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I recently started a new position as a researcher in a start-up. This is the founder's (my boss) first start-up and it was created less than 1 year ago, so I would say we are both new at this. The research can entail a lot of involved mathematics (similarly to e.g. machine learning), but in the end we are of course concerned with practical deployment too.

Our first intern started a 5-months internship this week. His background is pure maths, and the internship we agreed on was very mathematical. After all parties agreed to the internship and its topic (though my boss was not very involved at that stage), a more deployment-oriented project came up and my boss told me that he would like the intern to work on it. This week, he made it clear that the main focus of the internship should be this project.

This change of plan makes me uncomfortable. I am personally somewhat agnostic to both internships (mathematical or deployment-oriented), but I find it unfair to sell an internship to someone and then change the topic to something he may not like, once it is too late for him to change his mind. On the other hand, my boss is the boss. What should I do?

  • Is it part of your responsibilities or roles to look out for this intern and their well-being/support, or HR in general? Will this project last more than 5 months or is it something transitory but critical? – DarkCygnus Mar 15 at 20:53
  • Are the terms of the internship a legally binding contract? Is there any verbiage to the exact duties, tasks, and responsibilities? Is there a clause that speaks to the changed nature of the internship? More importantly, would you be depriving the intern of a valuable learning opportunity by speaking up about this? – joeqwerty Mar 15 at 21:07
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    @DarkCygnus : Yes, I would say that looking out for the intern in general is part of my responsibilities. The project will last more than 5 months, it just started but it looks like it will be important for the company. – Researcher Mar 15 at 21:23
  • @joeqwerty : the terms of the internship are legally binding, terms of the exact duties are generic and no clause address the changed nature of the internship. I'm sorry, I don't understand your last question, can you clarify it please? – Researcher Mar 15 at 21:24
  • My last question is would you be depriving them of a valuable learning opportunity in this new area? Have you asked them? Do they have any interest in this new area? It might very well benefit them. – joeqwerty Mar 15 at 21:38
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Sometimes companies seem to be of the opinion that an intern is simply a low-paid/unpaid slave to do whatever tasks others don't want to be done. Care must be exercised to ensure that is not the situation.

I look back on the internship I did while in grad school. My supervisor was quite upset the one day to find the janitor had asked me to help him change light bulbs! That was not within my "range" of duties. I, however, was willing to do whatever was needed, as I would soon be leading a similar organization that might have me doing whatever menial task might need done, even as the guy "in charge".

The question I'd ask is "Does this new project give real world experience using his/her education?" If so, it's not out of the question to consider for the intern. Perhaps get the intern's opinion on it.

But if you're really concerned about it, I'd suggest having a talk with the boss.

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I graduated two years ago, and did three internships during my studies. Without a country, I can not look into your specific legislations and thus can not give a legal answer. (Plus, we would probably need to review the contracts to see if it is binding or not. To do so, you should consult someone whose job is to do so).

Now, for a cultural/company answer1. Yes, it is ok, sadly. I had a fellow student taking an internship about data processing and ending up sorting photos in folder, without the slightest hint of coding. I have been "hired" to code in a language, on a defined technology, and switched mid internship to something else.

As said Keith, most interns are treated barely better than glorified slaves cheap work-force. Going to work was more expensive that what I was paid for it. So changing the subject of my internship was the least of my concern.

Why interns accept to be treated as such?

  • We (they, now) need it to graduate. And the school probably won't invalidate the inthernship, since retaking a year cost money.
  • We learn things. And the more you learn, the more things you're able to put on your very short CV once you're out for a job.
  • We are unexperienced. And while I find it distasteful to take advantage of that, no interns will complain unless massively abused (saw it once).

My point is, as long as the intern takes something out of it, they will probably go along with it, cause they have no other choice and it is socially acceptable. If you think your intern will learn something valuable (and they're really few things that you can not make use of), then they will be better off than most interns out there.

Thanks for looking out for the well-being of your intern.

PS: To answer the final (and not the title)'s question - What should you do?

Well, you voiced your concerns. If your boss insists, then you have very little choice but to comply, as long as it is legal. Explaining the rational behind the company's choice to the intern could soften the transition. Highlight how it can be applied to his field of study and help him transfer the skill so he can put it to use, and you'll have gone above and beyond what is commonly offered to interns.

1: In a western-Europe/USA culture.

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From my experience, since I was also looking for internship and especially if it's an end of studies internship, you CAN'T change the topic after the agreement. You have to tell him about the possibility of a change in the topic, give more specific details about the new topic and then he'll discuss the possibility of it being as an end of studies internship. In my case, it is the dean who accepts or deny the topic of the internship after studying from different angles :

  • Does it respect the school program ?
  • What are the gains for the student ? (Eg : new technologies, new skills ...)
  • Is the topic good enough for a 5 month internship or is it something that can be done in just 1 month or less ? And lot of other questions.

So if you want to change the topic you have to first notify the Intern about this change and discuss its possibility with him, if he agrees then it's up to the school to decide if he can accept it or not.

P.S : Some schools doesn't care at all if the topic has been changed, but in my case it's not, if the dean doesn't give his consent to the topic, you can't start working on it.

Edit : Bear in mind that the topic can decide the entire future for a student. As mentionned in the other comment, interns are not some kind of slaves to do whatever task you give them, you need to keep in mind their background knowledge, studies and also respect in case you decide to hire him later on.

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From my experience (in germany and the UK) our interns usually had their own contracts according to the regional employment law. Those contracts included not only formalities like work hours, vacation etc. but also the interns duties, as well was the employers duties.

Most internships where compulsory and required certain skills/knowledge to be provided by the employer during this time to be acknowledged by University. Most other intens also wanted to learn a specific skillset or gain experience in a specific field of knowledge. Those where all agreed upon in written form in their contracts. Depending on your country and your contracts you may not be able, by law, to just arbitrarily change those contracts.

Even if there is no written contract, you intern might also reserve the right to quit his internship and move on to the next company if he realises he does not gain any relevant experience on the project you mentioned. Also from my experience having workend in IT, Industry, Insurance and Finance, young tallent with a math-background are in high demand.

The best way to solve this would be to sit down and talk to him in a professional manner. Ask him, what kind of skills/knowlege he is hoping to gain from your internship and whether working on deployment would be of any benefit to him. If so, you could renegotiate the contract. If not you can of course still just "order" him to do it. But I would not be surprised if he would be gone long before those 5 months are over.

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