I don't want to be fired for looking at my facebook.
August 24, 2011 7:40 PM   Subscribe

Internship filter: I've recently started a several-month internship. There is really no work for me yet-- I've been told that in the next few weeks, it will pick up, but as of now I'm basically being given busy-work that doesn't need to be done. How can I deal with this situation? Can I leave for a better job?

On top of that, it's really not that exciting (the busy-work or the actual project) and nothing I can put in a portfolio. I've asked for more work, but I'm not getting any, so I basically have to stretch two hours of actual work into a full day at the office.

What is the protocol for this? I have been surfing websites (nothing embarrassing, but the NYTimes and Good magazine are not really what I use to get work done) and I know that some companies monitor internet usage. What experience have you had with interns who aren't given enough work? Will I be thought less of or considered a lazy intern for time not spent on work?

I know that the advice is "Keep asking for work to look like a go-getter" but I really do not see how pestering my boss is going to go over well. He knows I don't have work, but he doesn't give me anything beyond busywork (which I almost always get done within hours of being assigned).

Add to this that I really need to make money right now– and I keep seeing jobs posted. Am I totally in the wrong to apply for better opportunities and (if I get lucky) interviewing for and accepting a new job? This company is big, but not within my industry– so although I might burn some bridges, I won't be dragging my name through the mud (I hope?!). I haven't signed a contract for time to be worked, it was just posted as three months with the possibility of an extension.

So to finish this huge question, how do I deal with this situation without being a suckup or a pest, and can I continue to look for work?
posted by lockstitch to Work & Money (20 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Instead of asking your boss for "something to do", take you boss at their word and ask for "access to background materials or training materials that will help [you] ramp up for the work coming in a few weeks."

Then, on your own time, look for another opportunity. Also, talk to your internship coordinator, let him or her know your concerns, and ask for their recommendation as to how you should proceed.
posted by davejay at 7:43 PM on August 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

If you suck up the boredom you have a reference. You should also continue to look for work. An intern that finds gainful employment is not burning bridges. If you don't find anything you're not out anything.

As to Internet usage there are as many policies as employers. You're going to have to ask.
posted by cjorgensen at 7:47 PM on August 24, 2011

Consider using this time to learn new/perfect existing skills. You mentioned a portfolio so I'm assuming youre a writer, designer, developer or similar. There are some excellent learning resources/tutorials/advice out there that relate to your field/ internship position you should find and check often. That way even though you are technically "surfing the Internet" you arent wasting your time or the companys time. Yes, keep asking for work, but also demonstrate you are interested in learning and making the most of your opportunities.
posted by halseyaa at 8:02 PM on August 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

If this isn't something you can put in a portfolio, why are you there?
posted by chrisfromthelc at 8:02 PM on August 24, 2011 [4 favorites]

I would not be surprised or consider it a burned bridge if my intern found a paying job and had to end the internship. However, I would be QUITE irritated if I found out they were looking for it on their time in my office, even if they didn't have enough to do (you're right, I DO expect the intern to come and tell me if they don't have enough to do).

If there's really nothing else you can get from your boss right now, start working on your own to develop some transferable skills. Go through every tutorial Microsoft Word, Excel, Powerpoint and Outlook offer. Become a photoshop wiz. Research social networking for your industry, the leaders in the field, what they're talking about, how that applies to what your company does. Ask to sit in on meetings to learn more about the industry. Hell, watch TED talks or listen to This American Life, anything better than squatting on Facebook all day.

And yes, talk to your intern coordinator. They should know that the position is not providing enough work for you. Maybe they can help you knock it down to a part-time internship, so you can also take on part-time paid work, or have more time to look for a "real" job from home. If you're really going off your rocker, go ahead and quit, even if you don't have something else lined up (I'm not clear why you're doing it if it's not in your industry and won't give you anything for a portfolio). What you really shouldn't do, though, is just sit there bored and frustrated and end up doing the few things they give you in a half-assed manner. That will burn more bridges for sure.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 8:25 PM on August 24, 2011 [6 favorites]

Speaking of Excel tutorials, learn to do pivot tables. Learn PowerPoint so well that you will never be one of those profoundly annoying people in wretched all-hands meetings who can't make their presentation work. If your workstation doesn't have Photoshop, maybe you could download GIMP and learn that. Find an HTML 5 tutorial and one for jQuery.
posted by jgirl at 8:38 PM on August 24, 2011 [6 favorites]

Definitely consider using the downtime to learn new skills. When I have a slow week at work but I don't want to ask for something new to do because I know a new project is starting up next week, I look for tools that I can build that will make my work easier in the future. For example, are those two hours of work a day repetitive work in Microsoft Office applications? Can you learn to build something in VBA that will automate the tasks?

Another option is to use the extra hours to learn more about the business. Does the busy work that you do get sent off to someone on a different team? Ask if they can spend half an hour talking about what they use your work product for sometime. You might learn things that are very useful in future jobs. (Or at the very least end up with some good stories for your next job about ridiculous Rube Goldberg Process X that Company Y used to accomplish Task Z!)

You don't say what line of work you're in (folks might have more specific suggestions if you chime in about that), but if there are good resources on how to do it well, can you spend time at work studying them? For example, if you're in software, I'd recommend that you go find a copy of Writing Solid Code and read it cover to cover. If you're in a different industry, there may be similar resources.

Also, will your boss let you help out other teams with their work directly without going through him?
posted by Blue Jello Elf at 8:40 PM on August 24, 2011

Are you getting paid? If not, you are more than likely slave labor and not in an internship. If this is the case, get up and leave. If you are getting paid, learn excel. Learn how to code in VB and learn macros. You will be revered in your upcoming jobs if you can do more than just sort columns.
posted by TheBones at 8:47 PM on August 24, 2011 [6 favorites]

Bring a book and you wont need to use the company internet.
posted by twblalock at 8:51 PM on August 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

Work on your folio. Do spec work for their clients (whether it's writing or design or whatever, come up with a brief and do some work.) Then the company can try and sell it in, in which case they've scored some new business and you have some finished work for your book from actual real live clients. If they don't want to put it forward, you still have work for your folio. It's what I used to do when I was young, hungry and had downtime. Shows the company you're keen, they look good in front of the client and you get something out of it too.
posted by Jubey at 9:05 PM on August 24, 2011

Best answer: In a similar internship situation, I read industry blogs and learned about things related to my internship. I also suggested tasks for myself ("By the way, Intern Boss, I spotted a misplaced apostrophe in your Database of Stuff. Would you like me to copy-edit the whole thing?")
posted by equivocator at 9:06 PM on August 24, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks, these are helpful. To clarify: it's a company that produces materials used by other companies and individuals (not going to be too specific here, sorry) and I'm part of a very small design department. Basically, they've been freelancing out this work and have now decided that they want to keep it in house, using interns. So it is a paid internship, but it's equivalent to working retail. Nothing big, but better than nothing.

So I am doing "design" work, which is in my industry, at least part of the time, but due to scheduling and other concerns I have been recently put on research for other projects, producing materials that would have been useful three months ago but are now going in the archives, etc.

I have spoken with my boss about it, but I keep hearing that it will "ramp up" so I'm halfway between anticipating tons of design work and being desperate for something to do.

So it looks as if I'll be talking it over with him and the program coordinator, educating myself in downtime, and searching for jobs once I get home.
Thanks for all this and any future help.
posted by lockstitch at 9:21 PM on August 24, 2011

If he keeps telling you it's going to ramp up and you have made it clear that you want more work, then use this time to learn new skills. You can find all sorts of tutorials. Maybe you can build some templates or autoresponders or something like that. Find a way to be an intrapreneur.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 9:31 PM on August 24, 2011

Are you in the US? They might be abiding by the Department of Labor's definition of an internship.

1. The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment.
2. The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern.
3. The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff.
4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded.
5. The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship.
6. The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.
posted by cmgonzalez at 9:35 PM on August 24, 2011

I have been recently put on research for other projects, producing materials that would have been useful three months ago but are now going in the archives, etc.

Oh, then stop saying it's busywork and do a great job at it. (Seems too obvious... what am I missing?)
posted by salvia at 12:16 AM on August 25, 2011

There is really no work for me yet

Go to people at work, find out if they're swamped or doing really interesting things. If it doesn't interfere with the tasks your boss has given you, help them. Finding stuff that needs to be done and then getting it done is a good skill. Doing this without stepping on anyone's toes is another good skill.

Don't goof off. If you have nothing to do, find something to do.
posted by zippy at 12:56 AM on August 25, 2011

Best answer: Ugh, feast or famine jobs. There's nothing worse then being on deadline and recalling all that free time you wasted on make-work or the internet. So now's the time to do your advance planning and make your life easier when crunch time hits.

Are you proficient with all the systems & software you'll need? Does the company offer any training or classes? Focus on personal development and ways to make your upcoming projects run more efficiently. Up to date with licensing requirements? Need a refresher on industry or company specific business practices? Spend some time brainstorming ways to streamline your work. Have you done your informal networking yet? Every company has back channels - don't wait for a crisis to find out who's really the best contact for what.

Absolutely apply for other work. But while you're there, you may as well lay the groundwork for a successful experience. You're not busting your ass for them, you're doing it for you. Good luck!
posted by Space Kitty at 1:13 AM on August 25, 2011

Best answer: Finish your busywork and ask your job for additional work or responsibilities a couple times a week. Then use your spare time to chat with everyone else around you in the office. Maybe 15 minutes a person, see if you can help them, and be polite. Then add everyone to you linked in or facebook account. They will be good contacts in the future and you won't be NEARLY as bored!
posted by Kalmya at 4:39 AM on August 25, 2011

I manage two interns and I don't always have a big project for them to work on, so I will connect them to resources that will build their skill sets such as internal documents, colleagues who can spare time for a chat about their work and by allowing them to shadow me at meetings. I work in non-profit advocacy, so I encourage them to look at documents related to past policy victories. I also expect them to read the news and learn about current events in our field. For instance, if you are a designer you should take the time at work to learn about new designers, software and industry news.

It does make more work for me to have interns and sometimes I don't have the ability to prepare a regular stream of work for my interns. I am always super impressed when my interns take the initiative to start their own projects. As others have mentioned, perhaps you could still design things in a mock up manner or create templates that would be useful to the company later and ask your boss to critique the designs over coffee.

When they do have assignments, I do need them to tell me that they are finished and that they are ready for more work because I am really busy and I can lose track of time. If an intern didn't feel like they were a good fit with my organization, I wouldn't be offended if they left for another position they felt they were better suited for. I have had that happen and I totally understand. You just have to be professional about it when you let them know that you are leaving.
posted by dottiechang at 9:59 AM on August 25, 2011

Look for problems in the company or its processes - especially in your department - and find a solution for them. For example, I have been a front end developer for a company's website and implemented a JavaScript lightbox to display photos. Yesterday, a new contractor came to me and pointed out that my lightbox was displaying HTML in the tooltips and that he had experience with a different lightbox that would not have this problem. He explained the advantages of his idea and asked what it would take to implement it.

In any internship/contractor position I've had in the past, something like this - taking the initiative to fix a problem - has always been what's gotten me a job offer. If that's your goal, focus on the company and how you can help it run more smoothly.
posted by bendy at 9:40 PM on August 25, 2011

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