9 tips for the most rewarding internship ever

While pursuing my journalism degree, I managed to accrue six internship experiences. Only one of those internships paid. (It was a PR and features writing position at my university’s business school.) That internship also happened to be the most rewarding internship. I gained valuable experience, worked with the best boss I’ve ever had and hated to leave. I’ve learned a few things about how you can get the most out of an internship and when to call it quits. Here are nine tips for a rewarding internship experience.

1. Go first for internships that give you college credit or an actual paycheck. This one’s obvious, but especially if you’ve had an unpaid internship or two, you should be looking for paid or credit-building experience.

2. Decide between big and small. Big companies may have more structured internship programs with planned seminars, workshops and planned networking activities. Those could be great experiences. Small companies may offer more hands-on experience doing work that might (in another company) be the work of an entry level employee. That could also be a really valuable experience. The downside to larger companies is that you might end up doing more coffee-grabbing and unpacking boxes from Staples than portfolio-building work.

3. Know your financial and personal limits. If your only options really are unpaid internships, examine them carefully before saying yes. What companies are you considering? Which companies are interested in you? Do you know anyone who has interned at those places before? Gather as much information as you can about a place before you agree to work there. Previous interns can tell you which positions and places to avoid and, among those they vouch for, they can tell you whose butt to kiss if you want to really learn on the job. Also, don’t let the people who are hiring or have hired you pressure you into working more days or hours than you can reasonably commit to. I really don’t want to see you collapse and die from exhaustion.

4. Ask for more work. If you’ve got time to catch up on the latest season of Parenthood (true story: I knew an intern who gave me plot spoilers while she was sitting in the office), they you clearly need more to do! Perhaps your manager doesn’t realize you’re unoccupied because she’s busy with her own heavy workload. If she does know and can’t think of anything for you to do, you have a few options: ask her if you can approach her coworkers for something to do, or alternatively, find a physical system or a procedure that you can streamline in some way. Sometimes manager don’t recognize the flaws in existing systems. Figure out what the problems are and come up with possible solutions.

5. Keep a journal. You can do this off-hours, during your commute or at work if there’s nothing for you to do (short-term). Record what projects you’ve worked on, what systems and procedures you’ve witnessed in the office, and take notes on interoffice politics. Brainstorm on paper for a client that the company is trying to sign. Work it out not just in your head but in written form. This will come in handy for any reports you need to submit to an internship supervisor if interning for credit and this will serve you for years to come, whether you work at a company or decide to start your own. Soak up everything you can right now.

6. Read the publications lying around the office. This is especially helpful if there are trade magazines. For those of you who don’t know, trade magazines are publications written for people in a specific industry. You’ll see what other companies are up to, who the key players are and what trends are around the corner. Take notes of the things you learn in the aforementioned journal.

7. Make time to meet the boss or your supervisor outside the office. The best bosses will make time to meet with you if you ask. This is the time when you can ask her questions that she doesn’t really have time to answer while in the office, questions such as: What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made? How did you rebound? Who else should I know in the industry? Let her know what your plans are post-internship and post-graduation. This is the time to build a relationship with her that might lead to a paying job later.

8. Be sure not to ostracize the other interns. Don’t view one another as simply competition. With a limited job market, it’s tempting to do so, but please don’t. You should support each other.

9. Finally, know when to quit. Do you dread waking up every morning you have to head into the office? Are you watching one favorite intern get all the cool experience and the most guidance? Have you seriously watched more hours of TV in the office than you have at home in the past two weeks? Were you hired by someone who left shortly before or after you got there and everyone else treats you like you’re a pest? Have any of the other employees at the company told you shocking behind-the-scenes information that makes you question the value of working at this place?

If you have answered yes to any of these questions, get out! Especially when you’re interning for free, the experience should be at least as beneficial to you as you are to the company’s bottom line. You should be deriving value from this experience and building connections that will lead to mutual benefit in the long-run. If none of this is the case, then politely resign. Express gratitude for the experience and the employees/boss’ time and let them know that you’ll stay in touch. This may sound counterintuitive if you're looking for the most rewarding internship ever. But if leaving a bad internship is the first time you ever stand up for yourself professionally, then it may the most important step you could take.