How to Deal with a Bad Internship

Elizabeth Aquino
by Elizabeth Aquino   Career Advice Contributor 

You’ve spent weeks perfecting your resume, going through the interview process and preparing for this internship. But now it’s halfway through the summer and what you hoped would be a great experience has turned out to be a nightmare.

Instead of shadowing your mentor or participating in team meetings, you’ve become a pro at picking up your boss’ dry cleaning, grabbing coffee for the office and organizing the company’s filing cabinet. 

If you are in this situation, you are not alone. Dani, an apparel student, recalled a similar experience when she interned at a fashion showroom.

“I expected to make connections and learn the design process for new products,” she explained. “But the most I did was run orders and errands. I hauled 20 yards of fabric, along with multiple yards of elastic, in my small car, and it [wasn’t] even a paid internship!”

Despite how promising and valuable an internship may sound on paper, not every program is created equal. Here, we list some obvious signs that you are in a bad  internship and provide some suggestions for how to deal with it.

Problem: Your internship lacks structure 

The purpose of an internship is to provide interns with real-life work experience, as well as the chance to learn more about the industry. While the details and duties of internships will vary, according to Kyra Freeburg, STEM Career Development and Program coordinator and lecturer at San Diego State University, having structure is always important.

“You [should be] participating, giving your opinions, going to meetings, [doing] a project and using the skills you learned in school, [while] also learning new ones,” she explained.

But if your manager isn’t creating a schedule or goals for you, your opportunities for career growth and learning are limited. 

Solution: Create your own goals and schedule

If waiting for your supervisor to assign you work has left you refreshing your inbox all day hoping for an assignment, it’s time for you to speak up. Take the reigns and request a meeting with your direct supervisor to discuss your goals, upcoming projects and their deadlines. 

“Sit with your manager and have a meeting about what the clear expectations are. [Figure out] what they expect of you and the scope of work, and ask questions,” Freeburg advised.

Once you schedule a meeting with your supervisor, make a list of the projects you’d like to work on during your time at the company. Present the list to them along with a timeline that ensures that you will complete the work and meet your goals by the end of your internship.  

Problem: You are a glorified gofer 

If you have an accounting internship, but your major tasks for the day are organizing the supply closet and fetching lunch orders, you probably aren’t learning much about your field of interest. 

While interns often do have to perform some amount of grunt work, it should be balanced with meaningful assignments. Often, when a plethora of menial tasks are given to interns, it’s because their managers aren’t sure what to assign them. Besides being irrelevant to your future career goals, being asked to run errands and perform tasks that aren’t related to the internship you applied for can feel like a waste of time since you aren’t gleaning the skills and experience you hoped. If these tasks are all you do during the course of an internship, it can become demoralizing.

Plus, as an intern, you still have rights. If the internship is unpaid, the Fair Labors Standards Act (FLSA) requires supervisors to provide interns with a supervised learning experience, which includes assigning them educational work.

Solution: Seek advice from your college’s career center

Start with a conversation with your manager. However, if you’ve already tried asking for better work but haven’t seen any improvement, your college’s career center can be a good resource. The counselors can provide you with the best actions to take and can even personally step in to help you manage the situation.

 “Your career center can be your support center. It’s someone on the outside to bounce things off of and advise you,” Freeburg explained. “[They] can coach you into having a conversation with your hiring manager, [since] that’s a difficult conversation.”

Problem: You feel excluded or forgotten

Since the goal of an internship is to give you a taste of what it’s like to work in your desired field, a good internship program encourages its interns to participate as much as possible in the company’s day-to-day operations. This includes being invited to meetings, when appropriate, and having the opportunity to shadow a manager or mentor. After all, networking is a major benefit to interning. 

While it’s okay to not be invited to every meeting or event your manager attends, if you find yourself sitting at your desk all day, while the rest of your team is nowhere to be found, that’s a major red flag.

Solution: Build your own support system

If you’re feeling neglected, chances are the other interns are, too. Set up a coffee date and ask them about their tasks. If you’re the only one being asked to run errands, while everyone else is visiting clients, attending industry events and participating in team meetings, speak to your manager and ask that you be given the same opportunities. 

If your manager isn’t responsive, take the matter into your own hands. Ask members of your team or department if they need any additional help with tasks, or if you could tag along with them to meetings or events.

Begin building your network by setting up informational meetings with people who have job titles you are interested in learning more about. You won’t have daily access to these people forever so make the most of your time by sending a polite email asking them to coffee.

Prepare a list of questions before your meeting to ensure that your time with them is well spent. Then, follow up with a thank you and an invitation to connect on LinkedIn. Remember, informational interviews are not the time to ask for a job, but those who are willing to meet with you will likely have valuable career advice and tips on how to write a resume and cover letter that will impress hiring managers. 

Problem: You hate your internship and are contemplating quitting

If you’ve done all you can to be proactive and you still hate your internship, you might be wondering if quitting is the next step. While working through a bad internship isn’t ideal, quitting could be an even worse option. 

Solution: Try to stick it out and avoid quitting

The good news is that this internship isn’t going to last forever. Unless your internship has made you feel disrespected or threatened, you shouldn’t quit. Having long hours or feeling bored are not valid reasons to leave early. 

Internships provide material for your resume and cover letter, which is valuable for those with little to no work experience. Besides, for someone in the early stages of their career, quitting an internship could be damaging to your reputation. 

If handled poorly, walking away from an internship could also hurt your reputation before you even had the chance to build it. Don’t shoot yourself in the foot unless it’s absolutely necessary. 

“You don’t want to burn a bridge. No matter how bad the company is [and] even if you’re quitting, behave in a professional matter. Your reputation and your integrity are all you have and that is what people hire people on,” Freeburg said.

Make sure to weigh your options and use your best judgment, before pulling the plug on your internship. If you decide to quit, be clear about why you’re leaving and avoid bad-mouthing the company or your manager after you leave.

Use LiveCareer’s Resume Builder and Cover Letter Builder for all of your job application needs. The builders allow you to work from professionally created templates of your choice, and they make the overall writing process a breeze.

About the Author

Career Advice Contributor

Elizabeth Aquino Career Advice Contributor

Elizabeth Aquino is the Summer 2019 content marketing intern for LiveCareer. She majors in Communications at Cal Poly Pomona, and serves as the web editor of her campus' newspaper, The Poly Post, and the editor of the campus' magazine, Bronco Guide. Check out Elizabeth's writing at her website Hey It's Eliz.


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