Alison Green of Ask a Manager is a boss. And before being an incredible online resource for interns and employees, she was an actual boss responsible for managing the day-to-day operations of a successful nonprofit. Since 2007, she’s answered reader-submitted questions on her blog, covering everything from butting heads with your boss to the ethical ramifications of receiving gifts in the work place.
Now, she’s graciously agreed to answer the student chorus. Below you’ll find detailed responses to questions that we often hear from students. Whether you’re navigating your first internship or experiencing difficulties with your third, the advice here can help you make the most of it!
How do you deal with uninvolved managers? I’m not getting enough projects assigned to me, and when I ask for direction, I get vague assignments that I’m not sure how to carry out.
Talk to your manager. Tell her that you have a lot of down time and ask what additional projects you can take on to keep you busy. Some managers take on interns without considering the time investment they’ll need to make in generating and overseeing projects for them, and you might have one of those–so ask in particular whether there are longer-term projects you can take on that will keep you busy for a good chunk of time and won’t require you to keep checking back with her for additional work. And don’t be afraid to suggest projects yourself, if you have ideas for what you might work on. If that doesn’t work, you can also ask if you can offer to help others in the office when you have down time–if you get permission to do that, you might find that others are happy to fill up your plate when your manager won’t.
As for the vague assignments with unclear direction, figure out what you need and then ask for it. When you get an assignment that’s unclear, ask questions! Ask if there are examples of similar work that has been done in the past that you could look at, or if there’s someone she can refer you to who could give you guidance on how to proceed. Ask her to describe what a successful end product would look like. Something else to consider here: This may or may not be the case with you, but it’s worth being aware that sometimes interns expect more guidance than what’s typical in the work world, so you might need to try simply jumping in and figuring it out.
If the above doesn’t solve the problem, consider having a big-picture conversation with your boss, explaining your concerns. Tell her that you’re excited to help out, but that you don’t have enough work to do much of the time, and that you’re not always sure how to tackle the projects you do get. You might suggest having a weekly check-in meeting with her, so that you have a set time to talk about what you’re working on, ask questions, and get feedback. (Make sure your tone here is “I want to contribute here” and not “pay attention to me!” You might feel like the latter, but the former is the professional way to handle it.)
All that said, some managers–plenty of managers, really–just aren’t very good at managing. You’re going to run into plenty more–and worse–in the course of your career, so you can also consider this an opportunity to get experience speaking up when there’s a problem and figuring out how to work well under a challenging boss.
I want to be involved in more meetings to get the most out of my experience. What is the best way to ask to be included without sounding presumptuous?
Your best bet is to ask to attend as an observer, not necessarily as a full-fledged participant. That’s because in order to keep meetings short and focused, good managers will often try to keep participants to a low number, often including only those with a deeper background in the issues being discussed or those with decision-making authority. So it isn’t always appropriate to include extra participants–but observers is another matter altogether. So frame your request as a desire to sit in and observe. If your manager is willing to let you have a larger role beyond observing, let her volunteer that.
You should also think about which meetings, specifically, you’d like to attend. Keep in mind that not every meeting is appropriate to attend if you don’t have role that requires you to be there (such as meetings on sticky topics that might not be open for company-wide discussion), so it’s helpful to be clear about the specific types of meetings you have in mind. Once you have a clearer idea of what you’d like to attend, you can go to your manager with a clear request. For instance, you might say something like, “I don’t know if this is appropriate or not, but would it possible for me to attend some of the communications strategy meetings? I’d love to sit in to get more exposure to that work, simply as an observer.”
I earn a stipend through my internship, and I’m struggling to cover my expenses. How do I negotiate travel reimbursement to help with the situation?
You can always ask for this. You won’t always get it if it’s not in the organization’s budget, but it’s completely reasonable to ask. Just be direct and say something like, “Because I’m only receiving a stipend, would it be possible for the organization to assist with my travel expenses to and from work?” However, if the answer is no, be gracious–remember that you signed up to do the internship under one set of terms and it’s possible they won’t be able to alter those terms midway through. (Speaking of which, it’s always better to negotiate this stuff up-front when you get the internship offer; it’s often harder to change the terms of any job offer once you’ve already begun work.)
Ready to start searching for internships? Check out our national listings for undergraduates and new grads!