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How My Seemingly Pointless Internship Unexpectedly Helped My Career

Former interns share what they learned from organizing supply closets and sifting through mail.

How My Seemingly Pointless Internship Unexpectedly Helped My Career
[Photo: Nikada/Getty Images]

What can you learn from reviewing Excel reports or by weaving through Chinatown’s Canal Street traffic with a handcart stacked with mail? Maybe not much, but I’ve done both.

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Internships usually aren’t glamorous, but they’re good introductions to the workforce before you have enough experience to join it full-time. Some internships veer into straight-up labor exploitation, and many others give unfair advantages to those who can afford to work for little or no pay.

Even so, some of the most most mundane, pointless-seeming internships can prove useful to your career, including in some unexpected ways. Here are a few lessons that veterans of lame internships learned after the fact.

Find A Daily Grind You’re Into

When my fellow Fast Company staffer, Editorial Assistant Kim Lightbody, was a senior in high school, she spent a couple of months interning at a theater in New York City. “At the time, I was really into theater,” she recalls, but her intern duties “had nothing to do with theater.” This didn’t exactly surprise Lightbody; like most interns, she’d expected to be saddled with tasks bearing little relation to the things that excited her about the field.


Related: Why A 70-Year-Old Retiree Went Back To Work—As An Intern


But Lightbody was surprised to learn, by the end of the experience, that “the day-to-day of what you’ll actually be doing is pretty important.” Lots of interns tell themselves they’ll have no trouble putting up with grunt work in order to get a foot in the door, only to realize how much of that drudgery is crucial to keeping an organization running. In Lightbody’s case, that meant printing out name tags for a big annual board meeting and organizing the supply closet.

She chalks up some of her disappointment to immaturity. “I was just a kid hanging out there. I had never had an office job before,” Lightbody says, so picking up menial assignments from the theater execs’ two administrative assistants wasn’t something that she was ready to approach like the baseline professional experience it technically was. “I wasn’t that serious about my future yet.”

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But in retrospect, that realization was useful as she headed to college. By the end of her freshman year, Lightbody knew she needed more focus. Theater began to feel more like a passion than a potential career. She began looking for journalism internships and thinking harder about how she actually would like to spend her workdays.

Building An Unexpected Knowledge Base

“My most mundane internship was with the American Legacy Foundation  in 2011–12,” recalls Kemba Neptune, referring to the organization behind the antismoking “Truth Campaign” (the nonprofit rechristened itself Truth Initiative in 2015). President Obama had signed the Affordable Care Act into law in March 2010, so its regulatory changes were brand new by the time Neptune’s internship began. Her job there “was to monitor and examine the media around the ACA, as well as familiarize myself with it to track how it would affect smokers and cessation efforts.”

It was pretty dry work. “Collecting media links daily and sending them to the higher-ups seemed boring and pointless,” she says, since smoking cessation data and health care compliance issues didn’t exactly break headlines on a daily basis. But this experience laid an early foundation for a knowledge base that, to Neptune’s surprise, she still draws on today—and not just because the ACA’s fate now hangs in the balance.

“Now, I work in a public relations firm in the health care practice,” Neptune says, referring to Finn Partners, her employer until recently (she’s just accepted a position at Waxman Strategies), “so all that background knowledge came in handy in getting this job, and in fully understanding the landscape of health policy—which, of course, only benefits my clients.”

Stumbling Into Where You’re Best Suited

Sometimes you learn about your industry, and sometimes you learn about yourself. Amelise Lane also wound up in PR, but one of her first internships helped her hone a job skill she’d planned to use in a totally different field.

As an English major at NYU, Lane admits she “was under delusions of grandeur” that she might eventually become a book editor who’d discover the next Great American Novel. But as an intern at a literary agency, what she actually discovered was the “slush pile,” a hallowed institution of the book publishing industry, which refers to the disorderly stack of unsolicited manuscripts and proposals that arrive by mail week after week.

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Related: Diary Of An Ex-Apple Intern


While Lane’s colleagues worked with authors they’d developed relationships with, Lane sifted through the slush, thinking to herself as many interns do, “This is silly, I can do so much more!” But after poring through sample chapters and galley letters, it was Lane’s job to write up quick, one-page overviews of anything that caught her eye. Though tedious, those reports made for a great crash course in “how people create a narrative . . . and helped me identify what makes a good story,” she recalls. Better yet, “it meant that I had to articulate why it was good or why it was not.”

That’s a skill she now relies on every day as an account director at Weber Shandwick. “We’re working with companies who want to tell a story, and it’s our job to articulate what that story is.” In fact, Lane must’ve done a great job sharpening those abilities, because she landed her first job eight days after graduating. By then, Lane had racked up a string of other internships at book publishers—first in the editorial department, then in publicity—that brought her closer to the communications side of things.

Looking back, Lane says it was probably an asset that as an intern, she “didn’t have a great idea of what I wanted to be.” That meant she could focus on her roles’ underlying challenges, not just the superficial tasks themselves. “Not being too stuck in a path,” she reflects, is a smart approach long after you’re done interning.

About the author

Rich Bellis is Associate Editor of Fast Company's Leadership section.

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