How to make the most out of your internships

I’ve now reached the point in my life where I’m a fully-fledged “professional“. No more titles like “intern” or “graduate”. Instead, just my job role, and that’s it. I’ve also reached that point where my younger brother has begun asking questions related to the working world as he’s getting started. Writing this blog post might be an excellent place to collect my thoughts based on my internships over the years!

Pauline at a computer for her first internship wearing a black top
My first internship with Diva Creative

I want to stress before we get started that this is based on my experience. And is not the step-by-step guide or the ONLY way to make the most out of your first shot in the working world. Most of my internship experience wasn’t actually in tech, so this isn’t exclusive to tech careers. Please take my advice with a pinch of salt, adapt it to your circumstances and needs.

A little bit of background on me before we get started: I’ve always been quite career-driven since I was younger. I genuinely think it was a mixture of how I grew up surrounded by hard-working parents. They set the foundations for me. When I landed my first ever internship (which I blogged about!) made sure that I got as much out of it. This ambitiousness continued even at my year-long placement during my university days and my recent-ish graduate scheme with BT. Each time, I learned something new about myself through what might feel like rigorous reflection, but hey – it’s essential! 

Over the years, this is what my “internship” journey looked like:

  • 2016: Development Intern at an agency
  • 2016-2017: Communications & External Engagement Assistant Intern at a University
  • 2017: Development & Communications Intern at an agency
  • 2017: Development & Communications Intern at an agency
  • 2017-2018: Enterprise Intern at University’s Enterprise Hub
  • 2018: Communications Intern at a health tech company
  • 2018-2020: Digital Engineering Graduate at a large telecommunications company

The kind of things that I got up to differ from each, but my main learnings as an intern:

  • How to communicate to different types of people
  • Building your network
  • How to work collaboratively 
  • My first “professional” experience coding (web development in my early years, but moved onto more Cloud/DevOps by the end of the graduate scheme at BT)
  • How companies make money
  • General confidence in who I am, what sort of role I wanted to shape for myself as I progressed further

How to get an internship” might be a separate post altogether, but getting an internship (or similar) has made a massive impact on where I am today. I’m grateful for the mentors that trusted me and gave me a shot when I was still getting started! 😊 

Pauline in London, St Pauls where BT's head offices are based.
My first week at my BT Graduate Scheme

Now you’ve got an internship – how can you make sure that you maximise your time there? how can you start to reap all the benefits and learnings that I described above? Read on!

Making the most out of your internships

1. Document & reflect on everything

We’ve established that I’m a pretty reflective person. 🧘🏻‍♀️ Being this way has its perks! I’ve primarily found the most useful during an internship.

I’ve ALWAYS dedicated some time during the week to take note of things that I did, even the tiniest thing. This habit is one that I’ve carried with me even to this day. Put it on a document, a spreadsheet or your personal space on Confluence (you techies would know 😂). Not sure what to write? Here are some ideas:

  1. What was the task? e.g. to create a web server
  2. What did you do to complete the task? e.g. used terraform & AWS as my solution to create that server
  3. What was the impact? e.g. now, we’ve got a live server that people are using!
  4. Reflection: how do you feel now? How did it go? e.g. I had a bit of a knowledge gap. But I asked questions and read the documentation, and now I’m confident that I can do it again next time!

That’s a technical example, but that structure can apply to anything. I’ve written about extra things that I did that weren’t necessarily related to a task in the past.

This exercise is a good way to identify:

  • Likes / What you enjoy doing
  • Dislikes / What you hate doing
  • What makes you feel good (helps plan longer-term career plans)
  • Knowledge/skills gaps 
  • => all contributing to your personal and professional development ✨

2. Go beyond what is expected of you – if you can! 

I’m not sure if it’s just me, but from my experience, being an intern or graduate means less pressure. In comparison to someone without that title. 

Although this can be frustrating at times, it’s also an excellent opportunity for you to “prove them wrong” not in a vengeful way but more in terms of “you have this expectation of me, I’m going to meet your expectation and exceed it.” There were many moments throughout my graduate scheme where I knew that the graduate title held me back. But instead of being upset about it, I used it to my advantage to fuel my desire to go extra. And that I did!

Now, this point is also about if you’ve not got a busy day or much on, don’t just sit around waiting for someone to give you a task. Take the initiative – have a look and browse around what the teams are working on, see what you can do to add little pockets of value. 

Recommendation on LinkedIn
A recommendation on my LinkedIn profile from a former colleague

If you identify something, you’d like to get into but not sure if you can do it yourself, speak to your team or manager. Showing this eagerness to get involved and learn will guarantee to already offer to them that you’re trying to go above and beyond your role.  

If there is nothing that you can get stuck into until your next task – use the time to learn something new OR even fill out that development document I described above.

Word of caution: this does not mean saying yes to everything and trying to do everything you can every minute of the day. Trust me, I’ve been there, and it isn’t pretty. It’s more about pushing yourself out of your comfort zone one bit at a time in a sustainable way for your personal growth.

3. Always ask for feedback

Before we get into this one, make sure that you have regular 1:1 sessions with your manager or supervisor. Agree when you’re going to have it every month. There is nothing worse than being thrown into the working world, already feeling scared and lost and not having someone there to check up on you. Get it scheduled in from your first few days!

Once you’ve got those 1:1 sessions in, take the opportunity to talk through the work you’ve done and ask for feedback. Asking for feedback is scary; it’s something you have to keep asking for, and eventually, it gets less complicated. Nowadays, I look forward to my in-depth feedback sessions every six months – it is a fantastic opportunity for growth. 

Don’t feel like you need to have in-depth feedback sessions every 1:1, but even just a casual “Have you got any feedback that you’d like to raise for me?” I ask at every 1:1 because it also invites your manager to give you causal feedback in return. 

Pauline's desk during placement year at the University of Sheffield
My desk during my placement year 2016-2017

I found this was where I’d often hear things like, “Oh, a colleague said that you helped them a lot with their problem the other day. Well done, keep it up!” I find these little pockets of gratitude and thankfulness as a way to keep me motivated. Everyone likes it; let’s be honest. 😆 

It can be a boost for you, so make sure you ask in addition to the longer end-of-placement feedback review meetings.

4. Network, network, network

Every organisation you join, you will meet so many people. Over the years, when I was still an intern or graduate, I made networking a top priority. 

There’s that saying, “it’s who you know,” that I’ve always heard — but I never really understood the meaning of until I joined the working world. There were multiple occasions where I’d have new opportunities thrown my way because I prioritised networking. My first ever internship at Diva Creative, my contact there who set it up, to begin with, then got me in to do another summer internship two years down the line. 

Even when I wasn’t directly working with someone for a project or task, I’d make sure that I’d somehow interact with someone new across the company. At BT, I got involved with many extracurricular activities and out-of-my-department projects that helped me connect with folks across the company! Even a simple, “Hey, how are you?” When you get your lunch or take a break in the kitchen goes a long way. 

In our pandemic days, what I’ve made sure as I expand my network remotely, I’ve made it a mission of mine to get involved with wider-company discussions. Or to shoot someone over a message on Slack (if, for example, we have a mutual connection or they said something in a broader forum that I related to!)

A screenshot of my LinkedIn page
Get started on LinkedIn! Feel free to also connect with me.

Networking goes both ways: I have managed to gain quite a bit from my network, but I’ve also given back. 

Now in the future, I’m so glad that I took the time to prioritise building relationships and expanding my network. I definitely wouldn’t be where I am now without my network and the wider community. It turns out that the tech world (in particular) is tiny. 🤷🏻‍♀️

5. At the end of the internship/graduate scheme, keep in touch!

Even if you’re not planning on taking a future role with the company, it’s still wise to stay connected with your colleagues. Relationships aren’t just a certain period. They’re a long term thing! Be active on LinkedIn or other ways you want to stay in touch with your former colleagues. Keeping in touch allows the relationship to blossom – who knows, they may think of you for a future opportunity. 

Pauline with her award
The time I was awarded the Green Impact award for my efforts in pushing green initiatives across The University of Sheffield

I’m pretty close with my former manager back during my placement year. Amy has been a fantastic mentor and role model for me to this day! Whenever something gets tough, or I struggle with a decision, I always think back to my 1:1s with Amy and her general encouragement for my future. I make sure that I take the time to send a message once in a while, check up on former managers and colleagues – they’ve been a massive part of my growth, and I want them to know that. 😊

You can stay in touch with the company and potential projects they’re working on by following them on social media (Linkedin, Twitter, and Instagram). Companies are everywhere these days. 😂 It’s an excellent way to keep your commercial awareness sharp and keep an eye and ear out on future opportunities!

Over the years, I've received 51 recommendations on LinkedIn
Over the years, I’ve received 51 recommendations on LinkedIn

I also recommend taking the time to ask for a reference or LinkedIn recommendation after each internship which is an excellent way to build your LinkedIn profile.

Conclusion – are you making the most out of your time there?

A lot of the advice I wrote here can undoubtedly apply to folks past that intern/graduate role! I know that I still follow most of the advice here to this day – maybe it’s a habit that I’ll never get rid of 😂  

I hope that early careers folks find this especially helpful. Let me know if you have any more questions or comments! 

An Instagram Story!
One of my Instagram stories from 2018. I’m always reflecting and feel this immense amount of gratitude for everyone that has supported me to this point. Thank you all ❤️

PS: I wanted to write this blog post years ago, but I’m glad that I waited until this point in my career. I feel like I’ve articulated it better than if I wrote this years ago. 😂

2 responses to “How to make the most out of your internships”

  1. Stephen Edward Dunne avatar
    Stephen Edward Dunne

    Hi Pauline,

    Thank you for writing this post. I’m coming to the end of my (almost 5 year) cyber security apprenticeship and this is exactly what I needed to hear. I’ve become quite obsessed with both career and self development over the past couple of years and find your growth mindset and work ethic both admirable and inspiring.

    One thing I’ve been struggling with has been stress from not shutting off outside of working hours/constantly planning things in my head. Do you have any advice on how to manage stress/staying calm in the chaos?

    Thanks again and keep doing what you’re doing!!

    Kind regards,

    1. Hey Stephen!

      Thanks for reading and supporting. Appreciate it 😊

      Congratulations on finishing your apprenticeship program! How exciting. Well done on sticking to it and doing your best to make the most out of an exciting opportunity.

      That’s a fantastic question. I wish I could give you a step-by-step guide of what just works, but everyone is different and I’m still working through it as someone who is quite a workaholic. The thing with remote work is that it can be easy to fall into this trap of working all the time and therefore feeling stressed. Setting yourself boundaries physically may be a good way to separate the two in your head as well. For example, I have a place for my desk set-up which I dedicate just to work. Whenever I’m sat there, I’m focused on WORK. I also have alarms for 5pm everyday to remind me to stop working. If I don’t complete something, I move it to first thing in the morning. No questions asked.

      Other things that has helped me combat stress is exercise. I talk about well-being quite a bit on my blog and social media, because it’s such a huge part of my life. Exercise keeps me sane and grounds me when I feel overwhelmed! Finding what positive coping mechanism you can incorporate into your life is a good way to keep stress away and keep calm in the chaos.

      Best of luck!

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