There are so many amazing perks to completing an international internship.
From testing out your career field before you graduate, to developing foreign language skills relevant to your degree, or even networking with international professionals, the opportunities to make your internship memorable are endless. According to a recent report by Forbes, up to 93% of employers look for internship experience when hiring recent graduates. Completing this important phase of your education abroad gives you an advantage over the other grads you’ll be competing with soon.
Being an intern can be an awkward limbo of trying to figure out where you fit into the company. Too often we cringe at disaster stories where interns spend weeks getting their supervisors coffee or making photocopies all day. At the same time, it can be just as frustrating to be placed in front of the board and grilled with a zillion expert level questions. These challenges can seem exaggerated in an international context, where you are not only learning how to do a new job, but you’re learning a new job within the constructs of a new culture.
Not to worry – most international internships don’t turn into horror stories. The potential for professional development and
personal growth is just as prevalent as the opportunity for adventure. There are a few simple tips you can use to impress your supervisor, own your internship, and add both an impressive line item and an unforgettable story to your résumé.
Know What You Know, and What You Don’t
One of the biggest items to remember when interning abroad is: you’re an intern! People don’t hire experts to be interns; they hire new, entry-level people. Your supervisor and co-workers will all know that you are a little green, so don’t be nervous. If you know an answer, give it. If you don’t have a clue, admit that too. Supervisors would rather teach you the way to do it right than be impressed by how much you think you know. Every job has a learning curve, and everybody has a first day of work.
Before you go, you might consider some of the classes you’ve taken that will be relevant to your internship. Think about which ones you really excelled at and which ones were more of a struggle. If statistics isn’t your strong suit, don’t pretend like it is. If you’re planning to re-take organic chemistry in the fall, recognize you may not be an expert at it. It’s very admirable to admit you don’t know everything, and it makes an employer’s life infinitely easier when you can tell them where you may need help.
At the same time, you were hired for a reason. As a student you have some basic skills that employers need. Even if statistics isn’t your gift, maybe marketing is. If you’re retaking O-chem, but breezed through physics, show what you know. The trick is to be yourself and not worry about impressing anyone with anything you can’t reliably deliver.
Ask Lots of Questions
Along the same lines, don’t be afraid to ask questions. There are lots of confusing aspects of starting a new job, especially in a foreign country. Whether it’s the industry jargon or the company procedures, there is a lot you won’t know how to do. When you come across tasks you aren’t familiar with, ask for further instruction so you can do it right. Asking how to do something demonstrates to an employer that you are engaged and interested in learning more.
There also may be times when you need to ask questions about your workload. Each company—not to mention each country—is going to view the role of an intern a bit differently. Sometimes you may have too much to do and will need help navigating it. For example, it’s okay to ask “What order should I work on these projects in?” On the flip side, there may be times you are bored and don’t have enough to do. In this case, it’s okay to ask “What can I work on next?” As long as you do so politely, you should never be afraid to ask for clarification.
One of the important keys to asking questions is to remember the answer. No one will mind showing you how to do something new, but if you have to be re-trained every time you are assigned a particular task, your supervisor may start losing faith in you. So when you ask a question, take note of the answer. It may be helpful to carry a notepad for the first few weeks and jot down what you learn.
Don’t Be Afraid to Speak Up
In the same vein as asking about what you don’t know, volunteering a new idea is a great way to make a good impression. An intern’s fresh set of eyes may catch something that internal employees miss. When a company has been a well-oiled machine for years, a new perspective can help shake things up and bring a new competitive edge to your employer.
Sharing your input is important to both developing a relationship with your employer and developing your own professional skill set. Like asking questions, offering your opinion can show an employer that you are learning and interested in being involved at the company. At the same time, when you make a suggestion, there may be more going on internally than what you can see. This allows your supervisor to teach you more. In other words, even if your ideas aren’t 100% correct, sharing them allows those around you to hear your perspective so they can help you better understand the company and industry.
Whenever you offer advice during your internship, it’s important to be as polite and humble as possible. In the hierarchy of a company, the intern is at the bottom. You are an outsider looking in, so don’t act beyond your limited realm of authority. Your input should always be shared as an observation and never as a criticism or attack on the company’s culture or leadership. Again, there may be history, rules, or conflicts that you aren’t aware of so always speak with humility.
Stay Focused While You’re At Work
In our fast paced era of life, it can be easy to be distracted and pulled away from work. During your internship abroad, it is really important to stay present and in the moment so you can soak up as much as possible. You put in a lot of work getting ready for your experience overseas, so don’t miss out by being pre-occupied when you are at work.
A few hard rules to follow when at your internship site are to stay off of social media and avoid texting during your shift. These actions communicate to your supervisor and co-workers that you have other, more interesting things to do. As a result, you may be written off and not trusted to be involved in the company. Your internship is such a finite period of time for you to soak up and learn as much as possible from a company eager to share knowledge and skillsets with you. Respect everyone’s time, including your own, by taking your job seriously and making an effort to learn as much as possible while you’re there.
“Checking-out” online is unprofessional in any country and a bad habit to get into when you enter the workforce. Employers notice employees that are constantly disengaged when on-the-clock, so don’t train yourself into this pattern during your internship.
Decode the Company Culture
Traveling abroad is an exciting way to explore foreign cultures and understand different ways of living. Some differences that are relevant to your internship include views on punctuality, deadlines, hierarchy, time-management, dress codes, ethics, and management styles (among many, many others). Companies also have their own unique culture which is shaped by your supervisor and co-workers.
As an international intern, you’ll need to find a balance of being professional by your standards and fitting into the company. A great trick is to “match and mirror” what your co-workers do. In your first few days on the job, notice what routines people follow when they come to work. When do they arrive? What do they do first? How do they interact with each other? What body language do they use? How do they dress?
Once you start figuring out some of these patterns, you should do your best to copy them and fit in. Making an effort to be a part of the company’s culture sends a powerful message to your employer. It demonstrates that you are engaged and trying to be part of the team. Even as a temporary intern, this conveys that you are professional and serious about breaking into the industry. It will also make everyone you work with more comfortable around you.
Be Part of the Team
As a stranger in a strange land, your co-workers will be the people you spend the most time with during your internship. Connecting with them—and with your supervisor—will make your time abroad infinitely more enjoyable. After all, these people live in your host city. They know where the locals eat, what they do, how to travel, etc.
Of course relationships in the workplace don’t happen overnight, but they are simple to cultivate. Make sure to be friendly and open to everyone when you start at your internship. Offer to help with projects or to assist with chores around the office. Definitely go out to lunch with—or at least bring your lunch and eat with— your co-workers on a daily basis. If given the opportunity to go to an office party or company event, do it! And as you get to know your colleagues better, you may want to hang out with them outside of work. If they have the time, this is also an awesome way to connect and get to know each other.
Networking may be an overused buzzword in our day and age, but the benefits of doing so are enormous during your internship. Essentially, all of these activities listed above are networking. They allow you to get to make meaningful friendships and experience the culture through the eyes of someone who lives it. Not to mention, personal relationships make for more authentic references and mentors in the future as you progress in your career.
See Every Assignment as Part of Your Professional Growth
It may be trite, but as you get out in the working world, you’ll discover that even dream jobs have some boring or tedious tasks. Even managers have to clean the toilets some time, and highly educated people have to do menial jobs on a regular basis. During your internship, odds are there will be days—maybe even weeks—that are downright boring. That’s just the reality of any job in any industry.
Everything you do—in your internship, in your career, and in life—is an opportunity for professional growth. Data entry can be boring, but it helps you see how information is used and organized in your industry. Handing out flyers may be mind-numbing, but it lets you get up close with people to observe their day to day lives. Market research may seem meaningless, but it lets you look at the industry on a larger level than a single company. Having experience doing the “grunt work” in the industry is what makes an internship valuable on your resume.
Regardless of if you are an intern or an owner, no job is beneath you. If you can keep this in mind and portray this attitude to your supervisor, you will make an amazing impression—and not just during your internship. Attitude is a huge part of being hired and promoted in your career. Remaining optimistic and willing to work will make you not only likeable, but invaluable to an employer.
All in All…
An international internship is an adventure both professionally and personally. Your time abroad will be what you make of it. If you approach it humbly as a learning tool, take advantage of every opportunity given to you, participate and engage with your company, and keep a good attitude, you’ll be an awesome intern and in turn have an awesome experience.
Zachary Herzog is the Outreach Associate at ISA Internships. A graduate of the University of Northern Colorado, with his B.S. in Business Management, Zachary has traveled to 17 countries, which includes a semester in Prague and an internship with a consulting firm in Shanghai. Prior to joining ISA, Zach worked in travel as both a Study Abroad Peer Adviser as well as a Sales Specialist for One World Dive & Travel.