Use internships to understand the everyday reality of professionals.

We’ve all been subjected to what I like to call intergenerational bashing. This includes making statements that begin with “Young people these days…” or “In my time things were different…” or even more pointedly, “Values have deteriorated since our times…” If you are among those “young people” you can probably sense your hackles rise in anticipation of a good argument with those “old people who don’t know and don’t understand.”

A few days ago I was speaking with a friend about interns and trainees. She recounted a recent experience with a trainee. “She did not want to get into any of the general work, but wished to focus only on what she saw as her area.” This young woman had come in to help the organisation manage its social media presence, including such tasks as updating status messages, monitoring discussions and queries. “We’re a small organisation, and this did not take much time… but she had no interest in doing anything outside this because she didn’t see it as being within her area,” said my friend.

Learn to relate

When I speak to students who are going through internships or have just returned from training, I often hear the other side of this story. “I didn’t get enough real experience,” they complain. “I was asked to do all kinds of work that has nothing to do with what I’ve learnt.” They sometimes feel a bit cheated at not getting an opportunity to directly apply their specialised knowledge. One parent quipped, “After law school, my son expected he would get straight into policy analysis… he didn't anticipate the grunt work that would be required to begin with!”

There are two things going on here (at least). One, the sense that our training will lead us to jobs in which we will be able to directly apply it (at the highest level of complexity) and, two, that a professional job must relate to a specific activity or a limited range of tasks related to the field of training/education.

Professional education often boxes us into specialisations and makes us see ourselves in a limited — special — way in relation to the workspace. We acquire a certain kind of knowledge coupled with particular skills and we expect that when we get a job, we will be applying those skills in very specific ways. That’s somewhat unrealistic, and just a little bit of reflection will lead you to realise that life — and work — isn’t like that.

The everyday “mess”

The internship or training experience is in some ways meant to give you a sense of the “messiness” of everyday work. You’ll find that most people spend only a fraction of their workday on the specific thing for which they have been trained. The rest of it is managing the space within which that skill is applied. Journalists, for instance, spend a lot of time making phone calls to make appointments, or chasing up people to get to the real source of information. They spend even more time waiting for people to meet them. Relatively less time is spent on actually writing or producing a news story. Lawyers spend hours in research, filling forms and writing out affidavits, and relatively less time arguing cases in court (despite what we see in television shows). Engineers spend many hours sitting in meetings and organising their teams and fewer hours solving the tough problems they have studied about in college.

A lot of time and effort also goes into coordinating the different tasks that make up an organisation, dovetailing one task with the next, in a way that the entire work flows smoothly. This may be the overall responsibility of a manager, but everyone needs to understand how their work interfaces with another’s.

Observe and learn

As an intern or trainee, you have the opportunity to observe and learn how an organisation functions, how the different roles connect and overlap and how people manage their particular jobs. Watching, asking questions, trying to see the pattern of the organisation as a whole… this is what an intern should be doing. Even if you do have a very specific assignment, the internship should give you a glimpse into the expectations an organisation has of its workers. It is a chance to see what the everyday reality of this set of professionals is like. How do they manage time, resources and other people? How do organisational policies affect work and work output? So many other questions might arise, not the least of which is your own suitability for this kind of work in this kind of an organisation!

To come back to the intergenerational bashing that I had briefly indulged in — I’m willing to concede that this is perhaps what is said of every generation by every other generation. Just as the “oldies” decry the attitudes of the young ones, the youngsters also point to the same flaws in every older generation. Some things never change!

The author teachers at the University of Hyderabad and is the editor of Teacher Plus. Email: usha.raman@gmail.com