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What You Should Know Once You Land Your Internship

This piece was originally going to be my 2nd contribution to CNBC but they never ran the story. So I'm sharing everything here for you on what to do once you have an internship.

Tam Pham
Tam Pham
7 min read

After my first collaboration with CNBC on this amazing piece about internships, the reporter wanted to run a new article to helping their readers land their dream internship and do a great job.

I submitted my answers but they never ended up running the story. So I thought I'd publish it on my own blog to help my readers. Enjoy. 🙂

To start off, what is the number one quality that an intern must have to either work for your company or perhaps any company in general? Why is this quality the most important?

Some employees might immediately jump to say “passion” or “hunger” which are both great qualities. But the number 1 quality an intern should have is to be coachable.

When an employer hires an intern, they are not expecting them to solve their biggest problems like a consultant would.

An employer hires intern for their unique skills and perspectives. They hire them to do work but also to mentor them so that they improve as an employee, which may lead to future full-time employment later on.

If they are not coachable, the intern will not be open to learning new ways to go about their work. The intern will not have a growth mindset, where Stanford Professor Carol Dweck describes as someone who “ believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work.”

This mindset is so crucial for being adaptable and versatile to any work that gets thrown their way.

An ideal intern would be curious to learn how the master does their craft; to be like a sponge and soak up all the knowledge in the room instead of thinking they are “too good” for this kind of work.

On the first day of the internship, how should interns go about making a solid first impression? (Examples: Should they ask a lot of questions? Should they talk about their past experiences? Etc.)

I’ve talked to dozens of entrepreneurs and hiring managers about what they look for in an intern and they often describe that they just want someone who “gets it.”

I pressed on to undercover the vague answer. What does “getting it” mean? These are the notes that I’ve gathered from them:

  • Understands the big picture, the vision, knowing where they fit in and why their role is valuable
  • Is self aware of how their experiences and skills can add value immediately.
  • Can question the norms - “What about this?” (adding nuance, sharing improvements, asking questions)
  • Doesn’t back down from their ideas, but also has flexibility to understand the other perspectives and is open to changing their mind. (strong opinions, weakly held)
  • Feel total responsibility and ownership for their projects and actions - Not afraid to say “I messed up” and learn from their mistakes

Anyone can be hard working, have a positive attitude, and do their job; however the above is what differentiates the good interns from the great ones.

How should interns handle mistakes they’ve made?

I got over a dozen hate messages from crossword enthusiasts when I interned as a writer for Hustle Con Media over a piece that I wrote, why USA Today Steals New York Times Crossword Puzzles: No One Cares.

I was so focused on publishing two articles before I left that work day, I rushed the article and got some major details wrong about the story.

I didn’t fact check it and random people called me an “idiot” and a “disgrace to journalism” through email and Twitter. I changed the error right away and got even more heat because I didn’t add to the bottom of the article that I edited the piece, which is a dishonest act as a journalist, but I had no idea.

The team informed me about the commotion and I knew the only way to resolve this problem was to be honest. I told them that I was rushing to finish the article and did not clearly understand the story that I was writing - and that I messed up.

They understood that everyone messes up, especially as an intern, and respected me a lot for being honest. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes because people understand that not everyone is perfect. As long as you are honest and unfront about your actions, the consequences are usually not that severe, but the lessons you learned through it are massive.

If an intern feels as though their supervisor or the employees are treating them unfairly, how should the intern approach the situation?

There were times when I interned for companies and they took advantage of me. They made me get them coffee and buy them lunch then looked down on me if I didn’t stay in the office until 8pm like they did.

I sucked it up and thought this was supposed to be the way things were.

But it wasn’t. I didn’t say anything and endured the dirty work for 3 months.

I wish I would have stood up for myself.

I wish I was more clear with my team on how their actions made me feel.

I wish I was more clear on expectations and boundaries.

Here is what I wish I would have said:

“Hey Joe (name changed for anonymity), when you make me get coffee, stay past 8pm to work, and do most of the company’s “dirty” work, it makes me feel like you don’t value me as an employee. The work you assign to me is not what we agreed on when you hired me to join the team and it is not helping me grow as a marketer. I don’t feel motivated to work with the team when I would really love to put my heart and soul into the work I’m doing like we agreed on.”

A simple non-violent message like that will send a clear message to the employer about how you feel and, from there, you can both work on solutions.

When it comes to speaking out and pitching ideas, some interns shy away because they think their role within the company is unimportant. How should interns go about suggesting new ideas or making sure they are heard and making the most out of their internship?

We sat around in our weekly editorial meeting and I got ready to present 10 new article ideas for the media company.

This meeting was my first time with the writing staff and my first opportunity to to the media company.  But with every idea I pitched, I got rejected. Everyone on the team took turns to add why my ideas weren’t strong enough for compelling stories.

I came in super eager to share my ideas and then each idea got shot down. I left feeling shut down, embarrassed, and discouraged to ever share any more ideas.

I had two options.

I could give up and never pitch any more ideas. Or I could be curious and figure out what pieces are missing from this puzzle to actually get my ideas accepted.

But only a loser would think like that and give up.

I wanted to grow in my craft and asked the team, “Why did they turn down my ideas?” and “What can I do to improve and make it better?”

I came back next week with 20 story ideas and 1 got accepted by the group. There I published my first article.

You’re going to get rejected all the time. It is what you do after that rejection is what really defines who you are.

Sometimes bosses make mistakes and overlook details, how should interns respectfully alert their boss of the mistake without coming across as though they are undermining their authority?

A famous podcast named Mixergy came to the office to interview Sam Parr, the CEO of Hustle Con Media.

Sam got ready to share the work that I helped create for the company: The Hustle’s Ambassador Program.

Even though I ran the day-to-day tasks, we both agreed it would be best to have the CEO of the company share what actually happened to Mixergy’s camera crew.

Midway through the interview, there was 1 detail that Sam and I fought over about getting right. Sam got ready to say something that I thought inaccurately described our community statistics. I told him how I felt and gave him an alternative to say instead. Sam defended his point with valid reasons and I stood my ground to share why I felt so strongly about this detail.

Sam eventually said OK and ran with my idea because he knew how passionate I was about this project. On the side, Mixergy’s team is thinking “WOW, look at this intern respectfully disagree with the founder and have his voice taken seriously.” I found out later about this thought when the founder of Mixergy, Andrew Warner, offered me a job to join his company.

Don’t be afraid to stand for what you believe in. Have strong opinions, back them up with research and data, and be OK to change your perspective when you learn new sides of the stories that you feel would benefit the company the most.

If an intern performs well and the supervisors are satisfied with their work, what are the 3 most important things an intern can gain out of their work/internship?

The intern should definitely ask the supervisor for a testimonial and referral to other companies they want to work for. Or if they love the company they are at, they should ask them to join the team full-time and if the company liked their performance, it’s a win-win situation.

The most important thing an intern should do is keep close relationships with everyone on the team, especially the supervisor, because they could be the best mentors for the next 50+ years in their career.

Final Thoughts

Work hard, learn a ton, and build amazing relationships. Most importantly, have fun with what you’re doing. If you want my system on how to land your dream internship, you can check out my book here!


Tam Pham Twitter

I'm a writer and bachata dancer currently bouncing around Latin America. Trying to make the most out of my one wild and precious life.

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