Campus Overload Live with Jenna Johnson

Jun 16, 2011

It's that time of year all over again. Here in Washington, the average age seems to have fallen thanks to the hordes of college students who are interning on the Hill or at non-profits, media organizations and lots of other places.

The life of an intern isn't easy, especially if the gig doesn't pay. You have to find your way around a new city, figure out office politics, make friends and try not to be #THATintern. Oh, and you don't want to go into debt doing it.

Don't worry, we are here for you. Every Thursday afternoon, Jenna with be online with a variety of guests to answer all of your questions about all-things-intern -- or just allow you to vent to the interwebs.

Campus Overload's Jenna Johnson chronicles national college news, drinking fads, admissions buzz and the latest exploits of interns on her blog each day. In her live chat, she answers your questions about life on campus -- and life off campus, too.

Happy Thursday, everyone! Now that it's officially summer, my chats are usually always going to be about summer interns. The plan is to have guest chatters on each week -- so let me know if you have suggestions!

Today we have, as always, our awesome chat producer Ryan Kellett, who was once an intern at NPR. And please welcome summer intern Laurén Abdel-Razzaq, who is on her seventh -- yes, SEVENTH -- internship.

The three of us are here for the next hour to answer all of your internship-related questions -- and also to hear any funny intern stories you might have.

Let's get started...

Oh! And I am going to steal an idea from Monica Hesse's Web Hostess chat and pose a question for all of YOU to answer for me. Here we go...

QUESTION: What one piece of advice do you have for summer interns?

Hello all -- Ryan Kellett here. I produce Jenna's chats here at The Post, and yes, I have been an intern before at NPR in DC. I can also take questions about interning abroad. I did two internships in Beijing, China. I'm looking forward to reflecting on that experience and hearing from you about your intern experiences.

I like my internship, but I need more to do! What is the best, most polite way to ask for more work and responsibilities without sounding dissatisfied?

Hi there. This is Laurén, the Post intern. I've been in the same situation as you and it can be difficult. But as an intern, your bosses already know you are there to learn and grow. This means they shouldn't be offended  if you ask for more work to do.

First, prove you can handle what they give you already and do it well.

Second, ask for weekly meetings with your direct supervisor to discuss your progress. When you get the one-on-one time, that's when you can address your desire for more work.

Third, when you talk, tell them what you enjoy about the work you have been doing and then come up with ideas on what else you would like to try or what else you think you could be good at. It may just be a matter of proving you are ready to handle more. Taking charge and making suggestions are one way to do that.

And don't be afraid to offer to help when you see opportunities... If an e-mail goes out asking for people to work weekend shifts, say yes. If a major project hits, ask what you can do to help. If someone sitting near you looks stressed, ask what you can do.

Even if you are just organizing papers, fact-checking, doing the lunch run or making a round of phone calls, your co-workers will appreciate it. And busy work is better than no work at all.

Jenna -- I like the #thatintern series but it occurs to me that if you actually fit one of those descriptions, you probably don't know it.

What's the protocol for talking to peers/friends about being #thatintern when they don't know it?

Ahhhh, yes, very true. The funny thing about #thatintern is that most people don't want to admit they are #thatintern...

I suppose you can try forwarding them one of the entries with a note that says: "Just so you know, you were the inspiration for this entry..." But I don't recommend it.

The best idea is always to say something -- the summer is short and first-impressions are quickly made -- but to be very thoughtful in doing so.

Let's say that a fellow intern  routinely blows off requests from a boss or staffer to do simple tasks. Next time you see it happen, lean over and suggest they not do that next time. Finish it off with: "I know it sucks, but we are interns! We are here to help!"

Lauren, what has been the hardest part about moving to DC and adjusting to city life? (When I first moved here, I was terrified to drive in traffic and find my way around circles. I quickly realized it's not too bad.)

I don't have a car, so I don't have to worry about the whole city driving thing. Someone I worked with at another place used to be a Post intern a little while ago. She crashed her car at the beginning of her internship and was forever referred  to by her bosses as "Crash"

As long as that doesn't happen, I think I can handle whatever D.C. throws at me.

Ryan and/or Lauren: What can bosses do to make internships true learning experiences? What do interns really want out of the summer?

It's tried and true advice, but the first step at the beginning of the summer should always be to sit down with your boss and have a chat about both of your expectations for the summer. Nothing is worse than being on different pages and then not communicating about it. 

More generally, bosses should probably do more planning than they think they need to. Interns need day-to-day tasks as well as long-term projects. I don't think an intern needs to be occupied every minute of every day but a good internship ends with the intern feeling like they accomplished something real. And that is also what works on resumes too. It's not about the fact that you interned at such-and-such a place, it's about what you can point to as having accomplished there.

I've noticed some bosses get it right away. They are naturals at mentoring. Others, not so much.

The best thing they can do, in my opinion, is explain their intentions for the internship at the beginning and what they are expecting. THEN, they need to ask the intern what they want to learn. Internships are short. The goal should be to accomplish something, whether that's a single project or smaller daily tasks. It's the job of the boss to adapt to these goals and give the intern the necessary training and tools to get there.

Hi! I've been interning in DC for a while now and one thing that I have noticed is that it seems to take a lot for fellow interns (ages 18-22 in particular) to be more sociable and open. I understand being professional and all, but my goodness I don't understand why its so hard for interns here to open up. Tips/explanations?

I was one of those interns. And the truth is... I was often just scared. Sure, I wanted to be professional but more often than not, I just wasn't sure of my "place" to open up especially on a short timeframe.

I now know that being sociable and meeting people is critical to having a decent internship experience and obtaining a job in the future.

I always find it funny that with some internships you can go an entire summer without meeting and befriending any fellow interns and then find yourself best friends with all of them for the last two weeks. You miss out!


That said, it comes down to you, I think. Take the initative. If you are working with other interns, suggest a happy hour location or have a party over the weekend. Take care of all of the details, so they literally just have to show up.

Start there, branch out and form some friendships with the people working with you first and then see what circles that opens up.

You can get some other ideas at our Intern City page, which I will be updating and working with over the summer.

Dress profesionally! NOT like you're going to a summer disco party!!!!! OMG< the outfits we see!

My question then becomes: how do you affordably put together a wardrobe of appropriate work clothing that you probably won't use at school?

It's true -- even a handful of new pieces can be a financial burden for interns, especially those not being paid.

The key is to pull together a professional look that mixes pieces you already have from school (think, button-downs, solid-colored t-shirts, etc) with a couple key career pieces, like dark pants or skirts and dress shoes.

Your best bets: Sale racks at the end of a season, outlets, consignment stores and thrift stores. Places like Target and Marshalls also have quality pieces for less. And don't forget the closets of your friends and relatives! (Some of my friends like to get together to swap clothes a few times a year, and I am constantly handing up/down clothes to my mom and sister.)

And, remember, you are an intern -- usually, no one in the office expects you to dress like the corporate executives. Just don't show up in flip-flops and tube top!

Some more tips:

Professional wardrobe on an intern budget

The Flip-flop Revolution

Retrosexual: Newest look for D.C. guys

Everyone's so caught up in their daily grind it's hard to set aside time for the intern. The intern should bring up subjects "I heard you mention the Smith project, can I tag along on the planning meeting?"

Yes! Now I don't have to think up more busy work and I have someone to take notes for me at my meeting. See how it works? TAKE INITIATIVE and busy folks will be grateful.

Totally agree. That said, if bosses think that they have to "think up busy work" all the time, then I'd argue that it's not really worth it to bring on an intern.

As the intern, you need to take it upon yourself to find a way to be an asset to the company. Sometimes that means taking on big projects, but sometimes it means covering awful shifts on the weekends or staying late to help the boss with something tedious. It's not in your best interest to say no.

Think of it as an investment in yourself. At least that's what I try to remind myself of when I am doing something that's not quite thrilling :)


Now this is a funny one. Being new to D.C., I wasn't anticipating all the people who walk to work in their suits and dresses and flip flops (yes, men and women). But they CHANGE their shoes when they get to work :P

I think a lot of interns get the advice: "Dress like the position you aim to get." But I think that's only partially true. Just because you want to be the CEO does not mean I want you to show up in a suit and tie everyday. I find it awkward when interns are out-dressing everyone. Take the pulse of the workplace and make sure you don't offend anyone and then take it from there.

What are some good non-hyped events around DC this summer that are friendly to an intern's pay level?

I don't know if you saw this already, but the Going Out Gurus heard about this discount program for interns, which is still going on through Sunday.

They had some cool events and free things listed on there.

Inside that blog, they've also got links to other free events. Might be worth it to take a look.

I'm also a big fan of free, outdoor movies -- and there are a bunch in the DC area this summer.

Some of my other favorites: Jogging through the zoo in the morning, wandering around farmers markets (free samples!) and Eastern Market on the weekends, visiting the fish market in Southwest, drum circle in Meridian Hill Park on Sunday afternoons, and splurging for a bottle of wine to share with friends on a rooftop or deck.

I'm a nonprofit employee who supervises 2-3 college interns per year and my piec of advice is simply: ASK QUESTIONS. Ask everything from how the collation function of our copier works to how/why our organization does things in such-and-such a way. Hopefully, my answer will help you learn something...and I learn in turn from your questions.

Bam -- this supervisor is on fire. Great advice.

I've been at the Post for two weeks now and I'm still asking endless questions. Just yesterday I had to ask how  to map a printer so I could print something.

I imagine people may eventually get tired of answering such questions, but you can always give them the doe-eyed look and remind them you are a clueless intern. Journalists do the same thing when we aren't that knowledgable on a topic. We defer to those who have more wisdom. It's also a good way to break the ice.

Also ask if you can spend a morning shadowing different people from different departments. You will learn much more about HOW to function in a workplace. (the book learning you can do at school)

Great advice.

Similarly, a great question to ask in the interview for an internship is: "How does your department interact with other departments?" I consider it a great thing if the answer is that there is tons of interaction with other departments. Then, it becomes even more natural to "shadow."

Just be careful because you might find that you prefer working in a different department :D

Back when dinosaurs roamed the earth in 1987, I was an intern at the Bureau of Indian Affairs (which is probably called something else these days). I was in the public information office, which handled mail from the general public. We got some bizarre stuff in the mail, including one letter that was pages and pages long, written in crayon, from a fellow claiming to be the chief of a long-lost tribe. Anyhow, I noticed that there were a number of questions asking for information about Native American mythology. The office didn't have anything on that, so I took it upon myself to research, write, and create a booklet which discussed various tribes' mythologies and stories. All this to say--take the time to notice what your office is missing or what is needed. Often folks working there don't notice this sort of thing because they are too busy dealing with the day-to-day stuff. Enjoy your time--I loved my internship.

A good story -- "take the time to notice what your office is missing or what is needed."

THAT is your value -- a fresh pair of eyes. Offices often miss what's right in front of them because they deal with their work day-in-and-day-out.

You aren't in college when you're on the job. Dress appropriately.

Very true. We were talking earlier about dressing appropriately for the office. My rule of thumb is to dress for the position I want on my first day at the office. Then, I look around at my coworkers to see what they are wearing and match myself to that.

I've known some interns who came into work EVERY SINGLE DAY in a suit and tie. First, it's hot in D.C. Give yourself a break. Second, it kind of makes you seem like the entitled intern...


Strange as it sounds, interns whose parents are members of organizations that carry influence have an advantage. Listen carefully to conversations to figure out how people are networked. Politics can be brutal.

Oh yeah. Washington may seem like a huge place -- but somehow everyone seems to know everyone. So, also think twice before gossiping!

(Sidenote: Today's #THATintern just happens to be the gossip intern.)

Advice for bosses: My best intern experience was when my boss actually asked for and then listened to my suggestions on a big project. It made me work even harder because I felt valued. (I've also had bosses who did not listen to my suggestions only to come up with the same idea a week or so later, which is really frustrating) Advice for Interns: Know and follow the company/organization culture at the office.

There's a pearl of wisdom: know the organization culture.

That's a really tough one for most interns to fully comprehend in a short time frame. And yet it is so critical that this be an open conversation. Ask your boss or peers or someone in the know: what makes this workplace different than others you know of?

Do you think it is important for you to get the best internship or one with people or organizations that you believe in? I am interning in Congress, and I really enjoy working here, I think I got lucky with a good Senator. However, I know some interns who don't really like it and might have had more fun working with an organization they cared about.

Sometimes you don't really have that many choices -- if you only get one internship offer, then that's the one you take. But you should only apply to internships at place where you would WANT to work.

So, if you are a raging liberal, perhaps not the best idea to apply for an internship in a Republican's office or a blog with a strictly conservative bent. And vice versa.

Sadly, sometimes all of this gets lost in the prestige of an internship: Why work at a non-profit fighting for an issue I truly believe in, when I could add a more impressive line to my resume?

If you are lucky enough to be one of the people who get multiple internship offers, it's probably going to be one of the hardest decisions you have to make.

People can tell you, "Go for what you love and are interested in," but I'm not sure that's always the best choice.

Sometimes it's good to do an internship in a field you don't anticipate wanting to work in but one that still somehow relates. You can gain insight into a new field, possibly find a new interest and it looks great on a resume if you have the output to back it up.

I can never imagine working in radio. I hate the sound of my own voice and prefer to hide behind a computer screen. But I did a stint at a radio station even though I wasn't interested in it. While I was there, I learned sound editing and how to write for broadcast news (which is seriously different than print or web). These are skills that I still use now.

I now realize years later, I could have learned much more by observing more. Still DO the assignments, but realize I could learn by watching how people run meetings, how they negotiate, how they toot their own horn. The practical skills can be learned any time: but the chance to learn people skills is invaluable.

YES! Sure, an internship is an opportunity to show a company what you can do -- but interns should still be students of the trade, not show-offs.

If you're still a student, I'd argue that there are some opportunities in school to learn some of these skills. Student organizations can have just as much politics, horn tooting, negotiation, etc. as a full-blown business. Working with/in the school administration can also help you get a handle on those practical skills outside the classroom.

So, I want to hear some horror stories from current interns and former interns on here. What was that one thing that happened to you at your internship that was almost too crazy to believe? I wonder who has the best story :P

Horror story from my NPR internship -- when a few interns may or may not have crashed all of Ah, maybe that's a myth.

When I was an intern, Erik Wemple (then of City Paper, now at the Post -- awkward!) wrote a column attacking my characterization of DC weather in a story about community policing. I was crushed. I thought I would be fired. But then-metro editor Bob McCartney totally stood up for me, even researching national rainfall counts. It meant a lot to me then, and it still does.

I want to hear other stories!

Don't try to "get a client" for the company. I know you'd like to think you're more than an intern, but you're not, you're job is small tasks and restocking the drink fridge. This coming from a fellow intern.

I'd give interns a little more credit but yes, the advice at its core is sound: don't do anything that could potentially embarass/bring down the entire company.

Don't let them sell you short though. Restock the fridge, make the copies and fetch the coffee. Then go back there and LEARN how to "get a client." That way, when they are all thoroughly caffeinated and the copy machine runs out of ink, you can still make yourself useful.

#ThatIntern suggestion: cat's got your tongue intern. The intern that's too shy to speak up and too scared to give feedback (even when it's requested). Needs to be micromanaged and have their hand held on a daily basis to get any work done. DON'T BE THAT INTERN.

Ahhh! The super, super shy intern. Thanks!

I just started my first internship, and I've noticed one major thing which I believe has been said: you get out of it what you put in. By offering my services to people doing work that is of interest to me, and by doing the best I can in a quick time frame on the more boring assignments, I've positioned myself as someone reliable and good to bring on to various projects. I've also been very friendly with everyone in the office, and some of the people I chatted with while at the vending machine have turned out to be influenctial members of the organizaiton, and they have since invited me to luncheons and events they are attending. Making a couple key contacts with people who always seem busy is also good: they know to come to me when they're overwhelmed.

I always ask my bosses "what would a person being hired to do this job be required to do and what skills would they need to have?"

And then I make sure I do those things and get those skills. And hope for an opening on the staff :)

In response to the question about what bosses can do to make an internship more interesting, I just want to say that it's always good to make sure you can give your interns something to do that will give them transferrable skills on their resume when they graduate. As a supervisor, it can be hard on busy days to give someone something to do that they need a little extra guidance on, but I think it's important to make sure the interns get something more out of an internship than just answering phones and 'drafting correspondence.' It keeps everyone motivated and gives them better prospects of finding a good job in the future.

Passsing this good advice on to our chatters.

Thanks for a fun chat.

My parting thoughts are that interns don't need to have it all figured out. In college, you're used to having a handle on things (esp by sophomore, junior year) in a very structured system. But in the "real world," you'd be surprised just how many people are making up "the rules" as they go. So don't fret too much. Do your best, you'll be great. Ask questions, take initiative, learn the most you can. 

Another great chat! Thank you, thank you, to everyone who sent in questions -- and a very special thanks to Ryan and Lauren for offering up so much great advice.

Next week we will chat with Deirdre Martinez, who runs the Penn in Washington program and wrote a book called "Washington Internships: How to get them and use them to launch your public policy career."

Ideas for future chat guests? Let me know on Twitter, @wpjenna. And have a great weekend!

In This Chat
Jenna Johnson
Jenna Johnson writes about college students and campus trends for the Post. She also runs the blog "Campus Overload," which chronicles national college news, drinking fads, admissions buzz and the latest exploits of Hill interns.
Laurén Abdel-Razzaq
Laurén Abdel-Razzaq is a summer intern on the Post's local web team. Among her many responsibilities, she is in charge of managing the Intern City page and helping out with Campus Overload. Laurén is a graduate of Wayne State University in Detroit and has done six other internships -- Automotive News, Detroit’s public radio station, the Indianapolis Star, FOX 2 Detroit, a hyperlocal news site in suburban Detroit and The Oakland Press newspaper.
Recent Chats
  • Next: