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If you’re in an LIS grad program, you’ll probably end up doing an internship or practicum before you graduate. Internships can be a great opportunity to apply theory to practice, letting you test out those LIS skills you’ve been diligently working on throughout your studies.

Sometimes, however, students land in a less than stellar internship situation through no fault of their own, with the result being a waste of time, effort, and serious tuition dollars.

Happily, there are ways to turn things around so that you can still salvage some major career-building benefits. Assume in this case you’re going to create a “self-directed” internship that will progress alongside your official one. Essentially, your focus will be on four outcomes:

  • Expanding your knowledge. Assume that if your field mentor isn’t structuring learning opportunities for you, it will be up to you to do so for yourself. Again, however, you’re in a target-rich environment to learn more about how things work, who does what, how they do their work, and how what you’ve learned in grad school translates to real life.
  • Building your positive visibility. Naturally, it’s important to build the best relationship you possibly can with your field mentor, but if you’re in an organization, you’re in a target-rich environment for creating a terrific professional reputation with literally everyone you come into contact with during your internship.
  • Building your network. Again with the target-rich environment, any organization provides opportunities for you to establish new professional relationships with practically everyone you meet. If you gained few other benefits from your internship, meeting ten new professionals who can now be resources (whether mentors, informational interview candidates, or simply contacts) for you as you grow your career.
  • Building your self-management skills. This isn’t just about being good at lining out and completing a solid work plan. It’s also about working positively with a boss who may be uninterested, unresponsive, or well-intentioned but overwhelmed. Being able to function well with minimal feedback or engagement can be difficult, but it’s an important work skill to master.

The following five actions may not make the experience itself more delightful, but they’ll definitely make it worth your time.

First, do an amazing job with your internship responsibilities. Even if your internship duties entail primarily (or entirely) clerical work, do it with a smile and do a terrific job. Figure out ways to do the work as efficiently and quickly as possible both as a personal challenge and as a learning experience about how to keep yourself engaged and challenged when facing boring work. How would you change the process if you were in charge? (Whether or not to offer your insights as a suggestion will depend on how open to new ideas your field mentor is….)

Second, introduce yourself. If your field mentor or internship advisor isn’t good about introducing you to people in your internship setting, take the initiative yourself.

Be positive, enthusiastic, and interested in the other person and his or her job activities. Learn all you can from each individual you come into contact with, while also being mindful not to take up too much of their time in any given conversation. You want to be perceived as friendly, engaged, but also cognizant of staying focused on getting your work done. If you sense a connection, follow up with an invitation to coffee or lunch.

Third, if possible, wander and explore. After you’ve completed your assigned work, look for other opportunities where you might be able to contribute within the organization. Sometimes in a poorly managed internship the person to whom you’re reporting will want to “hoard” you and your time, which can make it difficult to poke your head up to see what else is going on in the organization.

If that’s the case for you, do a bit of socializing with other staffers after you’ve completed your internship hours for the day or week – say hello to those you’ve introduced yourself to previously, ask a key individual if you can watch him or her at work to learn more about their job, attend presentations made by staff if outside your normal internship work hours.

Your goal is to learn more about that specific organization, how similar types of organizations might work and be structured, and whether there might be any cool initiatives underway that you could contribute to (even if after your internship concludes).

Fourth, leave the headphones in your backpack. Your goal as an intern or practicum student is to connect with as many staff members as possible, so you never want to give off a vibe of unapproachability. Although you may be used to seeing headphones on your friends and fellow students and don’t take them as a sign discouraging communication, others who haven’t grown up with this may assume headphones mean you don’t want to talk.

Instead, make yourself as approachable as possible; be ready to say something positive about your work if you’re approached while in the trenches, smile if someone reaches out to you, be welcoming of advice and questions. If your field mentor isn’t helping create these casual types of social interaction for you, then you definitely want to make sure that you’re sending out your own friendly signals. Remember, you’re in career-opportunity building mode here.

Fifth, look for opportunities to go beyond. During a semester- or quarter-long internship, one of your goals should be to identify people with whom you’d like to establish longer-term professional relationships. So keep notes on who you’d like to connect with post-internship and why, but also pay attention to ways that you might be able to be helpful to them.

This reciprocity is the heart of building a professional community or network, and will be one of the most important assets in your career. Your internship is a terrific place to start practicing and mastering this important skill.

However, your outreach efforts don’t need to be confined to your internship site. Use your internship experiences to reach out to others in similar organizations for informational interviews regarding how their libraries or corporate information centers or institutions do similar work, or are structured. As part of your self-directed internship activities, could you do research in a topic related to your internship and reach out to others (with whom you’d like to make contact) for their insights? (You’d probably want to write this up as a guest post, article, portfolio document, or in some other format accessible online.)

Taking Charge of Your Internship Outcomes
Like so many things in your career, internships and practicums (and jobs) that initially seem to be a waste of time can turn out to offer surprising benefits if you take control of the agenda. You may have a lousy field mentor or be stuck with a mind-numbing project, but you can still have a terrific outcome.