washingtonpost.com
Smart Interns Look Beyond Summer
A Well-Timed Bright Idea Can Lead To a Job Offer Later

By Anjali Athavaley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 26, 2005

Darrell Ayers had some bright ideas when he worked as an intern at the Kennedy Center 18 years ago.

He worked in public relations for some of the Kennedy Center's workshops. While doing that, he realized the performing arts center still used old-fashioned pen and paper to register people for music and theater workshops. So he wrote a simple computer program that could keep track of names easily.

It was smart. It was innovative. And it got him hired a month after his internship.

"They called me after I had left and said, 'You know, you were such a good intern here, we'd like you to apply for the position,' " said Ayers, 47, who is now vice president for education at the Kennedy Center.

Ayers's experience is what other interns dream about. The internship is increasingly becoming a tryout for entry-level positions rather than just a summer job.

If you want to get asked to stay on, you have to be willing to do any task, whether it's making copies of a 10K or filling the boss's coffee mug, career advisers say. Then, you have to do more than what your employer asks of you to stand out as a prospective hire.

"They want someone reliable," said Eugene Alpert, senior vice president at the Washington Center for Internships and Academic Seminars. "They want someone who makes the boss look good."

Alpert has seen his fair share of intern blunders. Rule number one, he said, is that interns shouldn't try to steal the limelight.

A few years ago, he recalled, there was a group of interns in the White House press office who would constantly vie for attention from star visitors. One intern, however, would remain at his desk and work.

"He was the only one who wouldn't glad-hand every famous person who walked through the door," Alpert said.

That intern was the only one chosen to see then-President Bill Clinton give his Saturday morning radio address in the Oval Office.

It's not just what you do, it's how you do it. Career counselors said intern etiquette can either make a career or ruin it. For instance, it's important to avoid office politics.

"The intern is always the person people vent to because people think they are not going to be around for a long time," Alpert said. But no matter what, the intern should remain neutral.

And then there's how you look. Career counselors say dressing down is one of the most common mistakes. It may take a week or so to get a feel for office dress code, but it's always better to dress up than look too casual.

"One of the things I say about Washington is you can never be overdressed," Alpert said. "If you see someone on the subway in jeans and shorts, they must be a tourist."

Most of the time, interns should try to look and act like regular employees -- but not at office parties.

The martini-in-hand may be fashionable among executives in their thirties, but for an intern, it can look flat-out unprofessional. That's especially the case for those who have one too many, said Felicia Parks, an undergraduate business career adviser at the American University Career Center.

Talking to the press without permission and getting involved in office romances are also big no-nos, Parks said.

The push to get hired doesn't end after the internship is over. Parks advises staying in touch with employers through cordial e-mails every few months. That way, when an opening comes up, the employer will look at a former intern as a job candidate rather than "Joe What's-His-Name," who sat at the corner desk for three months.

It always helps to talk with the boss about future options, perhaps over lunch near the end of the summer or simply during the normal course of things.

Natasha Lander, a former intern at Potomac Management Resources in Alexandria, said that she and her boss. who shared an office, would casually discuss the prospect of her return.

Lander, who interned with Potomac the summer after her junior year, returned after college graduation. "I told her I loved what I was doing and that I'd come back," she said.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company