How To Survive And Thrive In A Sink Or Swim Internship


Sitting at your desk a few weeks into your dream internship and you’re frozen, unmoving. Looking at your hands on the keyboard in front of you, you notice all your nails are bitten to the quick. You try to make headway on your assignment, but don’t even know where to begin.

A fast-paced internship can be the invaluable career-launching experience you are looking for, but only if you find a way to swim, not sink, under pressure. You may have a crushing workload, feel insufficiently trained, or face ethical dilemmas with your work. Meanwhile, at the same time, you could feel pressured to take on everything without question or risk having your employer think you can’t keep up.

How can you voice your concerns without appearing incapable or whiny? How can you capitalize on an amazing opportunity to prove yourself when you feel too overwhelmed?

I asked Kate Garvie, a recent graduate currently completing a challenging and rewarding role as a project lead, about her experiences in the non-governmental sector over the last year since completing university. She landed her current contract after an exciting summer internship with a leading environmental NGO and while both experiences have granted her considerable experience in her field, it is not to say they were without their stressful moments.

Lesson 1: Build and use your network

One of the biggest lessons Kate says she learned while going from university to the NGO was how to forge and make use of partnerships. If you’re given more work than you can handle, try to leverage your network and don’t be afraid to ask for help.

Kate says having the responsibility of managing a multi-stakeholder project taught her the value of collaboration. “The more involved you become in the environmental community the more organizations there are to develop partnerships with,” she says. “But everyone is always busy with their own work and unless you ask, no one is going to help you out.”

Lesson 2: Be confident

Moving from the comfortable academic world into the working world can be daunting. If you are unsure of yourself, it may show and affect your ability to perform well. One of the easiest ways to build your confidence is to ask questions. The more knowledge you have on what is expected of you, the more comfortable you will feel.

“I’ve found that you just have to remember to ask and risk sounding like an idiot,” says Kate. “I’ve left calling someone to the last minute because it was so intimidating and then it just looks unprofessional. I’ve learned to leave myself a lot of time and ask every question I could think of.”

Lesson 3: Don’t compromise

The hardest situation to face entering your field may be the realization that some facets of your work conflict with your personal beliefs.

For example, one of the sources of funding for Kate’s project has significant investments in the tar sands in Alberta, which poses an ethical dilemma for her as an environmentalist. “Do you accept money for an environmental project from a big corporation who is using your project to ‘greenwash’ their name?” she asks.

There is no easy answer to this reality. “I just hope that people take the time to inform themselves about organizations and corporations so that their environmental donations don’t fool people into thinking they are green,” says Kate. “I make an effort not to support them in my personal life.”

About the author

Carley Centen is an aspiring writer/editor passionate about storytelling and obsessed with obsolete words and impractical typewriters. She holds an honours B.A. in International Development Studies from Trent University and is currently pursuing a Master’s in Socio-Legal Studies at York, which she hopes will help to prepare her for a career in non-profit communications or consulting. Carley is currently (and sporadically) developing her writing at her personal blog, C. Centen (Run).