In my last post, I gave you magazine devotees a primer of how to navigate office politics and work well with your fellow interns. Just as important is knowing how to interact with editors, and how to ask for assignments when you don’t feel like you’re getting enough work.
Huffing and puffing about her assignments (and lack thereof), an intern in my office took it up with our boss in all the wrong ways. I was at the copier when I heard her flag down our supervisor who was clearly engaged in a conversation with another editor. “Can we get around to having that conversation soon?” she nearly shouted across a set of desks one Friday. I caught a glimpse of another intern’s eye roll from across the room.
While I don’t (and can’t) know the specifics of the conversation, I do have some idea of what worked and what didn’t.
In the first week of my own internship, I too felt pitifully underutilized. Like this college grad that I work with, I and other newbies were sent out on errands around the building and charged with what felt like an endless array of menial research and tedious mailings. Was it glamorous? Ha. Meaningful? Who knows. I took those tasks seriously and did them as carefully and quickly as possible. So I felt completely confident when I marched up to an intern that has been at my publication weeks before I started and asked how I could help her with some small daily tasks I noticed she was doing and asked her to credit me in the weekly memos she sent out to senior staffers.
Of course there were (and sometimes still are) times that I wanted to talk to (read: whine to) my boss to let her know that I was capable of more than the assignments she was offering, but how could I prove that after not paying my dues with the smaller work? Cue The Smiths’ “You Just Haven’t Earned It Yet Baby.” I could have sat at my desk wishing for the fun transcripts with A-list songstresses all I wanted, but how would anyone know that I could be trusted with a task like that until I proved my skills transcribing interviews with fashion designers with heavy accents or doctors that talked a mile a minute? I decided it would be best to earn the work I wanted. That was a tip that obviously wasn’t on this girl’s radar.
The exasperation and awkwardness of the situation clear on her face, my supervising editor came over to two other interns and me after that doomed conversation. “Do you guys mind passing some assignments along to her if you’re feeling overwhelmed or really, really busy?” In the moment, we all nodded our heads and smiled, but by the next week, I noticed that none of the other intern team really asked for her help, nor did she take the initiative to ask anyone if they had a lot on their plate. (Do I need to even say that that last part was a big no no?)
My take? No one was hired to give you assignments. It is not anyone’s duty to give you the assignments you want or, for that matter, any assignments at all. It wasn’t in any staff member’s contract and none of the other interns were hired to help you find something to do.
There will be slow afternoons and slow days and maybe even a slow week, sure. Communicate that there’s a project you’d like to be included in if you see the other interns working on something fun. Feel free to offer to run an errand someone else was assigned if they need to sit at the front desk and answer phones. Sometimes making work for yourself can be as simple as helping another intern out every now and then. Ask to be CC’d when the email full of research you helped find is sent to the editor that assigned it, and you might just make a meaningful contact that you didn’t have the morning before.
Continue to be competitive and make sure you’re doing your own assignments to the best of your ability, and remember that a simple email like “Hey I did a little more work on this… anything else I can help you with” might go a long way with with an editor that’s given you a small task. Coming up with assignments you can do yourself (say, refilling printer paper in the office or organizing the giveaway table) is always a good first step when you find yourself with too much downtime and make sure that you’re earning the assignments you think you deserve.