From clueless to savvy when you join an internship

YOUNG PEOPLE who have just graduated are often clueless about the demands and discipline of the work world. An internship before graduation is one solution to lessen the culture shock, and acquire some useful foreknowledge on what to expect and how to cope.

It’s a shame, therefore, that many students fail to take advantage of internship opportunities which can take up a considerable chunk of time that may otherwise be used to catch-up on your revision and more  preparation for your exams.

But internship is not a waste of time. Consider it as a part of your learning process. In certain professional fields (law, accountancy and psychology courses in Singapore, for instance), it is compulsory. For the arts, humanities and business and management studies, however, internship is optional, and usually offered as part of CCA programmes by the student life department of the university.

Workplace communication and social intelligence

Interns spend a month to three months working under real employers and earn real money and school credits (where applicable). The working student learns the art of workplace communication and inter-personal skills. These include writing business texts, preparing and presenting Powerpoint slides, and getting along well with co-workers and supervisors. Such skills and knowledge are not taught in the classroom but are absolutely necessary if fresh graduates hope to kickstart and advance their career rapidly.

As a student who is clueless about work, you should and must join an internship programme even if the terms and conditions are bad and the payment below starvation levels. Your reason for being an intern is to  acquire certain skills that young people are clueless on, particularly social intelligence.

Folks call it “EQ”, which doesn’t say much. Social intelligence is more than just emotional IQ. It also implies behaving correctly and wisely in a social setting among co-workers and bosses who are indifferent to you or even downright hostile. Social intelligence is the capacity to appreciate, respect and trust colleagues, and to form friendly relationships with them. It is the ability to assess situations and respond correctly, and to navigate safely in the treacherous cataracts of office politics.

Another reason to enroll in an internship programme is the chance for you to evaluate yourself on how capable and controlled you are in coping with the often unreasonable demands of co-workers and supervisors.

For instance, a supervisor requires that you report for work at least 15 minutes before the official time, but the supervisor himself is often late. And even if your work performance is outstanding, you are given a poor appraisal because you were late for work just once. Worse, those full-time employees who are told to help you may deliberately give you bad advice in order to sabotage your performance. And if you are female, you may even get sexually harassed!

Overseas internship

On some campus, students get a chance not only to work, but to do so overseas. Being overseas in this case has nothing to do with holiday trips! There are no tour guides. You have to find accommodation, settle in, and learn how to use the local transport to go to work. You have to figure out how and where to get cheap meals, do your laundry and buy necessities. And you can expect very little help from the oversea co-workers on these logistic matters.

And after finally finding your way to the office, you have to instantly adapt and respond to different lifestyles and work cultures, and to respond correctly and sensitively among people with different outlooks, different perceptions, and even different ways of pronouncing English. You will learn quickly that there are many “Englishes” in the world, and most of them are not what you learn in grammar class when you were a kid.

Overseas internships are therefore both exotic and difficult, and not everybody has the courage or confidence to enroll. But, as Indianna Jones would tell you, nothing ventured, nothing gained.

About the author:

Francis Chin, former journalist, currently Web content manager, Singapore Institute of Management Global Education