suited to them.

Your internship will be much more effective if you can show that you’ve put in the effort, and your effort will be more effective if you apply yourself intelligently. I recommend taking a heavy dose of humility before you step through the door on the first day, and remember that you can learn a heck of a lot from people who have spent five or ten years in industry. Work with them, establish mutual trust, take initiative, and you’ll put yourself in a good position for the future.

This article is the third in a four-part series written by students in the Gordon-MIT Engineering Leadership Program. Tanya Goldhaber is a senior in the Department of Mechanical Engineering.