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fourth
How to Help Your Interns
Learn From the Experience


This summer David Bogaty, an 18-year-old from Westboro, Mass., is working as a paid intern at Switchboard Inc. in his home town for the third year in a row. When he heads to Cornell University this fall, his co-workers at the Internet-based local-merchant network say, they'll be sad to see him go.

Colleagues say Mr. Bogaty is a responsible, fast-paced worker who gets the job right every time. When the company recently had trouble putting together a new piece of computer programming, he took it upon himself to learn a new programming language in two days that made it work. And three weeks into his internship, he already has jumped full-force into projects on the company's Web site, says his boss, Mario Protano.

"[With interns] I expect there will be some hand holding," Mr. Protano says. "But David has exceeded my expectations. We've had other interns from colleges that weren't as mature as he was."

All summer interns should aim to hear their bosses sing similar praises, of course, especially in a year when summer opportunities have been scarce for both high-school and college students. But many interns don't quite grasp that there's more to be gotten from an internship than making a good impression by showing up on time and dressing appropriately. These days, especially in a tough job market glutted with skilled workers, it can be the first, vital step in building a career.

For that reason, every intern's first priority should be to establish clear objectives upon starting the internship. Set parameters and goals and try to articulate these to your manager.

There is no need to go overboard, as most bosses recognize that interns are there partly to listen and learn, not move mountains. "We don't want the intern to be overwhelmed," says William Henderson, a research analyst at a film-entertainment trade association in Encino, Calif., whose department intern started last week. Focus on a couple of achievable, concrete aims.

At Boston University School of Management's career center, which helps its undergraduate and graduate-degree business students find internships, counselors remind students to view internship as a "learning experience" instead of simply salary and work experience. This often motivates students to investigate the company to help determine how to make the biggest contribution.

"When you frame it [as an educational opportunity], it changes how students prepare to have a good summer," says Jennifer Lawrence, an assistant dean of career services at the school. "They like the idea that they're getting something out of it, rather than sitting behind your desk and burrowing like a mole."

Indeed, many employers loathe interns who do their job without trying to get to know more about the company through interaction. One intern who recently bombed, says Ms. Lawrence, worked at a consulting company. Although she worked diligently on a difficult task in a remote location, she failed to network and get feedback on the assignment. "It wasn't the quality of her numerical analysis; it was her lack of her checking in," she adds.

At the same time, interns should aim to leave with tangible achievements under their belts that will be remembered, and if they aren't being given enough work, they should actively try to solicit more assignments. Just as employers can grow frustrated with interns who focus on the work but don't learn, they can overlook interns and let them while the summer away without doing much. Underused interns should talk to the boss or talk to other people in the company about how they can help.

"Sometimes interns are tentative and are afraid to ask for things," says Steve Slattery, vice president of programs for the Fund for American Studies, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit educational organization that places over 250 students in summer internships. "But we tell them to meet with people in the organization and ask them to do things of interest that will help them network. They should be constantly networking."

When it's all over, many experts say, interns are going to want to have a good story to tell a future employer or a business contact about their summer experience. This thought should help keep them on their toes and "away from doing things that aren't worthwhile," says Ruth Rosenholtz, a researcher at the Palo Alto Research Center, of Palo Alto, Calif., which has about 50 interns this summer.

Or, as Mr. Bogaty describes his approach: "I'm just willing to learn and try to be useful. That's what helps in terms of them wanting to keep you around."


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