Sorry that this is kind of an unorganized info dump. I wanted to post this so I can refer back to it and also because the information is SO useful!
I had a volunteer internship at the Smithsonian when I was in college. There was an official program at the time (not sure about now), but living in NoVa and being a Geology major, I simply called one of the Natural History departments the summer after my freshman year and asked if anyone needed a volunteer college student to help out. And this is the part where I’m going to concede my experience is different than those who apply through official programs…the ones who applied and competed to be there. And were paid a pittance to be there. But all the other stuff – getting the experience, hoping to work there eventually – all that still applied.
Since I didn’t get paid like the other interns (something I sense is rare now – the payment part that is), I didn’t let myself become a doormat from the get go. I was very clear that I worked evenings in my summer job, so I could be at the museum between X a.m. – Y p.m. on A, B, and C days of the week. It made it clear that it wasn’t I didn’t want to spend more time there, but I was volunteering and still needed to make some green. And since I wasn’t getting a parking permit, either, I had to take the Metro, so my schedule needed to be respected.
The scientists I worked with were just so happy to have some student labor – labor that was happy enough to do the routine stuff that was in many respects a waste of their time but needed actual in-person attention – they were absolutely fine with my requirements. And when I was there, I listened, learned fast, and did exactly what was asked of me.
But I was still me – I spoke my mind (politely), and made a few jokes here and there. I didn’t really gossip because a lot of the work they gave me had me in closed labs, so I was usually out of the flow of things. (Memorably closed the day they had me using huge amounts of rubber cement to make a microphotography photomosaic…for 3 hours… 😉 ) But I ate my lunch in the break room and got to know people. So much so that two other scientists claimed me to work in their labs when I ran out of things to do for the first scientist who took me on.
I parlayed that first phone call into a really solid relationship with several staff members, simply by setting my boundaries and doing exactly what they asked me to do. I was happy to learn and be exposed to some seriously awesome stuff – I felt that was enough. And when I applied to graduate school, I had multiple glowing recommendation letters on Smithsonian letter head – they helped push me to the top of several programs, despite coming from a good school, but an uncelebrated one. (And as a bonus, one scientist took me on a three-week research trip with his team the summer before my senior year – really advanced field work most college students don’t get to do. It was awesome.)
You don’t have to be a doormat. But you do have to understand that as an intern, you are there to do entry level work, and otherwise just look around and ask intelligent questions based on your observations. You are not there to change the company, and you are the lowest person on the totem pole. Doesn’t matter if you’re the top of your class – I was where I went to school, and it meant precisely jack shit in that environment. (Well, it did mean I was smart enough to understand what these professionals were saying, or to ask the right questions when I didn’t, that’s about it.)
And if you think they really are just walking all over you and actually being unfair, then you gain some knowledge, too…what to look for in a future workplace. Because you will better be able to observe office politics, even at a glance, or hear what’s going on underneath any conversation you have with your interviewers.