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How To Survive Your Internship

Internships can be very demanding but it is important to stay positive, says a well-known magazine editor

When it comes to surviving an internship or starting a business, your attitude is very important.

So says Ms Deborah Tan,  the former editor in chief of Cosmopolitan magazine. An intern who has a sense of reality and a “bit of apprehension” make a good bet for doing well, she says.


Ms Deborah Tan holding court in The Agency on how a good intern
can impress her bosses


She made this point at the end of a two-hour talk on Internship Readiness at Singapore Polytechnic recently. Her audience consisted of third-year students from the Diploma in Media and Communication Course.


Ms Deborah Tan and her colleagues, with Year 3 DMC students

Ms Tan is now a co-founder of Material World, a boutique content agency she set up with her ex-colleagues from Cosmopolitan. Calling themselves “Material Girls”, the team comprises Denise Li, Tan Lili and Vanessa Tan, who have also worked in Cosmopolitan magazine with Ms Tan. They write advertisements, articles and editorials for a variety of print and online publications. They also own and run the website materialworldsingapore.com on which they post informative and entertaining articles discussing current issues and lifestyle.


(From left) Ms Lili Tan, Ms Deborah Tan, Ms Denise Li and Ms
Vanessa Tan


Throughout their careers, the team had also worked with many interns. In fact, except Ms Li, all of them started their vocations as interns. Ms Deborah Tan also has an engaging and humorous message about the qualities and attitudes an intern ought to possess in her talk.

An employer’s expectations can be summed up in the word “HIRE”, she says. H stands for being a HYPER intern, one that beats a glum one any day. I stands for “having the INITIATIVE” to ask your boss for an assignment rather than waiting to be given one. R stands for “RELIABLE” and being on top of your game. E stands for “ENTHUSIASM”. It is important, she stresses, to look like you are interested even though you are not. 

As for what employers hate to see in interns, the acronym TIRED says it all, she says.

“T is for ‘tardiness’. Employers give no grace period for entering the office. I is for ‘Irresponsible’ which means you are never going to climb the ladder of success if you can’t carry out your work responsibly. “R is for ‘Retarded’. Yes, this may sound silly but employers are turned off by interns who don’t think! R is for ‘Entitlement’ which means that you cannot expect to step into the shoes of the big guns immediately – you need to learn the ropes. Finally, D stands for ‘Diva’. Leave those 4-inch Jimmy Choo shoes at home if you want to be able to work and leave a good impression on your bosses.” You also need to be open to unusual assignments. Ms Deborah Tan recalls how she was asked to find 100 well dressed women in Singapore for a CLEO article when she was an intern, she says: “So I literally had to walk around Singapore for two weeks asking strange random women to let me take their pictures.”

When deciding if a student makes a good intern, Ms Denise Li says she likes to ask “Which part of the magazine do you like?” She notes usually that’s very telling already, saying “I’d get interns telling me that ‘Honestly I haven’t read CLEO or COSMO’, and I would go 'so why are you here?’”

While the upside is being able to get a job if you succeed at your internship, there is a chance of being fired as well.

Ms Vanessa Tan recalls how the team once fired a girl who asked incessant irrelevant questions and got in the way of people doing their jobs well.

Ms Tan Lili has this advice for would-be interns: “Be very open-minded. Don’t just focus on  how it sucks to steam clothes. Would it not be better to focus on doing your best and along the way learning from whoever you are assisting?”

Written By
Masayaoe Nabilah and Daniel Lim
Year 3, Diploma in Media and Communication