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What I learned from my terrible, no-good summer internship

May has finally arrived. Classes are done, Follies has wrapped, and the MBA2s are ready to graduate. And that means the MBA1s are preparing for their summer internships. Despite the strange and/or virtual setup most of you will have, I am certain that the majority of you will have interesting, challenging, and memorable experiences. You will work hard, learn, and grow and come back from your summer with a clearer vision of your future path. You’ll build friendships even stronger than those you have built at Stern. It will be an amazing experience.

Unfortunately, for some of you, the experience will not be so great. In fact, your summer will be awful – terrible managers, surly colleagues, meaningless work, a convoluted path forward, and for your troubles – no offer. This is the type of summer internship I experienced. While my classmates were out on networking booze cruises, collaborating with partners on real-world projects, or forging lifelong friendships over spreadsheets at 2:00 AM, I was trying to figure out where my manager had been all week, or on the phone with client IT, begging them to give me system access. There were no networking cruises, no wise mentorship, and there was almost no work. But that does not mean there was nothing to take away from the experience. I learned that you should pay attention to any red flags, to leverage the Stern network however you can, and that in the end, you are on your own in your internship and in your career.

I should have known something was off right away. I applied to the company through a friend’s recommendation for off-campus recruiting – a prominent consulting firm that did not come to Stern. Even though I applied in fall, I did not interview until mid-march. The recruiter was next to impossible to get a hold of, unresponsive to emails, and often vague and confused if we ever actually talked. This should have been a warning – if a firm cannot even invest time to respond to emails, they certainly will not invest in your internship.

After slow progress and a phone interview,  I was called down to North Carolina for a final round. I was excited and nervous – I prepped my casing and behaviorals for weeks beforehand. But when I got there, I was not actually given a case. The interview was very easy, in fact. Strange, I thought, but I was thankful to get extended an offer the day before spring break. Another red flag – the interview should be challenging enough that you showcase your skills as well as the difficult problems tackled by the hiring team.

I dismissed my uneasiness with the interview process. I had gotten a consulting internship! Bizarrely, although I interviewed in Charlotte, I would permanently be on a project in New York for the summer. However, when I got to orientation, things once again seemed wrong. I was the only intern there – everyone else in the room were lateral hires. The schedule I had been emailed indicated I would be meeting with my team one of the evenings for dinner. After emailing them an intro, however, I had heard nothing. I asked the HR team leading the interminable three-day benefits seminar, but they could not answer any of my questions about my team or the internship. At the time, I did not want to rock the boat and make a big deal about my lukewarm welcome. In hindsight, this is when I should have started reaching out to OCD – something was clearly wrong. I learned that you need to trust your gut – if things seem off, they probably are. That was the point to make a plan, get aggressive, and leverage my resources at Stern.

I finally received an email from my team welcoming me to the firm and providing details of where to report on Monday morning. When I arrived, the associate on the team was there to let me in – I was not in the client system, nor would I be until the last week of my internship. I was placed in a back room with an analyst and did not meet my manager for three days. I quickly learned that no one on site used the firm’s email or messaging systems – only the clients. The second week the analyst also disappeared, and I was alone with CNBC. At this point, in between efforts to access or even something to do, I started aggressively searching for anyone at the company who had an MBA from Stern. I ended up finding several – in a different, more prestigious division.

Every single Sternie I reached out to was warm, helpful, intelligent and genuinely interested in helping get my internship on track. One in particular told me to escalate to her immediately if I did not have a clearly defined project by the end of the week. This was my biggest mistake – I never did. I had finally made some headway meeting with my manager, and had assurances that I would have access and therefore a project very soon. I have no doubt that had I reached out to that alum again my summer would have improved. I learned that you have to go beyond connecting with your network and actually be bold enough to ask for help when you need it. 

My manager was very hard to pin down and get feedback from. In fact, I was having a difficult time finding anyone on my team. I followed OCD’s guidelines and set up recurring meetings with my manager, a midsummer checkpoint, and meetings with higher ups. Despite my embarrassment about how poorly my internship was going, I also met with OCD to put together a game plan when those meetings got ditched or yielded no feedback. Although they gave good advice and tactics, ultimately there was little they could do to help. The school did not have a relationship with this company, and no one could force my group to give me feedback or work. In the end, it was my internship and I was on my own.

At Stern, we are lucky to have an incredible network of alumni, excellent support from OCD, and experienced, helpful classmates. We are also lucky that most companies who recruit Sternies are actively interested in our success, and want to maintain a strong relationship with the school. However, despite all the advice, support and well-wishing, we each are ultimately responsible for our own career. My situation was terrible, but in hindsight I could have done a lot more. I should have been more aggressive in doing whatever it took to get what I needed. If my manager was not providing me with work, I could have gone above his head. When HR forgot I was an intern, I should have leveraged my Stern network to get connected with someone more powerful. I was so afraid of rocking the boat and jeopardizing a potential offer that I let myself get trampled down. In hindsight, not getting any work or feedback was a sure way to fail. At least if I had spoken up, angered the wrong people, and not gotten an offer, I would have at least felt I had done something. In either case, you probably do not want to accept a job on a team like that.

The most important lesson I learned during my terrible summer is that you have to fight for your spot at the table. This applies to everyone – just because other firms set a place for you doesn’t mean you are guaranteed to keep it. But some of us will walk into our job and find nowhere to sit, no place setting waiting. And if this happens to you this summer – grab a plate, pull up a chair and demand to be served. This is your one chance at an internship and you deserve a valuable experience.

At the end of the summer, I obviously did not receive an offer. I was given no warning by my team, no final feedback or review. My HR contact would not even give me an answer. I simply turned in my laptop, and got a call from a senior HR representative I had never met explaining I had not gotten an offer and giving me the first feedback I had received since I got the job. However, I did not let this get me down. I still had consulting experience, I had successfully created my own deliverables and executed on them, I had even gotten some client experience. I learned to be more resilient, to create my own work when nothing existed, and to fight harder for myself. I was able to re-recruit successfully and get an excellent job offer at a great consulting firm. Hopefully, these lessons will be valuable for you to avert disaster this summer or at least help you make the best of a bad situation. My last piece of advice is not to worry – even if everything goes wrong, you have another shot next year. Good luck!

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