I've heard many stories from friends and coworkers about internships that turned out to be something they weren't necessarily expecting. Many of them were interning in hospitals or clinics, hoping to get more hands-on experience with patients, only to be stuck running errands and juggling coffee trays full of drinks for tired attendings in need of caffeine. Sometimes, they would tell me about long nights on rotations when it seemed like the doctor they were shadowing constantly talked down to them, or it seemed like all they were doing was stocking supplies and waiting around aimlessly. This might seem super discouraging, but a bad internship doesn't have to mean a wasted summer or semester! It's so important to focus on the big picture and find the silver linings in these experiences. Here are a few ways to make the most out of your internship experience:
1. Increase your network as much as possible
Even if your day to day tasks at your internship may not be as exciting as you were hoping, chances are that the other interns have felt the same way at some point. Take advantage of your environment and network in the time they have between seeing patients. This can be talking to physicians and asking about something they did when they were treating a patient, or talking with your co-interns and developing a rapport. Getting close to my co-interns has been so valuable because a lot of us have taken the same classes and can help each other out with study tips or hang out after work to get a coffee and decompress. And who knows, maybe you will bump into each other in grad school in a few years.
2. Ask questions
I remember being so afraid my first week interning to ask the physical therapists any questions because I was so afraid I would look dumb or get in the way. This is the worst mistake you can make. You are shadowing or interning in order to learn new skills, and one of the best ways to do this is by being vulnerable and asking questions. It shows that you don't think you know everything, and you're willing to learn, which physicians usually respect, in contrast to the quiet intern that keeps to themself. I've had times where other interns didn't show up, and because the physical therapist wasn't too busy, he offered to have me actively learn and ask questions as he was treating a patient with an injury.
3. Keep a journal
One of the best tips I got from a fellow intern on my first day was to bring a small notebook with me and to carry it everywhere. Working with professionals allows you to get a closer look at what it is you want to do as a career, and taking notes lets you look back on experiences you want to draw on once you enter the field. It’s also great for essay writing for grad school applications when you need to be reminded of an impactful experience you had!
The badge from my first volunteer experience,
which turned into an internship after I found a
mentor in the department!
4. Take the time to get to know every staff member
Going out of your way to introduce yourself to staff members shows that you have an interest and a respect for them. People will notice your attention to detail and appreciate it. As you get to know people at your internship, it becomes much less intimidating to ask for help or a piece of advice on something, whether it be asking where some supplies are located or how to do a certain procedure. Every person at your internship can help you learn and grow, and if you get to know them, they will be more likely to help you out.
5. Find a mentor
Having a mentor has been one of the most valuable experiences as I went through my internship. It gives you the individualized tools and advice to help you succeed. In some internships, you may get assigned to a mentor. In others, you might have to find one and ask to shadow them. In this case, I have many friends who have benefited from the Aztec Mentor Program that is provided through San Diego State. Pick someone whose career aligns with what you want to do someday, and whose skills you want to develop.
6. Recognize the life skills you get from an unpaid internship
Many internships in the medical field are not paid, which can be hard to hear when you realize how much of a time commitment it requires. However, many grad school apps require you to get these hours anyway in order to apply, and I think that the best way to know if you are truly interested in the field you are studying is by directly observing people in your desired career field. By seeing your goal every time you go in for a shift, it reminds you of your why, and that you can keep pushing through exam season or a late night study session if it means that you get to do what you see them doing.
There will undoubtedly be times in your internship where you might question what you're doing, but that doesn't mean that it has to be seen as a wasted experience. There is so much value in being able to get by in a tough work environment and seeing physicians carry out your dream every day. An internship is only as transformational as you make it. Take a step back and reflect on how much you can gain from an internship, all the skills you'll learn, and the friends you'll make along the way.