Make the Most of an Internship

Illustrations by DaVidRo

No matter your major, the “perfect internship” is a preprofessional white whale. Even unpaid internships can be obnoxiously selective. But chances are (about 75 percent) you’ll do at least one before launching your career. Maybe you’re even doing one now, sitting on your childhood mattress and asking the dog for his coffee order. (Or maybe that’s just me?)

While there’s no formula for landing a just-right gig, Stanford-connected managers have a few tips for students and companies alike to make the most of their internships.

colorful illustration of a map locator pin contained in a circle

Dive Deep

Mason Funk, ’80

“I encourage people to first find the place where you feel like you can make a contribution,” says Mason Funk, executive director and founder of Outwords, an LGBTQ+ documentary organization. “The best outcomes for interns are when there’s a clear passion.”

Outwords interns put in 10 weeks at the nonprofit, spending half their time on “nuts and bolts” and half on a self-designed project. This mix of structure and freedom, Funk says, compels them to deliver on a timeline while creating their own milestones.

Interns have done everything from executing fundraisers to creating queer playlists and oral history podcasts. Funk says that when interns find energizing projects, they’ll really dive into the work. And the results, he says, will be more valuable—to intern and company alike.

colorful illustration of bugs and a flyswatter to 'debug' contained in a circle.

Raise Your Hand

Anna Geiduschek, ’14

An internship is no time to hold back. Interns are assets to a company, and they’re not supposed to know everything, says Anna Geiduschek, ’14, a senior software engineer at Recidiviz, a nonprofit that builds data-based tools aimed to help the criminal justice system improve itself from within. Geiduschek, who mentors Stanford public interest technology interns, says finding the right environment is key. A supportive, nurturing atmosphere benefits not only interns but also organizations themselves: “This is someone who has the opportunity to develop and become a huge contributor to your company in a couple of years. It’s really fun when you see an intern start to take ownership over what they’ve been building.” 

For interns, she says, “If there’s a bug or an improvement that you see, say, ‘I can do this. I’ve identified this edge case, and now I want to fix it.’” Interns should speak up right away if they have trouble with an assignment. “I try to say, like, 100 times: If you get stuck, ask me a question,” says Geiduschek. In tech or engineering, she says, the consequences of waiting to ask a question could mean days of work getting thrown out. “If you’re making changes to the code, the smaller you can make each change, the easier it will be for us to catch structural issues. This is like a communication thing, really—it’s better to be in constant communication.”

Illustration of two hearts

Put Your Heart in It

Javier Aguirre, ’96

Javier Aguirre, director of reentry services for Santa Clara County, encourages students to find work that embodies compassion. His day-to-day is all about making a difference for people easing back into society after incarceration. “Mentoring and tutoring underprivileged individuals from East Palo Alto—that’s where I saw how kids were dealing with the high crime rates, drugs and gang issues back in the ’90s.” Witnessing the “human side of the criminal justice system,” he says, led him to law school and then to his current position.

Compassion, Aguirre says, is the most important value in his work, and it’s the basis of his problem-solving. His interns spend a week meeting with clients and listening to what they need during their transition. The interns then incorporate what they’ve learned into self-designed projects, such as collecting clean clothes for clients, conducting surveys within the community, or researching family reunification. They experience firsthand how compassion can drive efficacy in public service. “If we make a difference with one person,” Aguirre says, “that’s one less person we see back in jail.”

colorful illustration of dots and lines connecting within a circle

Talk to Everyone

Jim Liu, ’17

A former intern manager for Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Jim Liu says it’s important for interns to talk openly about their priorities. “You have to let your team know which companies or subsectors interest you. This not only makes your work more interesting but shows everyone you work with that you’re taking the time to think about your work rather than just getting a task, checking it off, and saying ‘I’m done.’”

Novice interns in particular should talk to people outside of their company. That’s where Stanford’s alumni network can be helpful, Liu says. You may not hear back from every person you reach out to, “but they understand the struggle and the stress and anxiety,” he says. “Whether they’re young or more developed in their career, everyone is usually more than willing to help.”

Liu, now a private equity associate at GI Partners, started his job online and says that he understands how discouraging it can be to network virtually in what is “still a very social industry.” Connecting is worth the effort, he says. “The best moments come when you’re interacting with your team and solving problems.”

colorful illustration of musical instruments contained within a circle

Enjoy Yourself

Jelena Obradović

Developmental psychologist Jelena Obradović’s favorite memory of lab work is from the pre-COVID-19 days of arriving to find the music blasting as colleagues coded physiological or observational learning data—“everyone just giggling and laughing, having a good time,” she says.

She knows from experience that interns should look for and invest in the lighthearted side of work. It was during her doctoral studies in developmental psychology that she observed how connection and camaraderie in a lab produced better research. “You can have a culture of competitiveness, or you can have a culture of collaboration,” says Obradović, an associate professor at the Graduate School of Education and the director of the Stanford Project on Adaptation and Resilience in Kids (SPARK) lab. “Stanford is one of those amazing places where there’s an abundance of opportunities and resources, and there really doesn’t need to be competitiveness.”

Obradović’s lab structure includes mentoring and peer collaboration. Instead of working independently, research assistants go over presentations, procedures and problems with one another. No matter what young researchers are thinking in terms of grad school, Obradović says, their summer experience should not burn them out: “You have another grueling academic year on the end of this internship, so the number one thing I say is just have fun.”


Sophie Boyd-Fliegel, ’21, is a former editorial intern at Stanford. Email her at stanford.magazine@stanford.edu.