I would first like to recommend this amazing article from Jezebel: Don’t be the Intern Your Fellow Interns Hate. Having read this article, I started to scroll through the comments and I ended up stumbling on an amazing one from Chasmosaur100. She was a volunteer intern at the Smithsonian.
I implore you to read her comment. She shares some great information on how to balance an unpaid internship with a paid job, make a good impression, and to set some strong boundaries.
Read more for my drawing out of key points and response based on my experience as a Smithsonian intern.
Also working at the Smithsonian in an unpaid internship, I’ve found that it can be important to set a clear schedule and make clear that this is so that you can work another job, not to go hang with friends. My position was fairly flexible in the sense that I staff events after hours. Those “extra” evening hours can be subtracted from the usual business hours as I see fit.
Be clear from the beginning what hours you can work, how you can be contacted, and follow through on these commitments. Keep in mind that a company that doesn’t respect your boundaries as an intern likely won’t respect them as an employee either.
Her willingness to do menial tasks is something that all interns need to embrace. It makes a good impression on the staff; they really are grateful. Simple tasks are often the stepping stones to bigger ones. If you can’t be trusted to sort mail, how can you be expected to write it?
These tasks also aren’t difficult. Administrative work does require attention to detail and time, but it’s something that most people can do quite well if they just dedicate themselves to it. While it might not be the most educational, spending a few hours in front of the copier is not difficult. As I joked with one staff person who was reluctant to give me a copying job, it needs to get done and I’m as good at standing in front of a machine as any paid employee. Dull low skill tasks should be balanced by mentorship, complex tasks, and (hopefully) pay. Get through it and do it well.
The corollary to this is that you are not to good for any job or task. You are not too good to copy, fold, print, or even take out the trash. I really don’t understand how some interns think they’re too good for certain tasks; they have to get done.
Due to the good relationship that she made with the scientists, she was invited to go on a three week research trip. What an amazing opportunity! Creating a relationship with fellow professionals in your field is an important part of any internship.
Creating an good relationship can make a world of difference for what doors open to you. People want to hire someone that they can work with and chat with in the office. Social skills and building relationships is an important part of others’ perceptions of you. I personally struggle with this as I’m an introvert. But doing your best and finding a niche that fits you can work wonders.
She found that her sense of humor and chatting over lunch helped her to get a good relationship with the staff, well backed by her competence. I also find that lunch is a good time to chat. In public programs, I often stay after the program to help take down and chat with other staff and volunteers. While I’m not the chattiest person, I make an effort to show that I am there and interested in others.