10 Tips to Make the Most of Your Internship or First Job

Going into your internship or first job with a list of to-dos, goals, and the right perspective will help you make the most of the experience. Consider these tips:

  1. Recognize where you fit and make it work for you. Even if you’re the valedictorian of your class and think you have potential to be a superstar chemical engineer or biological engineer, it’s important to know you’re basically going to be the least experienced and at the very bottom of the hierarchy — and that’s OK. In fact, there are some great advantages. You’ll need time to understand how the organization is structured, learn who’s in charge of what, and get a grip on the workplace culture, just for starters. So soak it up and learn how the place works.
  2. Set goals. Take time to make a list of things you’d like to accomplish in this new position. Is there a certain technical area you want to understand better? Do you what to know more about the business side of the operation? Knowing what you want is the first step to accomplishing it. Plus, you may even be asked what areas interest you, and that may help shape your responsibilities.
  3. Identify others in similar roles. Your close colleagues will have a lot to share. Maybe a fellow intern will have information about another opportunity, or perhaps she’ll share insights of how things work. Whether you’re an intern or just starting a job, those at your level are probably the people you’ll interact with most. So develop a rapport early on to make work easier and more enjoyable.
  4. Take the initiative. Sometimes first jobs and internships come with clear responsibilities, but you might also find that you don’t have enough to do. Banish those moments of boredom by identifying tasks that you might help with and ask to take them on. This will allow you to keep busy, give you the reputation of a self-starter, and allow you to shape your own experience.
  5. Learn to plan your time. Whatever responsibilities you’re given, learn to estimate how long tasks will take, and let it be known in advance if you think time will be an issue well. Time management is a habit that will serve you well over your career.
  6. Ask for feedback and accept criticism. Asking for feedback isn’t just about hearing praise. When negative feedback comes your way, don’t deflect it, learn from it. Rejecting valid criticism just sets you up to hear the same thing in the future.
  7. Understand that social interactions are about work too. Even if you’re after purely technical knowledge, you’ll quickly realize that people are the connections to anything you want to learn or do. You’ll gain a lot of insights simply by chatting with people. Be ready to introduce yourself and ask simple questions to break the ice (Where did you go to school, What did you study, or How long have you worked here?). And be ready to say “yes” when people ask if you want to take part in social interactions, like lunch or coffee with colleagues.
  8. Express your curiosity. Most people are happy to talk about themselves and their expertise. So if you’re curious, don’t keep it to yourself — ask questions when the situation seems appropriate. You’ll learn faster that way, and you’ll be sending the message that you want to learn and advance.
  9. Keep track of what you do and learn. Writing down simple notes about assignments, responsibilities, and accomplishments is a useful habit that will serve you throughout your career. These are exactly the kind of details that will build an impressive résumé, contribute to an internship report, or even serve well during a future annual review.
  10. Cultivate the connections you’ve made. Whether internship or first job, make an effort to keep in touch when you move on. The people you liked and worked well with are contacts who can enrich your life and serve for years to come in unexpected ways. You might eventually ask some of them for career advice or mentoring, or gain information on future job opportunities. Keep in touch by doing the obvious, like connecting on LinkedIn, but also consider sending a hello and a link when you see an article that reminds you of someone’s interests, or simply suggest catching up over coffee or on Zoom once in a while.

Have insights that helped you in your first job or at an internship? Share your thoughts and advice in the comments below.