Ask Alex: Common Internship Mistakes

This month I’m breaking with format and tackling something that’s been on my mind recently. As always, I’m happy to take questions here in the comments, but you’re more than welcome to email me if you’d like to ask privately. I’ll always double-check to make sure it’s okay to post the question here.

It might seem like strange timing, but now that summer is winding down and internship season is almost over, I wanted to take the time to touch on a few common mistakes that—while they won’t make or break your future career—can definitely have an impact on your perceived ability to be hired. Let’s dive in!

1. Not dressing appropriately.

One of the nice things about publishing as a creative industry is that we have a lot more freedom in what’s considered to be “work-appropriate” attire. By that I mean, until you work in the executive office or at a senior manager level, it’s fairly rare to see someone bust out a full suit. In fact, it’s not uncommon to see people wearing jeans with a nice top on a daily basis. My observation is that of all of the departments, Publicity tends to be the most “formal” in the clothing choices, with Sales a close seconds. This is largely, I think, because they’re taking more meetings outside of the office than, say, Marketing or Editorial. In the summer, wardrobes are even more relaxed and people can often be found wearing nice sandals, maxi dresses, and white jeans galore. When you’re in an office environment, you can take your cue on how to dress from your supervisors and those around you.

BUT. There are a number of things you should not wear to the office. Ever. Nothing too tight. No visible bra straps. And, for the love of everything, no shorts!!

I can’t even tell you how many interns I’ve seen wearing shorts to the office this summer. Not Capri pants, shorts. Jean shorts. Jorts. Do not wear shorts in the summer, do not wear fancy dress shorts over tights in the fall and winter. Why? Because they are short. It’s in the name. Girls, if you were wearing a dress that short, would it even be a question of appropriateness? No, because you’d know that one strong wind or a quick bend to retrieve a pen would have you showing the office your lady world. When in doubt, that old “fingertip” dress code rule should apply. Your dresses and skirts shouldn’t be that much shorter than your fingertips.

That may sound old-school, but remember that as an intern, you need to present yourself in the best light. You’re in a corporate environment, and you’re working with potential employers. Like with interviews, it’s almost always better to stray on the side of conservative.

2. Not asking questions.

What’s the point of having an internship if you’re not there to learn? Yes, yes, of course you’re there to put in valuable work for a company, but you’re not getting paid, you’re getting school credit. Granted, not all internships are created equal—there are supervisors that request an intern specifically because they need another body to process busy work. But there is a way to engage them and to make the most of the situation: ask them about their jobs. If they give you an assignment, ask them to explain how it fits into their job description or what it’ll be used for. If you hear a word or name you don’t recognize, ask. It’s one way to show that you’re engaged and thoughtful about both the industry and your future. Trust me when I say that it’s something that’ll come through in the recommendations your supervisors write for you, and you’ll stick out in their memory when a position opens up down the line. Take every opportunity you have to learn something!

3. Sharing information.

Anything you learn in the office needs to stay in the office. There’s a good chance you’ll overhear tidbits about projects the company wants to acquire, or horror stories about this author or that agent, you’ll see your favorite author’s email address and address, or stumble on another’s contract and read through it. But you’re not at liberty to go snooping or disclosing. Likewise, I would proceed with caution about tweeting or blogging about your experiences, especially if they’re negative. There have been a number of interns in literary agencies in the past who have started blogs and twitter accounts to live tweet the submissions they were reading and provide “tips” (with what wealth of experience?). I have to tell you guys, I feel really strongly that this is never appropriate, but if you do chose to start up a similar project, you must run everything through your supervisor for approval, even if you try to remain anonymous. Very few things stay that way in the digital age.

4. Not checking in/out.

This is something I’m actually guilty of having done in the past—partly out of shyness, and partly because I just didn’t know better. When I started at the job I have now, I sat so far away from my supervisors that if I didn’t walk over to their offices in the morning, they’d have no idea I was there until I start answering the emails sitting in my inbox. First of all, it goes without saying that you need to be on time in the morning, but when you arrive, at least pass by your supervisor’s door and give a little wave.  After you complete each project, get up from your desk and let the supervisor know (and ask what else they need from you). When you’re done for the day, swing by the supervisor’s office again and ask one last time if there’s anything else you can help with. Chances are, the answer will be no. But you’re showing yourself to be accountable and that you’re not sneaking out early.

5. Enjoying the office party… a little too much.

This one is far less common, thankfully, but it feels important to include it here. Publishing folks love a good office party and there are a number of opportunities for them in the summer. You’ll be invited to participate in the festivities, and you should!  It’s a great way to mingle with employees in other departments and meet other interns. If you’re underaged, very few people outside of your supervisor will 1) realize this and 2) stop you if you pick up a drink.  Be smart and responsible, not only for yourself, but on behalf of the company as well. If you are underage, the company would likely liable if something were to happen to you (injuries, for example).

Did you guys participate in any internships this summer? Do you have any advice for next year’s crowd?


9 Responses to Ask Alex: Common Internship Mistakes

  1. Julie Eshbaugh Aug 12 2013 at 9:41 am #

    Alex – great post! Such invaluable advice for those just starting out. 🙂

  2. Kimberly Wheaton Aug 12 2013 at 11:46 am #

    Great advice! I wish someone had shared with me when I was first starting out. One addition I’d like to add to #5 – If you are of legal drinking age, don’t over indulge. It doesn’t take much for that to happen (probably less than you think). Just a tiny lapse in judgment can ruin future prospects. I’ve seen it happen to others, thankfully never to me.

  3. Caitlin Vanasse Aug 12 2013 at 11:49 am #

    Thanks Alex, I think this is great!

    I’ve never had a publishing-industry related internship, but a more general internship tip I might add is to stay in touch with the supervisors you had if your experience was positive. I’ve been able to use a boss from an internship as a reference because I stayed in enough contact to do so and some of my other contacts have been good resources for me in other areas.

    Also, if there is more than one intern in your office you don’t have to be bffs (or even friends really) but you should strive to have a good working rapport. It’s an opportunity for your bosses to see not only how you work but how you interact in an office environment.

  4. Sue Aug 12 2013 at 2:48 pm #

    These sound like good, common-sense advice for any kind of office job. Thanks Alex! :3

  5. Kacey Aug 15 2013 at 12:00 am #

    Great advice! I’m definitely guilty of being timid with question asking sometimes; it’s a really good point to remember that learning IS the whole point.

    I also had a question for you! I’ve been visiting family for the past couple weeks and been answering about a million questions about what I want to do for a career. When I say I want to work in publishing, probably specifically in editing, it seems like I keep getting the same two responses. “Isn’t publishing dying? My friend’s neighbor’s sister’s dog just self-published her book!” and “Who needs editors anymore, don’t computers handle all that nowadays?” Now obviously I don’t think either of those things are true, and I often give the spiel about how just because it’s changing doesn’t been it’s dying, but I’d love to hear an insider’s perspective!

  6. Alexa Y. Aug 18 2013 at 6:52 am #

    These are certainly practical internship advice tips Alex! Thanks for sharing, as I’m sure it will come in handy for many people (possibly including myself) who are thinking of taking on an internship in the future.

  7. Lena Oct 2 2013 at 4:15 pm #

    I have to say, great post Alex, and some valuable advice right there. Can’t agree enough on the importance of asking questions. Internships are a two way street, you’re helping the company lessen their workload and in return you are learning new skills. And how are you supposed to learn if you don’t ask questions?!

  8. Anna J. Boll Dec 12 2013 at 2:47 pm #

    Hey Alex,
    I hope this is the right place to put this Ask Alex question… here goes. I know you’ve written about both marketing and publicity but can you make this difference clearer for me? My understanding is that publicity has more to do with interaction with the press while marketing is more about advertising and social media. What would a marketing professional do that a publicist wouldn’t and vice versa.

    • Alex Dec 15 2013 at 11:13 pm #

      Thanks for the great question! I’ll be posting an answer to this on the blog tomorrow morning!

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