What to Do When Your Summer Internship Sucks and You Can’t Make It Better or Leave Early
Hope you’re doing well.
I am halfway through my internship and, frankly, I am not enjoying it.
Our firm is only working with its portfolio companies and I’m mostly doing market research and thinking about partnerships, looking at competitors, etc.
I’m doing no valuation or technical work, no financial statement analysis, not even sourcing or due diligence.
We make a few presentations from time to time, but other than that there are no deliverables and I can’t name a single concrete thing I’ve learned during this internship.
I am going for full-time investment banking roles this fall, and I’m wondering how I could spin my experience. I have no real results, and the work I’m doing is barely even relevant to IB roles.
What should I do?”
Ah, yes: the dreaded difficult-to-get-but-ultimately-disappointing internship.
It happens to everyone, including this reader who wrote in with the email above the other day.
And it might just be happening to you, or about to happen to you right now.
So, what do you do when you spend more time sleeping, playing Solitaire, or watching YouTube than you do on real work – but you still have to spin it into sounding useful for future internships and full-time jobs?
Discussion of Strategic Alternatives
First things first: this is NOT about what to do if you don’t get a return offer for a full-time job, or you don’t get an internship in the first place, or you want to get a return offer but don’t know how to do it – all those have been addressed in previous articles (follow the links).
This is strictly about how to spend your time when the internship is still taking place and you’ve realized that it’s unsalvageable.
You’ve already asked for more / better work and done everything you can to improve it, but you’re nearing the end and it’s still horrible.
Why Does This Happen, and Why Does It Matter?
Your first thought might be: “Wait a minute – if it’s so ridiculously competitive to win internships at bulge bracket banks, private equity firms, and other finance firms, how could they possibly go through all that effort to hire you and then give you no real work to do the entire time?”
Sometimes this happens because of changing client demands or deal activity – a group might be super-busy in the fall or winter and then slow down to nothing by the summer.
Other times, it happens because the group or firm does not even need interns but has been forced to take them on due to office politics (i.e. someone more senior forces it on them).
And still other times, the group is disorganized and does need extra help, but isn’t sure where to put you and cannot even take the time to train you.
It’s a problem because you still need to write something about it on your resume, and you’ll be asked to speak about the internship in all future interviews – and if you’ve actually completed a real finance internship, their expectations will be much higher.
It is more of a problem when you’re interviewing than when you’re networking, because they’re more likely to probe you on work experience in formal interviews.
You’re most likely to get a bad internship at very small investment firms (PE/VC) or tiny boutique banks where they don’t have much of a use for interns, but it can happen anywhere – yes, even at bulge bracket banks.
It is more of an issue if you’ve worked at a non-brand-name firm; sure, an internship at Morgan Stanley where you learned nothing and did no real work is also disappointing, but at least you have the brand name to fall back on.
What to Do: Bad Internship Recovery 101
There are really only 2 things you can do during the internship itself to get something out of it, but we’ll go through the 4 main steps to follow both during and after the internship below:
1. Turn Random Side Projects Into Work Experience / Add Your Own Technical Work to Existing Projects
This is the key strategy to use: when they’re not giving you real work, make your own.
Let’s say that, like the reader above, you are mostly doing market research and working with existing portfolio companies.
On your own time, create a valuation for one of these portfolio companies and go back and look at files related to the original investment, such as the cap table (“capitalization table,” a document that shows all the shareholders and the percentages and types of shares they hold), and turn that into a “potential” transaction.
The story: Say that this one company was potentially interested in doing another round of fundraising, and your firm wanted to get a rough idea of valuation and what the ownership structure would look like afterward. Your task was to do the market research, run the numbers, and come up with estimates for them.
The results? Well, the internship finished up and the process was ongoing when you left. But you contributed by helping the firm better understand the company, the market, and what a reasonable valuation for future rounds of funding might be.
This type of story works because all portfolio companies consider future rounds of funding and/or exits, and it’s impossible for outsiders to know what’s going on unless they also happen to be investors and/or work at the company.
Yes, you’re spinning the truth but you are not literally “making up” work experience – you’re just taking a project or client you worked with and adding additional work you did on your own.
For this tactic to be effective, you should:
- Pick a company that has not already announced fundraising or any other type of transaction recently (deals that fell apart are great).
- Pick a company that you were already doing some work with – that way, your story sounds more credible and you can speak to it more easily.
- Avoid naming the company – describe the industry and rough size, but don’t go beyond that. If they press you, say that you can’t give the name because it hasn’t been publicly announced yet and you would be violating confidentiality.
2. Use Your Downtime to Study the Technical Side
You can also use your downtime, or even the hours after work or on weekends, to study financial modeling and pick up the technical skills on your own.
I can already sense that someone is going to leave a comment saying that I am “over-promoting” the modeling courses we offer if I link to them here, so I’m not even going to do that.
Instead, I’ll just say that there are many, many ways you can learn the technical skills on your own, from books to online courses to free YouTube clips and even the free sets of tutorials we offer.
Really, anything other than classroom training works because you can’t exactly skip out in the middle of the week for a 3-day training session.
You’re doing this so you can back up what you learned and point to case studies, valuations, or models you completed, based on specific companies and deals.
The purpose is two-fold:
- Pick up the technical skills so you can answer interview questions;
- Use this self-study as your “Plan B” in case they don’t buy into your story about potential deals or investments, or if they ask you for more examples.
3. Leverage Your Connections at the Firm to Interview Elsewhere
Even if the internship itself was horrible, the people there might still like you and want to help you succeed elsewhere – after all, from their perspective it might have been a great internship and you may have performed well.
Managers don’t necessarily care about the technical skills you learned; if you made their lives easier, even by doing administrative work, they will like you.
Of course, it’s awkward to do this if they want you to return there full-time.
So wait until the end and if you do not receive the offer and/or the firm is not bringing back interns, approach the 2-3 people you got to know best and ask if they know people at other banks / finance firms that are looking to hire.
4. Spin It On Your Resume and In Interviews
There are many ways to do this (see the examples below), but the key point is that being vague about results is more acceptable after an internship.
A few months of work, or even 6-9 months of work, is not enough time to see the “results” in many cases because deals tend to drag on for a long time.
So take the side projects you did on your own and label them “potential” deals or investments, say that a deal died and came back and might be dead again, or label them “ongoing” when asked about their status.
And then be prepared with the self-study you did and any case studies you completed there as your “Plan B” option.
Take Me to the Examples, Please
Here are a few examples of “internships gone wrong” where you might apply the tips above:
Case #1: An IB Internship Filled with a Whole Lot of Nothing
You’ve mostly been doing administrative work, and the full-time analysts and associates are unfriendly and don’t want to give you anything real to work on…
So you look on the shared drive, find a few previous deals and clients, and start reviewing the valuation and operating model for a sell-side M&A deal that fell apart the year before (dead deals are great because they could come back to life at any time, so no one can prove or disprove your story).
In your downtime, you create your own 3-statement model for the company and update the valuation for the current market environment.
Then you also spend some time doing self-study to learn more about how to calendarize and adjust for non-recurring charges in comps.
In interviews and when networking, admit upfront that you did not focus on technical work, but that you did get some exposure to one client that was interested in selling a year ago – it fell apart, but then the company came back recently and might have been interested again.
Your role was to update the valuation for the current market environment, so as part of that you… [Explain what you did on your own here].
Case #2: A “Research-Focused” VC Internship
This happens ALL the time in venture capital, especially at early-stage firms, because you do a ton of research and little financial analysis.
Here, you should find existing portfolio companies that have at least some revenue (it’s hard to run a valuation applicable to IB roles with pre-revenue companies) and then create your own valuations for them, or look at the cap table and see how another investment would change the ownership percentages.
Then, admit upfront that there was a lot of qualitative / research work, but one company was considering an additional round of financing – and the firm wanted to get an idea of what a reasonable valuation might be and how the market had changed since last time.
When you left, the company was still considering its options so you don’t have results to point to – but you saved the firm a lot of time and helped them think through the numbers for the potential deal.
Case #3: The Cold-Calling PE Internship
This one is quite rare since most interns, even at smaller PE firms, don’t necessarily do a lot of cold calling (post-banking associates handle this).
You might have to do that between 9 AM and 5 PM each day, but at night or early in the morning take the same approach and research past deals and current portfolio companies and build your own models for them.
You could use any number of stories for this one:
- The firm was revaluing its portfolio and wanted you to value previously acquired companies as a sanity check.
- One company was considering a future IPO or potentially selling itself, so you ran an LBO model for it based on the initial deal and your valuation.
- The firm was looking at consolidation plays in the sector, so you created merger models for one of the portfolio companies and several smaller acquisition candidates.
Then, tell interviewers upfront that you did a lot of “sourcing,” but you also worked with portfolio companies on the points above – there weren’t too many active deals given that the firm was about to raise another fund, but you were able to do some of the work above.
What NOT to Do
You have to be careful with everything above because you are stretching the truth. Here are the 2 most common bad suggestions I’ve seen:
Take It Too Far
There is a limit to how much you can spin, and this limit will appear very quickly in in-person interviews.
That is why it’s so important to hedge yourself by admitting the shortcomings of the internship upfront and never claim that you were involved with an active or closed deal/investment.
Limit all references to “potential” deals and companies that are considering various options, and describe them by industry name and size rather than giving names (you should never give names anyway, for any reason, unless the deal has closed).
Leave / Quit Midway Through
No matter how bad the internship is, leaving early is a really bad idea for the same reason that it’s a bad idea to renege on job offers.
Finance is a VERY small industry and if you leave in a dramatic fashion, word will inevitably get around.
This is only a good idea if the internship is somehow taking up a massive amount of time, you’re getting nothing out of it, and you can’t network/interview for other roles… but how could it be taking up a massive amount of time if you’re doing no real work?
Will Any of This Work?
No matter how well your spin your internship, no, you still won’t be on par with an intern who worked on 3 live M&A deals at Goldman Sachs.
But it will help, and it’s much better than admitting you did nothing or sheepishly making excuses that “there wasn’t much deal flow.”
It will also make more of a difference outside of pure bulge bracket investment banking roles, where the “selection criteria” is often “Did he/she work at a brand-name firm? Did he/she attend a top school and earn a high GPA? Are there active or closed deals listed on his/her resume?”
Plus, what else are you going to do the whole time? Play Solitaire / Call of Duty / FarmVille? Watch YouTube videos?
Yeah, I thought so.
Spinning a poor internship into sounding better than it was is not ideal, but it sure beats the alternatives – at least if you want to move onto something bigger and better in the future.
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