How to navigate your first internship

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Internships are an important part of an accounting education and a decision that should not be taken lightly. Determining what type of internship you want, the geographical location, the subject matter and the preceptor are all valuable elements to consider.

Step one is to talk to an academic advisor at your university and understand how internships factor into the degree path you are pursuing. In that meeting, find out what counts for course credit and if there are resources available to you to help land an internship. Step two is what you need to do in the process. Carefully plan your courses, keep up your GPA, research firms, network with others and practice your interviewing skills.

Even if you don’t feel it now, interns do bring value to accounting firms. You may be thinking, “Now what? I’ve never worked for an accounting firm before; for that matter, I’ve only been a camp counselor! What if I don’t know what I’m doing? What if my boss instructs me to do something and I have no idea what they're talking about? Who will I be working with? Will I like them? What if I don’t like them?” All of these are valid concerns that every intern goes through.

It’s at this point in the process that I strongly encourage you to remember a lesson you learned in kindergarten regarding fire safety in order to build a better internship experience: stop, drop and roll!

Stop — take a breath

Take a moment to stop the runaway freight train of anxiety in your brain. You’ve got this! Remember the extension of your internship offer was not a random act, but rather the firm’s careful decision based on quantitative and qualitative data presented in your academic transcripts and interviews. Your performance got you to this point. Remember, your future performance is what will determine where you go from here!

Drop — time to get serious

There is no expectation on the firm’s part that you will enter your internship being able to audit accounts receivable or complete a Form 1040. For this reason, most internships will begin with one to two weeks of firm-specific training. The training is usually led by seniors, managers or partners of the firm and includes coverage of firm culture, resources and service line specific information (i.e., assurance, tax, etc.) I strongly encourage you to make the most of this training opportunity by doing the following:

  • Ask questions — lots of them. There will be many topics covered in the training sessions, some that will be familiar to you and some that will be completely new information. Do not be afraid to ask questions! I guarantee if you don’t understand something, at least 10 other people in the room are in the same boat. It is in the process of figuring out what we don’t understand, seeking and obtaining clarity that learning occurs!
  • Engage with your leaders and instructors. During the training, you will be introduced to a number of professionals in the firm of various backgrounds, positions and industry expertise. Take advantage of this opportunity to “pick the brains” of these folks as you begin your career path. Listen to their stories and learn from their experiences.
  • Network with your peers. There will be new interns and staff from various regions attending the training session. Get to know as many as possible, as you may run into them as you are assigned to various clients of the firm. It’s always great to see a friendly face!

Roll — time to get dirty and get to work

Over the course of your internship, remember the importance of teamwork. You will spend more time with your coworkers than friends, family or foes, so learning how to get along is of utmost importance. Consider this intense networking, problem-solving skills and relationship development. The skills you acquire managing personalities are almost as important as the accounting experience.

In that theme, prioritize being mindful of everyone’s time. At the beginning of the engagement, set expectations regarding communication. Establish how and when you ask for clarity or assistance on issues so as not to interrupt every 10 minutes.

Always be willing to go the extra mile. Once you’ve completed a task, ask if you can be of assistance to anyone else on the team. You may not be able to audit derivatives at this point, but offering to help your teammates will go a long way in completing the engagement.

Teamwork makes the dream work, but understanding and focusing on your individual work is incredibly important in supporting your team. Set proper expectations at the beginning of your internship as to the type of work you will be performing. There will be some routine tasks assigned to you that must be completed timely and correctly. In other words, you must crawl before you walk and walk before you run. It is all part of the learning process.

Lastly, my advice to you is to schedule regular reflection throughout your internship. As your ultimate goal of an internship is career planning, take the time to self-check your thoughts and emotions. Remember, you don’t need to know what type of clients and industries you want to serve for the rest of your career. Use the internship opportunity to make a short list of clients and industries that you really liked and those that you didn’t. Knowing what you don’t want to do at this point in your career is equally valuable data as knowing what you do want to do!

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