Five years ago I arrived at Reagan National Airport with two overstuffed suitcases and a load of barely contained excitement about interning in a major city. As my cab drove past the monuments and toward Adams Morgan, the driver gave me some generic advice: Be careful after dark. Work hard. Don’t trust guys in bars.
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.
Every summer since then, I have watched as a new crop of interns arrive in the city — ready to answer phones on the Hill, fill the insides of newspaper sections, slog through government bureaucracy and learn their own lessons about the real world. For the last two summers, I have written about what it’s like to be one of these interns.
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.
4) Keep up with current events. This is a town where happy hour conversations frequently include statements like: “Did you see that story on the front page of The Post today?” or “I heard this fascinating piece on Fresh Air yesterday...” or “My birthday was totally mentioned in Mike Allen’s Playbook!” It will do you well to keep up on what’s going on in the city, nation and world — like the latest campaign buzz, conflicts overseas, major bills in Congress and the basic premise of “Veep.” So before you walk into work each morning, make sure to at least skim the headlines on the Web sites of major news outlets and any trade publications connected with your line of work (for example, I start my morning reading e-mail newsletters from the Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed). Twitter has made it easier than ever to keep up, as most news outlets and major organizations are now prolific on Twitter.
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.
8) Don’t limit your sight-seeing to Madhatters, Sign of the Whale, Capitol Lounge and/or Union Pub. There are so many things to see and do in the Washington area that it can be overwhelming, but make sure that you do at least some of the touristy stuff. I mean, families in matching T-shirts and middle school classes pay a lot of money to travel to D.C. to see these attractions, so why shouldn’t you? Try to hit up at least three Smithsonian museums (my favorite is the National Portrait Gallery), a free cultural event (like Jazz in the Garden), something patriotic (like the rehearsal for the Fourth of July concert on the Mall), one sporting event (Nats tickets are often less than $20), one nature-related attraction (like Dumbarton Oaks), and all four quadrants of the city (that would be NW, NE, SW and SE) and one suburb (Arlington counts).
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.
10) Act professional. Even though you are an intern, you should look and act like a full-time staff member (well, or how full-timers should look and act). Show up on time and work the full day. Always answer your phone, and make sure your e-mails don’t contain typos. And dress professionally: No flip-flops, no jeans, no too-much-skin, no wrinkles, no clubbing clothes.
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: