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What Does an Intern Do? A Guide for Job Seekers and Companies

April 28, 2020
Ben Siegel

An internship is a stepping stone to full-time employment after graduation. Whether you're a job seeker applying for an internship or a business owner who’s starting an internship program, you may be wondering, "What does an intern do?"

According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), 57.5% of graduating seniors in 2019 who completed an internship received a job offer — 14% higher than the percentage of graduating seniors who didn't complete an internship.

The daily tasks of an internship will depend on the position for which you’re applying (or hiring). A chemical engineering major, for example, will have an internship that looks a lot different than that of a graphic design intern.

But all interns, no matter the job description, will have several things in common. Interns practice professional communication, network with colleagues and clients, and show initiative in tackling various projects. Below, you’ll learn four things all interns do, regardless of the job title.

What Is an Intern?

An intern is a person who works for a company for a set period of time. An internship can take place during the summer months, a semester, or the school year. Interns are usually college students or grad students, but some land their first internship post-college graduation or even in high school.

The purpose of an internship is to get valuable work experience within a given industry. Internships usually come before someone’s first full-time job and offer the chance to gain experience working with projects, conducting research, and building a portfolio before entering the job market.

Internships can be part-time or full-time, paid or unpaid, and require different levels of experience. That said, internships aren't just for busywork. Interns can make a significant impact on an organization within a few short months. Below, you'll hear from several former interns on how they contributed to their department or company as a whole.

What Does an Intern Do?

What does an intern do? Coworkers grouped around laptop

The roles and responsibilities of an intern will depend on the internship program itself, the size of the organization, and the department. While the daily tasks will vary depending on the job description, most internships will cover the following tasks.

1. Improve Verbal Communication Skills

An internship could easily be a student’s first opportunity to pitch an idea, defend an argument, or present research outside the classroom. A successful internship program allows interns to gain real-world experience in verbal communication skills by presenting to their department.

Jared Wade, a former intern for ActiveCampaign, claims his internship opportunity taught him to communicate within a professional environment. From greeting clients and coworkers to presenting to his department and chatting with colleagues over Slack, he learned that communicating at work is different than talking to friends on campus.

"These skills are important to keep in mind because they keep your audience interested, show that you take pride in your work, and let them know that you know what you're talking about," he says.

2. Decide Which Career Path Is the Right Fit

There’s a hard truth most college students already know: A college degree alone doesn't guarantee success in the "real world."

Students have heard this warning from peers, older siblings, and even professors — and it's fine. College is about forming a foundation. It's about learning to solve problems, hit deadlines, and work within a team environment.

A young professional will never know if a given field is right for them unless they try it — and that's what's so great about internships. Companies should create opportunities where interns are exposed to a number of different projects, departments, and roles, thereby helping them envision careers in different fields.

Alexa Urness, a chemical engineering major at the University of Washington, worked nine months to land an internship during undergrad. She found an opportunity working in a lab (an excellent internship experience, given her major), only to realize that research wasn't her calling. And yet, she considered her internship a wonderful learning experience.

"Basically, my summer internship showed me I didn't want to work in a lab," she says. Rather than being discouraged, she believed the collaborative work environment led her to discover her true calling. "I was able to reference [these projects] in interviews during my senior year while I pursued my eventual career choice: consulting."

3. Learn How to Network

In college, networking can seem inauthentic. Stiff job fairs and campus career centers often suggest that networking is no more than handing out business cards and begging for jobs. But it's much more than that.

Networking requires collaboration with peers — whether someone works for the same company or not — to accomplish an objective. Within an internship, colleagues, clients, and vendors get to see an intern’s time management, dedication, and problem-solving skills regularly. These connections can help advance that person’s career within a particular field.

Florian Neubauer, a former intern for the UN, believes that learning to network is one of the most valuable soft skills you can learn while interning. "At the UN, it is essential to network to find out about opportunities within different entities or offices," he says. "Even if you are looking to advance within your own organization, you have to make sure you're regularly making an effort to meet new people."

4. Show Initiative to Managers and Supervisors

Today’s internships are not about days spent making coffee, entering data, and performing grunt work that full-time employees don’t want to do. While there will always be some menial tasks to perform, interns and businesses alike know that a successful internship program offers clearly defined goals.

If you want your program to be every bit of the great opportunity it's meant to be, interns should be encouraged to submit new ideas, make professional contacts, harness new skills, and ask to partake in new projects.

Sabrina Bocaranda, a marketing major who graduated in 2019, spent her summer interning at Capital Analytics Associates, a small publishing house. Although her internship lasted a mere three months, she ended up working across three departments: editorial, sales, and marketing. Therefore, she was able to establish a broad base of projects, completing real work in social media operations, cold outreach, and content strategy.

When asked about advice she’d give other interns, Sabrina says, "Make sure you decide to stay at a place where you are valued as an employee … and somewhere you are gaining something, [whether it be] education or experience."

She openly admits that being the youngest person on her team was intimidating, but her colleagues recognized her work effort. If you show initiative and do good work, the opportunities will find you.

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