My advice for D.C. summer interns

May 30, 2012

The cabbie dropped me and my luggage off, and I handed him enough cash for the fare and a slew of fees, plus at least a 100 percent tip. He drove off without teaching me a very important lesson: No one tips that much.


An intern hard at work last summer. (The Washington Post)

So what do D.C. interns need to know? Here’s my advice:

1) Remember that you are here to learn. An internship is supposed to be a learning experience, but you have to approach this differently than you would a college lecture. Instead of being the know-it-all who has the answer to every single question, get ready to spend a lot of time listening. There will be no grades to dispute, and you should welcome constructive criticism about your work. And chances are that the people who will teach you the most are not the bosses you occasionally see at meetings, but your fellow interns and the young staffers sitting near you. So repeat after me: You do not know everything. You have a lot to learn. And you will learn it here — even if that lesson is that you are too smart for this line of work.

2) Don’t be annoying.

3) Do the work you are assigned. Then show initiative. The tasks typically assigned to interns are far from glamorous — data input, answering phones, doing research or maintaining a web site — but it’s work that has to be done by someone. And, right now, you are on the bottom of the pile. It’s not hazing; it’s life. But after a few days or weeks of doing that work — and doing it well — volunteer to do more. If you have a reasonable idea (FYI, interns don’t usually author legislation), pitch it. If you hear co-workers complain about being slammed with assignments, offer to help. If your supervisor tells you about a new project, ask if you can work on it. If you see a problem that needs to be fixed or a void that needs to be filled, ask if you can do it.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus stars in HBO’s new show about the vice presidency, “Veep.” (Photo by Bill Gray for HBO) (Bill Gray for HBO)

5) Don’t gossip or rant. This town is smaller than it looks, and it doesn’t take long for word to get around. Although you probably feel like you don’t know anything, you likely know more than you think. Don’t try to impress anyone at happy hour by sharing office “secrets” like what the investigative reporters are working on, or the marital strife of the member of Congress you work for, or who from your hometown called the government agency seeking help. And while it’s okay to call your best friend back home and complain about work, it’s not okay to share those complaints with your 3,000 Facebook friends. And be careful on Twitter, Tumblr and Pinterest, too. (Don’t worry about Google+ as everyone stopped checking that months ago.)

6) Admit when you make a mistake. You are not the first intern to make a mistake. Don’t try to hide it. Don’t blame it on someone else. Take full responsibility, deal with the consequences, learn from it, and don’t do it again.

7) Try not to go into debt. Seriously. Washington is an expensive place to live, and chances are you are using leftover student loan money, savings, cash from Mom and Dad, or a credit card to make ends meet. It’s okay to charge $10 worth of groceries so that you can eat PB&J for every meal for the next week. It’s not okay to charge a round of shots.


Tourists cross an intersection on a Segway Inc. tour. (T.J. Kirkpatrick/Bloomberg) (T.J. Kirkpatrick/BLOOMBERG)

9) If your employer is abusive, report it. There are federal regulations governing unpaid internships at for-profit companies, and if your employer is not following those guidelines (here they are), you need to notify someone at your college. Your college’s career services department can likely help you sort through what happened and decide what to do next. And no intern anywhere should be asked to do something that’s illegal or unethical, or should be subjected to discrimination or sexual harassment. Interns are often afraid to report such abuses, but if they don’t speak up the abuse will continue.


Outfits like this are okay at the annual High Heel Race sprint in Dupont Circle. Not so much for the office. (Kevin Clark for The Washington Post) (Kevin Clark/TWP)

11) Be prepared: D.C. summers are miserable. Perhaps you have heard about our charming humidity and record-high temps, but whatever you have heard cannot prepare you. There’s a reason that this city clears out during the month of August. Make sure that you have a comfortable pair of shoes, bandages for blisters and a back-up plan for when you arrive to work gross and sweaty.

12) Have a good attitude. It’s not easy being an intern. I get that. But this summer will be much more enjoyable and productive if you bring a sense of optimism to work each day.

What other advice do you have for this summer’s crop of interns? Share your tips in the comments section below.

And for more internship-related news, check out the Post’s Intern City page. You can also follow me on Facebook and Twitter. And here are some other articles you might find interesting:

How can employers help their unpaid interns?

Building a professional wardrobe on an intern budget

Things interns should never say, like “I love day baseball games”

Is your unpaid internship legal?

Jenna Johnson is a political reporter who is covering the 2016 presidential campaign.
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