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Interns: What to Do When Nobody Has Time for You

You studied, searched, hustled and interviewed, and finally managed to land what sounded like a sweet internship at a great company. Maybe they make a product you adore or have a great reputation in your field, but whatever your original reason for being psyched to work there this summer, now your enthusiasm has cooled. Why? Everyone is running around like a lunatic and ignoring you.

According to author Jodi Glickman on the HBR blogs this common issue is both not your fault and entirely your responsibility. What does she mean? First off, Glickman explains that your new colleagues aren't incredibly rude. They're probably just incredibly busy. She uses an anecdote to illustrate:

A friend and senior executive at Yelp recently shared how busy she was balancing a demanding job, a busy travel schedule, and a newborn at home. We were catching up at a Northwestern University alumni event; so naturally I suggested she take on a student as a summer intern. She looked at me square in the eye, without a trace of irony and stated, "I have no time for an intern."
So what can you do when your new supervisor is too swamped to offer you much direction (whether or not you're totally angry at the lack of mentorship)? Glickman agrees with other internship experts we've heard from on BNET before -- interns need to step up to the plate and take responsibility, offering three ideas to make both your boss's and your own life better:
Take charge. One of the best ways to get ahead at work is to make your boss' life easier or better. If you want an internship at Yelp, Everyblock, or with a small-business start-up, go ahead and propose your own projects. Think about areas that interest you and where you can add value. Then go ahead and pitch yourself as an integral part of the team. Show your new employer how you're going to solve a specific problem, fill in a missing need, or simply be someone who can hit the ground running on a specific and manageable task. The "here's what I can do for you" line is a lot more powerful than an "I'm excited to learn and do whatever you ask of me."

Play to your strengths. Gen Y: You and your peers are tech-savvy to a degree most of your Gen X and Boomer counterparts simply can't match. You have an intricate and intuitive understanding of the power of social media and you're harnessing it in your personal lives daily. Think about how you can leverage your technological, well-connected selves to bring new skills to the marketplace... Social networking/marketing presents a great opportunity to work on bite-size, measurable projects that you can start and finish during a summer internship.

Use the multiple-choice strategy. Contrary to popular belief, asking someone "How can I help?" isn't all that helpful. Sure, your intentions are good, but asking your manager or boss how or where you can pitch in creates work for him in coming up with something for you to do. If you really want to impress, go to your manager and use the multiple-choice strategy: "Chris, I want to be as helpful as possible so I've thought about a few areas where I can jump in and help out. Would you like me to start pulling together materials for next week's meeting, compile results from last week's polling data, or research the local statutes that we're basing the data on?"... More often that not, Chris will take you up on one or two of your ideas, or the offer may prompt him to come up with something different entirely.
We've suggested on ELR before that internships at start-ups and small companies are often best as they provide more opportunities for career starters to get their hands dirty and contribute meaningful work. Glickman offers a nice reminder that that strategy does come with risks -- employees at small companies tend to be swamped with tasks and may not have as much time to devote to shepherding along interns. That doesn't invalidate the original advice to seek out smaller firms, but as Glickman reminds us, it does demand a bit of strategic thinking and initiative from interns themselves. Don't expect handholding. That's not what you're there for.

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(Image courtesy of irrezelut, CC 2.0)
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