Turning a Bad Internship into a Great Learning Experience

Between college and graduate school, I’ve had a total of four internships. Some were absolutely amazing like when I interned at an eating disorder unit (I will definitely have more on that at another time). Other ones though, not really as fantastic as I thought they’d be. Regardless, I was able to learn something from all of them and wouldn’t have changed my placements for the world.

My most unique internship was at a bakery that doubled as a social service agency. I ended up being hastily placed there after my original internship lost funding and was being significantly downsized (the sad reality most non-profits face). What’s even weirder, though, is I had always dreamed of starting something like this before I even got to intern at the place. I even still have plans with a very good friend to start a similar community center in the future (my career path is all over the place at times).

What I thought was my dream come true turned out to be a little rough around the edges, though. The program was extremely new and there wasn’t a clear line designating my duties or expectations of me. While I’m fine working in an ambiguous setting now, it’s not easy to do as an intern. I ended up doing everything from washing dishes and baking cupcakes to mentoring youth with extreme behavioral problems. Crazy right? Pros of this placement were that I got to eat lots of delicious cupcakes, learn some skills that I never thought I’d have (like how to frost cupcakes correctly), and I learned whether a career in client contact was the right or wrong thing for me. Cons were that I didn’t always have enough work to fill up my day, the work was often ambiguous and required lots of non-social work type things, and I gained weight from eating all those delicious cupcakes (actually, chipwiches were my favorite!).

I'm not exaggerating when I say this is what my internship was like.  Seems amazing, but not always.

I’m not exaggerating when I say this is what my internship was like. Seems amazing, but not always.

So, what do you do if you find yourself in a situation (somewhat) like this? Is all hope lost that you won’t learn a darned thing? Absolutely not! Here are some steps to take to turn a bad internship into a great learning experience!

Be proactive and seek out new opportunities: If you’re in an environment where there aren’t any clear goals and tasks, be proactive. Talk to your supervisor about how you can do more around the office or give a suggestion of a new project.  For example, when I interned at the eating disorder unit I proposed we create an intern manual since they often have 2-4 each year. It gave me an interesting new project plus it’s still used years later. Think for the future and actively create opportunities even if you don’t feel like there are “typical” learning experiences available.

Lean on your other interns: I met that really great friend I mentioned earlier at this internship. She was my rock and we stood side by side washing dishes, writing papers, mentoring some tough youth, and then again when we celebrated our marriages this year. I really don’t know what I would’ve done if she hadn’t been there. If you’re lucky enough to have another intern around (which occurs in many places) lean on them for motivation, guidance, and friendship. They’re most likely feeling the same way you are so support each other through and through. You never know where this friendship can lead you!

Talk to your supervisor and/or field liaison about your concerns: If it’s really just so bad that you don’t think you’re getting anything out of the internship, have an honest conversation with your supervisor and/or field liaison. I mean, sometimes it just truly isn’t the right fit. That’s no fault on you or the internship site. Instead of trying to just suck it up, openly discuss how you feel and see if there are other opportunities for a new internship or even a new supervisor that works better with your learning style.

Take it with a grain of salt: If you really don’t have the option to change internships remember that this is not your job and it’s not indicative of your future performance or success. Accept that this isn’t the best learning environment for you and do the best you can to learn and grow in other areas. This most likely won’t be your only opportunity to intern in your field. Take it for what it is (a not so fabulous internship) and keep on keeping on!

Remember: Just because you don’t particularly like it, doesn’t mean you’re not learning:  You want to know the best thing I learned from this internship? Being a therapist just wasn’t for me! I may not have particularly liked my placement at times, but it provided me with the knowledge I needed to help accurately choose my career path. I was so dead set on being a therapist that I couldn’t believe how much I disliked it once I was there (I also had a really difficult client that pushed me in that direction). So, just because you’re not having a grand ol’ time doesn’t mean you’re not learning more about you, your learning style, what you want in a supervisor, or what career is or is not good for you. Keep an open mind and reflect on the not so obvious knowledge you’re coming across.

Now it’s your turn.  Did you have a particularly bad internship? How did you make it better?

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