What I Learned Within 30 Days of My First Internship

I landed my first internship last summer. When I got that call—the call—I was over the moon. Having come from a long mix of retail and service jobs, you can understand my relief when I realized I would no longer have to work until 3AM doing night shifts. The office life that I’d imagined after so much job-hunting became like an elite members-only club. I thought it would be super glamorous. Rather than just a step up from my previous experiences, it would be my ultimate ticket to happiness. My first month on the job, however, taught me I was both right and wrong in my assumptions. It taught me that the real world of work is only somewhat like the world I read about religiously in career magazines. Overall, though, I was happy. Fitting into the office work lifestyle took a little adjusting and work on my end, but I loved it. Here’s what I learned:

Nobody Is Waiting For You To Fail

The distinction is subtle, but in the service industry everybody just wanted me to work. To make money for them. And so I was constantly being watched, judged, and measured against key performance indicators. When interning, however, that changed. I was trusted more, my performance was measured less (or at least not as glaringly), and the basic assumption was that I was getting my work done. The change was eerie at first, but then it became liberating. I soon found it easier to own my assignments when I knew my boss wasn’t breathing down my neck, and I wasn’t being asked what I was doing every half hour because it wasn’t Workers vs. Management as it often is in the service industry. And all that trust motivated me to do good work. I still met my performance standards—just without all the stress.

Office Environments Aren’t Glamorous 

Before starting, I hyperbolized the difference between the service and business world. I would fantasize about the days I could wear fancy blazers to work instead of the same company tank top. The reality is I often wore slacks and a plain shirt to work. Sometimes I dressed it up with a pair of wide-legged pants and a vest, but that was it. My computer wasn’t a fresh-out-the-box iMac, and the tea we drank wasn’t Instagram-worthy (although we did have a generously-stocked snack room). And neither myself nor my coworkers (most of whom were ladies) wore much makeup. It wasn’t a perfect, pristine workplace, but it was nicer that way. We spent less time applying makeup and suffering in constricting suits, choosing instead to spend it on sending important emails.

“Sure, my expectation of the glamorous office lifestyle was not upheld, but I’m glad it wasn’t; it took lots of pressure off of me to be perfect.”

Speaking of emails, the work I did wasn’t always exciting. Sometimes I was tasked with emailing 200 people the same message, personalized to their names. Or resizing images. Or ordering marketing materials. Menial tasks that added up to important results, but that definitely weren’t brag-worthy. Sure, my expectation of the glamorous office lifestyle was not upheld, but I’m glad it wasn’t; it took lots of pressure off of me to be perfect.

Take Your Expectations With A Grain of Salt 

From all the research I’d done prior to my internship, I thought I’d be a work-life expert. Do this at the office, not that! Say these 3 things to your boss to win that promotion, etc. Every career article I had read built up in me the impression that everything to do with work is black and white—that all offices are conservative, and god forbid I show my sense of humour in front of my boss (mine isn’t the most politically correct, I have to admit). But it turned out the office had a group chat on Facebook that involved the staff sending one another borderline-dirty memes, including my boss (don’t worry—there was no harassment!). Sure, not every office is like mine was, but not every office isn’t. I connected with my colleagues in a much friendlier way, and I had way more fun at work than I expected to have. Every group of people has a different idea of what’s acceptable and what isn’t, so you can’t automatically expect things to be vanilla just because you work at, say, an accounting firm. Shocking, right?

The Work Is Different Than You Expect

And this one applies to pretty much all industries. I don’t know about you, but I tend to romanticize all the job descriptions I read and imagine that they entail nothing but engaging, super-important work. So imagine my surprise when I got to my workplace and had to devote full days to sending emails and resizing images, sometimes for hours at a time. I’d forgotten that there are a million different things that go into a successful business, and selectively imagined only the most fabulous. As a student it was easy to say, “I don’t feel like doing this assignment; I’ll work on it later”. But the office was different. I couldn’t just put off work because there were only so many hours in the day that I was paid for. Working full-time takes a higher level of discipline—one that I wasn’t used to at the start. Yeah, I’d worked 14-hour days at the restaurant, but that sort of work was incessantly motivating. There was always something pressing to do, someone waiting for me to finish something ASAP. At the office, there was more self-motivation involved. Nobody was watching over my shoulder like they’d done in retail, so I had to keep myself accountable to my work.

“Working full-time takes a higher level of discipline—one that I wasn’t used to at the start.”

Take Care of Yourself (Or Nobody Will)

It’s never hit me harder: sitting for eight to nine hours a day is brutal. I didn’t even notice my muscles and joints losing their strength, but they did. And I can’t say how paramount it was for me to get a gym membership during my full-time employment. It kept me from turning into a chair potato. So from me to you, the difference between snacking on pistachios or Pringles to at work is quite huge (and trust me; you will want to snack). It really matters to keep up that one-hour yoga class, pilates routine, or whatever else—even if you only do it once a week. For those who get bored easily on a treadmill or stationary bike, call a friend up and chat with them while you’re working out. The time will pass twice as quickly.

The Takeaway

That first month at my internship came with a lot of firsts: first official happy hour with colleagues, first kept commitment to the gym, first time working on a computer for 40 hours a week, and more. Everything was new to me, and my first week was a little unsettling because of all the things I knew I’d have to learn and get used to. But I did it! I learned, and by week four I was getting things right. The same applies to you; no matter what kind of position you’re aiming for, you’ll be able to adapt to the new job eventually even if it’s scary at first. I will be forever thankful to the company that gifted me with my first internship opportunity, because it’s not easy to get your foot in the proverbial door of the workforce. Getting used to having a “real” job was a challenge, but it was definitely a great one to have.

Dana Iskoldski

Dana Iskoldski

Dana Iskoldski is the Editor-At-Large at Student Life Network and CampusRankings.