How to Survive and Prevent a Bad Internship

There’s a good chance that you’ve had a bad internship or job experience. Maybe it was mundane tasks, unfriendly co-workers, or damaged expectations that did you in. Many MLS/MLIS programs require, or at least strongly recommend, an internship or practicum before graduation. Internships are great ways to taste-test a type of librarianship, network, and get practical experience. The unfortunate reality is that we don’t always know what we’re walking into when we begin an internship. So, how do we survive or prevent a bad internship?

Frustrated man at a desk (cropped)

Alternative title: How to avoid looking like this.

If you’re already going through a bad internship experience or find yourself in one later, you’ll need to know how to surive. Take a deep breath, remind yourself it is an opportunity to learn that will only last a few months, and use the following tips to better your internship experience.

Make a list 
Identify what the negatives of the internship are. Don’t just think, “I don’t like my boss/co-worker” or “I’m bored.” Instead write down the specifics. This may seem like you’re focusing on the negatives, but it reality this will allow you to pinpoint the problem and filter out the positive aspects, too. Then take a hard look at your list. Is your internship “bad,” because you have poor communication with your supervisor? Are you bored because you aren’t being challenged and aren’t able to use the skills you’ve been learning during graduate school? Identifying the specific problems can bring you to possible solutions that will make your internship experience better.

Focus on the good
Identify the positive things about your internship. Maybe it is a co-worker you’re becoming friends with, a wonderful patron, or you find your internship project to be very exciting.

This year I started grad school in a new town with a new job. It was a big transition, so I took a advice from Pinterest and decided to start a good things jar. The idea is simple: get an empty jar, jot down a quick note when something good happens, and put it in the jar. It serves as a way to collect good memories and remind you of the positive happenings. It comes in handy during stressful times like finals and hectic work weeks. If a jar doesn’t suit you, keeping a list in a notebook or on sticky notes in your desk drawer are also simple solutions to finding positivity.

Get proactive
Are you bored? Ask to do more. Volunteer for extra tasks. Propose a side project. Now is the time to start flexing your librarian knowledge muscles. Your supervisor or co-workers may not know what additional skills you have if you don’t offer to use them.

Get advice and seek support
Speak with your graduate advisor, professor, mentor, fellow library students, or friends about the experience. It is OK to be unhappy, but make sure you have a support system.

Ask yourself, what has this internship taught you?
Internships are all about the learning experience. Maybe all internships, like news, are good. Or maybe not… But every experience can provide a learning opportunity. At the very least you’ll learn what kind of work place best suits you and have a stronger idea of what kind of co-worker or supervisor you want to be in the future. Take away what you did learn from the experience, even if it was not exactly what you wanted or expected.

The only good kind of problem is one you prevent from happening. If you know what your future supervisor expects of you and/or you are going to execute a specific project, your internship has a high chance of success and a positive learning experience for you.

Know what to expect
When you interview be sure to ask for specifics about what your daily tasks will be and the supervisor’s goals for your time there. Remember that your interview is a conversation, and you’re also interviewing them to see if the internship and work place is a good fit for you and your skills.  

Propose a project
The best kind of internships are ones that you can show off later. Whether it is a physical product or program development, evidence will make your portfolio look even sharper. The internship may be for specific project, but if not, be sure to propose a project idea you have before starting. You could also try approaching a library or institution with a project proposal and request an internship to complete it.

Do you have advice for surviving or preventing a bad internship? How have you dealt with a bad internship experience? 

10 replies

  1. All great tips! The only thing I would add is that sometimes, it’s okay to walk away. When it’s a truly awful fit, or if you find the work environment too toxic, it’s okay to say “enough”. That’s just as important a part of experiencing working life as anything else. Talk to your advisor, as you said, and come up with both an exit plan and next steps.


  2. I would really, really emphasize that you should talk to your internship supervisor if you are unhappy. As someone who is working with their first practicum student right now, it’s hard to gauge how the internship is working for the other party. I’ve asked, and gotten positive responses, but honestly? I have no idea what it looks like from the other end. Also, be forgiving if the realities of the internship are different than what you had thought. In our case, massive internal projects and changes are sort of bleeding into the internship and changing what’s possible.

    Liked by 1 person

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