Ask Alex: Common Internship Mistakes
This month I'm breaking with format and tackling something that's been on my mind recently. As always, I'm happy to take questions here in the comments, but you're more than welcome to email me if you'd like to ask privately. I'll always double-check to make sure it's okay to post the question here.
It might seem like strange timing, but now that summer is winding down and internship season is almost over, I wanted to take the time to touch on a few common mistakes that—while they won't make or break your future career—can definitely have an impact on your perceived ability to be hired. Let's dive in!
1. Not dressing appropriately.
One of the nice things about publishing as a creative industry is that we have a lot more freedom in what’s considered to be “work-appropriate” attire. By that I mean, until you work in the executive office or at a senior manager level, it’s fairly rare to see someone bust out a full suit. In fact, it’s not uncommon to see people wearing jeans with a nice top on a daily basis. My observation is that of all of the departments, Publicity tends to be the most “formal” in the clothing choices, with Sales a close seconds. This is largely, I think, because they’re taking more meetings outside of the office than, say, Marketing or Editorial. In the summer, wardrobes are even more relaxed and people can often be found wearing nice sandals, maxi dresses, and white jeans galore. When you’re in an office environment, you can take your cue on how to dress from your supervisors and those around you.
BUT. There are a number of things you should not wear to the office. Ever. Nothing too tight. No visible bra straps. And, for the love of everything, no shorts!!
I can’t even tell you how many interns I’ve seen wearing shorts to the office this summer. Not Capri pants, shorts. Jean shorts. Jorts. Do not wear shorts in the summer, do not wear fancy dress shorts over tights in the fall and winter. Why? Because they are short. It's in the name. Girls, if you were wearing a dress that short, would it even be a question of appropriateness? No, because you’d know that one strong wind or a quick bend to retrieve a pen would have you showing the office your lady world. When in doubt, that old “fingertip” dress code rule should apply. Your dresses and skirts shouldn't be that much shorter than your fingertips.
That may sound old-school, but remember that as an intern, you need to present yourself in the best light. You’re in a corporate environment, and you’re working with potential employers. Like with interviews, it's almost always better to stray on the side of conservative.
2. Not asking questions.
What's the point of having an internship if you're not there to learn? Yes, yes, of course you're there to put in valuable work for a company, but you're not getting paid, you're getting school credit. Granted, not all internships are created equal—there are supervisors that request an intern specifically because they need another body to process busy work. But there is a way to engage them and to make the most of the situation: ask them about their jobs. If they give you an assignment, ask them to explain how it fits into their job description or what it'll be used for. If you hear a word or name you don't recognize, ask. It's one way to show that you're engaged and thoughtful about both the industry and your future. Trust me when I say that it's something that'll come through in the recommendations your supervisors write for you, and you'll stick out in their memory when a position opens up down the line. Take every opportunity you have to learn something!
3. Sharing information.
Anything you learn in the office needs to stay in the office. There’s a good chance you’ll overhear tidbits about projects the company wants to acquire, or horror stories about this author or that agent, you'll see your favorite author's email address and address, or stumble on another's contract and read through it. But you’re not at liberty to go snooping or disclosing. Likewise, I would proceed with caution about tweeting or blogging about your experiences, especially if they're negative. There have been a number of interns in literary agencies in the past who have started blogs and twitter accounts to live tweet the submissions they were reading and provide “tips” (with what wealth of experience?). I have to tell you guys, I feel really strongly that this is never appropriate, but if you do chose to start up a similar project, you must run everything through your supervisor for approval, even if you try to remain anonymous. Very few things stay that way in the digital age.
4. Not checking in/out.
This is something I'm actually guilty of having done in the past—partly out of shyness, and partly because I just didn't know better. When I started at the job I have now, I sat so far away from my supervisors that if I didn't walk over to their offices in the morning, they'd have no idea I was there until I start answering the emails sitting in my inbox. First of all, it goes without saying that you need to be on time in the morning, but when you arrive, at least pass by your supervisor's door and give a little wave. After you complete each project, get up from your desk and let the supervisor know (and ask what else they need from you). When you're done for the day, swing by the supervisor's office again and ask one last time if there's anything else you can help with. Chances are, the answer will be no. But you're showing yourself to be accountable and that you're not sneaking out early.
5. Enjoying the office party... a little too much.
This one is far less common, thankfully, but it feels important to include it here. Publishing folks love a good office party and there are a number of opportunities for them in the summer. You'll be invited to participate in the festivities, and you should! It's a great way to mingle with employees in other departments and meet other interns. If you're underaged, very few people outside of your supervisor will 1) realize this and 2) stop you if you pick up a drink. Be smart and responsible, not only for yourself, but on behalf of the company as well. If you are underage, the company would likely liable if something were to happen to you (injuries, for example).
Did you guys participate in any internships this summer? Do you have any advice for next year's crowd?