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Interns Are different: Here's how to deal with those differences

By Martin Lieberman

Because they're on staff for only a short period of time, interns deal with a different set of issues and dilemmas than full-time employees. From staying motivated while handling administrative tasks to fitting in with coworkers, how does one deal with the unique challenges of an internship?

Because it's such a short period of time, there's not a whole lot of margin of error. If you were to make a big mistake, that would certainly be remembered. - Ron Feldman

Sure, interns may look and work like full-fledged employees, but underneath it all, they are a whole different being. As transitory employees, they have different pressures to confront, like learning valuable skills and impressing managers in a short period of time - often 12 weeks or less. Not to mention coping with all that "light office work."

According to Dr. Virginia E. Schein, an organizational psychologist and professor of management at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, interning is a unique situation for all involved because neither party is fully invested in the other. Students don't need to commit to working for any one company for a long period of time, and companies don't have to commit to keeping a student on staff beyond the length of the internship.

In many cases of course, companies want their interns to feel like valuable members of a team, but cultivating such bonds in only three months is difficult. At the same time, interns are struggling to impress their employers and secure a glowing recommendation or even a job offer. But take heart - you can overcome the demands of your internship and make it an exciting, worthwhile opportunity.

Creating your own agenda
How the employer views interns often determines the stress level of the internship. Sometimes, companies believe they don't need to provide much training or support to their interns. Instead, they just assign them tasks and assume the interns will know what to do. Alternatively, some companies closely scrutinize interns, gauging their potential as future hires. In this case, interns may feel like they're being tested and should know what to do.

"There is a sense that you're always being evaluated," says Ron Feldman, 22, who interned at companies including Merrill Lynch and Salomon Smith Barney in New York. "Because it's such a short period of time, there's not a whole lot of margin of error. If you were to make a big mistake, that would certainly be remembered." Feldman offered this simple advice: "If you don't understand something, it's better to ask than to try it on your own and mess it up."

One way to avoid uncertainty and stress on the job is to devise your own agenda for the internship, and go beyond being a "passive intern" who does only what's assigned. Schein believes successful interns are ones who go to work every day knowing they must accomplish at least one thing: meeting a new person, learning a new skill, finishing a task, or exploring a different part of the company's operations. "You need to always be learning something, even if it's just that you don't like what you're doing," she says. After all, one of the purposes of an internship is to determine what work you will and won't pursue after graduation.

An agenda goes a long way toward keeping you motivated as well. Even when things slow down or you feel like you've been left on your own, a self-directed schedule will keep you on pace to stay productive. Knowing you always have something to do can help you to finish even the most undesirable of assignments.

How your company can help
Of course, you're not the only one responsible for keeping you happy and motivated. The company you intern with should understand its obligation to make sure you do productive work and get the most out of your time. It's a good idea to have your supervisor define what the internship is going to be about and how you are going to fit in on a larger scale before you start - or, better yet, before you commit to the job.

Many internship programs provide valuable experience for students. "The best internships are when there's a project and the company hires interns to take on a piece of it. Or when there's something ongoing that they can assign to interns," Schein says. "In an ideal situation, when a student's time is up, everyone can see what he or she did."

Feldman, a finance major at Georgetown, says his class work taught him the skills he needed to understand the work on his internship, and his career service office presented panels with former interns who could explain what their experiences were like. But since companies and internships differ, you eventually have to just dive in and make the most of an internship. Understanding some of the conflicts that can arise during your tenure as intern, however, can help diffuse tensions before they cause a serious problem. After all, part of the excitement of an internship is finding things out on your own, seeing the whole experience -t he good and the bad - as a learning opportunity.

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