I Hate My Internship! Now What?

An internship will not allow you to determine with absolute certainty which industry will be the best fit for you, but even your "mistakes" can be instructive as you develop your career path.

With classes and exams wrapping up at colleges and universities in the coming weeks, many students will turn their attention to various summer jobs and internships. Students anticipate that their internships will be exciting, interesting, and meaningful opportunities that lead to deepening interest and directly benefit their future careers. Some of these activities will be positive experiences, and some undoubtedly will not.

That doesn't mean a bad internship can't be a good learning experience, however. The key is to engage in some critical reflection on your experience. If you find yourself not liking (or perhaps actively hating) your internship, asking yourself the following three questions can be a useful exercise.

Is it the culture?

"How's your internship at the local news station?"
"It sucks -- I hate it."
"I'm sorry to hear that."
"Don't be -- I'm so glad that I found this out now before I got stuck in a job that I don't like."

So went a conversation I had many years ago with an advisee who couldn't stand what she perceived as the cut-throat nature of the newsroom. It strikes me that she had absolutely the right attitude about her experience -- sometimes it can be just as valuable to find out what you don't want to do for a job. She learned about one of her personal deal-breakers in the work place and took steps to make sure the position she got after graduation was more compatible with her personality and values.

Is it the people?

Another former advisee told me once that she liked consulting reasonably well, but that she had absolutely nothing in common with her fellow summer employees or the professional staff. That suggested to her that she was most fulfilled in an environment with like-minded people who held similar intellectual interests. Of course, we don't all want or need to find people like ourselves at the office. But, if you've come to dread interactions with your co-workers across the board, it could be that you don't mesh well with the people who self-select for that industry.

Is it the work?

Sometimes the glamour field turns out not to be all that glamorous. Many students have expressed to me a fascination with politics, advertising, law (to name a few) right up until they found out what the work involved. Dealing with unhinged constituents, accommodating inflexible clients, or proofreading dense legal documents all night became rather less exciting than they appear in popular media. Naturally, a certain amount of in-the-trenches work is to be expected when you're first starting out. So if you find yourself hating the basic duties or the clientele of the organization you're working for, this might be a sign that the profession is not a good match.

Next Steps

While asking these three questions is useful, it's also important not to over-generalize based on one experience. Conduct informational interviews and network with other professionals to get a sense of whether your observations are specific to the employer or if they hold true for the entire field. Who knows? Maybe you've landed at an outlier for the industry, and the next internship will prove more professionally rewarding. Finally, remember that a summer job or internship is only a short-term proposition, and that this too shall pass.