"It's been wild," Courtney Robinson said this week about her summer job.

Not what one would expect to hear about an internship at the Environmental Protection Agency, but the excitement in her voice told no lies. She has worked on "real" projects in the media relations department, a good gig for a 19-year-old mass communications major from Bloomsburg University in Pennsylvania, in the nation's capital for her first internship.

The wild part? "I feel like I don't have enough time, there are so many things I've been doing," she said. Robinson has updated publications, marketed a video to cable television stations and put together a mailing of a video produced by the EPA that went to every member of Congress.

Sure, she thinks she still wants to go into radio or television, but she has learned about the environment and public relations this summer, which she never experienced in her classes. In addition, she has learned that maybe she's not a desk person. "Some days I'm just like, 'Oh, my goodness. I have to sit in the office all day!' "

Okay, so now she knows. And that's what internship life should be about.

Welcome to the dog days of summer, when the interns that swarmed to the city are well into their jobs, and starting to think about how the working world will fit into their lives after they graduate. The projects? Good. The commute? Bad. Wearing suits? Bad. Casual summer? Not so shabby.

Many of the interns, after hearing nightmare tales of summers of envelope licking and photocopying, learned that unpaid, barely paid or surprisingly well-paid gigs can be a great learning experience, and often are what they make of it.

Claire Finucane had a nightmare internship several years ago. It was her first, working for a commercial real estate development firm in the San Francisco Bay area. Her boss had her make 40 copies of an investment book for prospective clients every week. The books were 60 to 80 pages each. Instead of programming the copy machine to print in groups and collate while she went off to do other work, her boss said she had to copy each book page by page, then collate the pages herself. He told her the machine didn't work.

During her last week, she discovered the collator worked after all. Her supervisor admitted he just thought the books looked neater when she compiled and straightened them herself. She essentially wasted an entire summer.

Now, Finucane interns (yes, paid) at the Census Bureau as she finishes up her last semester of graduate school.

What she has learned:

"At my first internship . . . I learned how much commutes can suck," she wrote in an e-mail this week. She was going to school in the Bay area and had a 11/2-hour commute each way. "I was tired and cranky that entire summer." She made a promise to herself that she would never compromise her quality of life for a job. So far, so good. She lives on the Hill, a 25-minute commute by car to the office in Suitland.

She has been very lucky this summer in that she has had substantive projects and has an intern coordinator who offers weekly seminars to teach the interns about other aspects of the bureau.

"I also love the people I work with, and, well, am just really happy with my job," she said.

Chris Thorman, who will be a senior at St. Louis University, has had a true Washington intern experience. He works for the Libertarian National Headquarters in the Watergate. He came to Washington through the American University Washington Semester program, an intensive class and internship program.

What started out as an unpaid internship transformed into a paid one, when the campus coordinator left. So Thorman is now updating campus contacts, revising a campus libertarian handbook that was seven years old and ordering a new Web site. "You can make yourself an essential part of an organization," he said.

"I liked working here a lot. It's laid back . . . they don't breathe down your neck, which is really good," Thorman said. "At the same time, I have friends who are wearing a shirt and tie to work every day." He said he learned that a laid-back workplace, where he can wear casual clothes and is allowed to work on his projects without constant feedback, motivates him to work harder. He said he hopes to return to the organization in January, when he graduates.

Managers say they also have learned many things through having internship programs. Interns at Morris Associates Inc., an outplacement and coaching firm in Washington, have started a company newsletter and refashioned the company's Web site. Tom Morris, the founder, said he knows people don't want to be "just" interns, "they want to be considered part of the professional staff." So his interns are asked to write a resume based on what they hope it will say at summer's end. They then sit down to discuss how they can make those goals possible.

Rebecca Fosse, an intern at the Morris firm, said her time there has helped her realize that she wants to work with people in either communications or public relations. "It gives you an opportunity to see what the real world is like. I've whittled down what I want to do with my life. I understand a lot more about what I'm like, and what kind of things I like to do."

Some interns have a few years of experience already. Joyla Gates had 10 years in the "real world" before she decided to return to school, and is now interning at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration of the Department of Health and Human Services. She expects to graduate from Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kan., with a degree in American Indian Studies, then go on to get her master's degree in social work. She hopes to take her knowledge and skills back with her to work with her tribe, the Salt River Pima Maricopa tribe in Arizona.

Gates said her internship "has confirmed what I want to do. I didn't know what would be my special interest" in the master's program. "Now I know it's going to be the youth," she said.

You can e-mail Amy Joyce with your comments at lifeatwork@washpost.com.