From menial to meaningful: How to get challenging tasks as an intern.

It is weeks into your internship and your name has become synonymous with making photocopies and doing coffee runs. You feel highly undervalued, surely there is more to office life for an intern than being everyone’s errand guy? You begin to wonder if you are the only one in the internship universe going through this bad experience?  Should you march into your boss’s office and demand more meaningful work?  Should you quit and find another internship? What is the solution to all this?

Running away is not always the answer!

The bad news is that as an intern, you are unlikely to completely get away from being assigned donkey work. The good news is, there are some practical strategies you can use to claim your rights to more challenging work. Internships should ideally be a good balance of meaningful and menial tasks. I always encourage young people, before quitting, to learn the skill of problem-solving their way through bad internships. Moving to another company does not guarantee better conditions, you may think the grass is greener elsewhere, only to find yourself coupled with the photocopy machine yet again!

Ace the menial work to get what you want!

Firstly, do not dismiss or try to liberate yourself completely from doing the menial tasks. As an intern, you need to pay your dues. You are logically the best person to assign the printing and photocopying because, in theory, you are the least experienced professional there. Do every task with vigour, zeal and a good attitude. Asking for more challenging work is easier if you have shown diligence and humility in the small tasks.  During an internship, a good attitude can be your most valuable currency!

At the start of your internship, ensure that you have written your learning goals and present them to your manager. This will make your employer aware of the things you want to achieve and be exposed to during your tenure. Managers can get very busy as the internship goes, I recommend that you lock down, in both your diaries, weekly check-ins for the duration of your internship. This is to ensure a weekly rhythm of meetings to force your manager to remember you if things get hectic.

How to get challenging and meaningful tasks!

It is easier to approach your manager with a list of tasks you have identified for yourself than to say “I am not challenged”. Help your manager to help you by doing some groundwork and seeking out activities to add to your portfolio. Here are some tips on how to do this; 

  1. If your boss is not proactive about giving you work, speak to other colleagues and build relationships around the office. Speak to fellow employees over a lunch break and ask them about the work and projects they are involved in. See where you can offer to help. Try to particularly identify colleagues who look overwhelmed and are always busy, that may be a good spot to collect yourself some challenging tasks. 
  2. Find out what regular meetings take place around the office and ask to be included in them. You can even offer to take meeting notes, your presence and this gesture will give you some visibility.
  3. Look through old files to see if there is any dormant project that you can revive.
  4. Get into the habit of asking questions like “which tasks do you have today/this week that I can get involved in?”.
  5. Create your own assignment by identifying a gap in the department. e.g. if there is a manual process that can be digitized or made more efficient, suggest the idea and offer yourself towards that project. Try come up with one or two new ideas a week to bounce off your boss. 
  6. Find a mentor or sponsor in the company who has influence and can help guide you and even advocate for you to get some challenging tasks. 

Have a conversation with your manager!

Now that you have done some homework and identified some potential meaningful work you would like to get involved in, set up a meeting with your manager. Your tone should always be polite and never of entitlement. Thank them for the opportunity once again to intern at the company and present the list of suggested additional tasks you can get involved in around the office (remember, the printing and filing are still included in your plan). Try and get commitment and approval to immediately start adding some of these tasks to your portfolio. It is easier to get a “yes” from the manager when you have proactively brought a solution to your own problem.