The Thread—Qualities of a Good Intern

Sheryl Burgstahler, Ph.D.

I recently posed the following question within our Internet discussion forum. I will share with you some of the responses so that you can get a flavor of the many rich conversations the DO-IT community has online.

Soon, DO-IT Scholars/Ambassadors who have not yet been Interns for Summer Study will have a chance to apply for Summer Study 2007. Those who are accepted into internship positions will live in the dorms with the Scholars and help with computer lab activities, field trips, recreational activities, and other Summer Study events and operations. Ambassadors, Mentors, what would you say are the best qualities for an Intern to have? What should we be looking for as we evaluate applications for these positions?

DO-IT Ambassador: I'd say that the ability to know when to act as a friend and when to act as a leader is a very important quality to possess.

DO-IT Staff: You make a good point. It can be hard when you are in a near-peer situation to take on the role of authority when necessary, but it is an important role to be willing and able to take.

I also think Interns need to be good at time management. They don't get told when to go to bed, but are some of the hardest-working folks. They need to be in touch with their limits and advocate for themselves so they are able to do their job and stay healthy.

DO-IT Staff: I would add that a good Intern is the kind of person that will maintain good communication with the supervisor. This applies for any internship.

DO-IT Ambassador: The purpose of being an Intern is to learn what it takes to do the job without the same pressures of actually having the job. Social interactions are a must for any work situation, including an internship.

DO-IT Staff: I find that someone being alert to what is going on and taking the initiative to get things done is a key skill for not only Interns but staff as well.

DO-IT Staff: In my opinion, a top quality to have would be the ability to be an effective role model to the younger Scholars as well as to your peers and fellow Interns. This would include the ability to demonstrate appropriate and professional behaviors in communication as well as in actions, along with the ability to inspire and motivate others to grow personally and academically.

DO-IT Ambassador: One of the most important things I did as an Intern was to be welcoming and open to the new Scholars. It's different from the first two years at Summer Study because you are there to support Phase I and II Scholars and the staff, rather than to only focus on having fun and learning in the sessions.

One of the biggest challenges is learning to draw a line between your role as a Scholar and your role as an Intern because you fall somewhere between the new Scholars and the staff. You constantly have to keep in mind your responsibilities for each day and balance that with helping the Phase I and Phase II Scholars feel comfortable and have fun.

DO-IT Ambassador: Here are some qualities of a good intern that my professors from undergraduate and graduate school believed to be important:

  • Strong interpersonal skills
  • Ability to multi-task
  • Taking constructive criticism well
  • Strong writing skills
  • Punctuality
  • Effective communication

DO-IT Ambassador: In my opinion, knowing when to say, "I don't know" is also important. Many new Scholars are going to have questions, and, even though you have been in the program for a few years, you are still not going to have all the answers. This is OK. Being an Intern means you are learning as well. The best response I have ever heard was "I do not know the answer to this, but I do know who would." WOW. You have just shown that, no, you don't know the answer, but you still know how to find the answer.

DO-IT Scholar: Hello everyone! One of the most important things I learned from my internship was how to be a more confident person. DO-IT offers other internships outside of Summer Study, and I did an internship in the area of real estate. In real estate you are helping people find and purchase their dream homes or helping them sell a home, so you have to be really confident in what you are communicating to your client. What I want everyone to get out of this is that when you get into an internship that fits your career goals, just have confidence in yourself that you can do it and you will do it!

DO-IT Ambassador: Appearance is always important in any internship. Men should take care of any facial hair they may have, dress nicely, shower regularly. Women should do the same, minus the facial hair problem. The way you present yourself either in the job world or internship helps to make a great impression and allows people to feel more at ease with you. One of my college professors made a comment that stuck with me even to this day—dress for success. If you walk into an interview dressed in business attire you will be more likely to get the job than the person next to you if they are wearing ragged jeans and T-shirt. When you are an intern you have been given the chance to potentially get hired on with that company full time. If you dress for success every day you show up for work, then the company where you are an intern will remember you when they are considering candidates for a job, even if you struggled to learn the job. You have already got your foot in the door, and this could mean the difference between a well-paid job and a minimum wage position.

DO-IT Ambassador: I would say that dressing appropriately is more of an issue when first making an impression than in the day-to-day work environment (there are often office dress codes as guides, otherwise just use good judgment). I'd say that an intern must have a willingness to learn new things, and, in order to do that, an intern must be flexible if it is to be a meaningful experience.

From my experience as an Intern, you won't learn all of the material or tasks an Intern does, but you will learn the processes behind the scenes and how to figure out what you need to know. It really is essential to acknowledge that an internship is a different type of learning that is generally not learned through course work.

As far as general job skills go, an Intern needs to be responsible and have effective time management skills, which includes prioritizing tasks effectively. No boss, or professor even, will accept that you didn't get an important project done because you were working on something else.

DO-IT Ambassador: I would like to add two additional comments:

  1. Communication is important. You need to be able to communicate to your coworkers/supervisors what you need. Be prepared to answer questions, especially when you are training others.
  2. Be willing to adjust to other people's learning styles. This is the most important lesson I learned when I was a volunteer. I had two clients whom I trained on the computer and they both had different ways of learning. One liked to learn via verbal communication, but she would take notes while I was talking to her. My other client liked to have her instructions written out so she could follow them at her own pace. When you are doing an internship that requires you to train others, you really need to be able to adjust to their ways of learning.