An Intern’s (Mini) Survival Guide to the Working World

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The following piece is a continuation of former RushOrder intern Catherine Chen’s post on her experience working at a tech startup. Here, I have incorporated my personal insights on my summer here at RushOrder.

Let’s face it: college doesn’t prepare you for the working world. The ideal of graduating with full honors, exhilarated to take on the working world with a fresh face and infinite potential is just that, an ideal. Hard-hitting stuff, am I right? Or maybe this is old news to you. Either way, it’s an undeniable truth that in an increasingly competitive job market, experience has become just as important as education in establishing yourself as a qualified professional. Internships have become that gateway opportunity for this gradual transition. Yet, many interns, including myself, are still in or fresh out of college, and only possess the less than desirable “skills” of procrastination and late-night snacking. I figured a summer internship is the best opportunity to put my life on trial run, so here are some lifestyle changes that ended up changing me for the better, and hopefully can do the same for you.

1. Start with self-discipline.

Unlike scheduled classes and review sessions in school, the typical schedule at a startup often includes unplanned hours, even days, when you have to set your own goals and expectations. Self-accountability? The horror! For procrastinators, including, but not limited to all college students, this is a nightmare. In school, the constant enforcement of deadlines and submissions deceived me into believing I wasn’t too horrendously unproductive. But during the first weeks of my internship, I couldn’t escape the sinking realization that crossed my mind when I couldn’t recall accomplishing anything meaningful after a ten hour work day.  And so, I made it a habit to proactively schedule meetings and set deadlines even if my boss didn’t provide or require one. Personally, this was a necessary and reliable way to jumpstart my drive. But even then, start up managers will not check on you; in fact, you will probably have to check in on them, reminding them about today’s meeting or a coming deadline. It’s a good hard lesson in self-discipline, and learning it earlier rather than later will make all the difference.

2. Be bold, it’s your job.

Early on, I’m sure most interns are overly aware of their nervousness and inexperience, hindering their abilities to think creatively or speak candidly. It is natural, it is expected, but hardly desirable. Interns aren’t there just to push papers and get coffee; rather, they are brought in to provide a fresh perspective and stimulate creative growth within the team. In contributing to RushOrder’s app development process, my manager left me to my own devices right from the start, allowing me to creatively operate and experiment boundlessly. As a result, I’ve been able to provide original ideas based on my own user experience, as well as incorporate suggestions from the design and functionality of other apps. In this way, inexperience can be an advantage unique to interns whose thoughts and ideas are not limited by previous failures or past obstacles. Creativity is a huge asset (and it’s really one of the few that you have) so use every opportunity to take advantage of it.

3. Focus on practicality.

School very much emphasizes learning for the sake of learning. More often than not, skills such as sentence diagramming or rat dissection have no practical application. However, my best writing teachers emphasized the same principle that resonates well within the working world: in writing, the question always asked, but rarely answered is, “So what?” At work, it is not about generality or theory, but detail and application. That mindset is powerfully necessary to ensure that you never lose sight of the practical implications of your work. Every project I’ve taken on has come down to the end goal of expanding and improving the business. You need to know what tangible benefit can be derived from your work before you start doing it. Otherwise, what’s the point?

4. Do more than just enough…then just a little bit more.

If this was a blog post on school advice, this part would be called “always do extra credit”, but unlucky for you, no such thing exists in the working world. When I wasn’t freaking out about botching my first real-ish job, I spent some time before the internship testing and comparing our app to other competitors. A few weeks later, my manager asked me to produce some app improvement ideas and I presented my already prepared suggestions. No, I didn’t get the proverbial gold star, but it solidified my credibility as a tenaciously skillful worker with proven potential. Building that relationship with your manager opens the door to more responsibility, greater trust, and invaluable professional development. If anything, you’ll be spending a lot of time together, so might as well get them to like you, right?

On my long train ride home from work, I always think about my day’s experience, whether it was good, bad, or worst of all, nothing. Those moments of introspection bring me closer to understanding this challenging but empowering lesson:  regardless of how much or how little others ask of you, you bear the burden of your successes and failures, the feeling of utmost satisfaction or disappointment of another day’s work done and gone. School gets you a diploma, work gets you a salary, but an internship? You get what you make of it, no more, no less.

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