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I am in a work study program in France, and I have been with a company every other month now for 3 months (and three months of school). I am studying a pretty specific subject, and my bosses have put me on a "research and development" project that has limited overlap with my studies and no clear objectives. This idea seems to have come from the top of the hierarchy, so my direct bosses don't actually have specific things they want me to do and cannot give me concrete goals or deadlines or anything (I'm basically just playing with fonts at this point).

I have spoken to them a number of times over the 3 months: first I spoke to my direct advisor in the company, he didn't have any specifics to give me and sent me to my desk. I went to see a slightly higher up boss and he said he didn't like my ungrateful tone. I have been in contact with HR and they have told me they will organize a meeting with everyone to get this straightened out. However, it's been over a week now and still nothing. I have reached a complete stand still at work (I literally have done nothing in about a month now). My school is no help either.

Is there anything I can do in this situation besides keep asking my bosses to give me things to do?

Happy Ending

The HR person got all the different bosses who's ideas had gotten all jumbled up creating this mess and they came up with clear goals they would like me to achieve. So now I'm working on that and having this structure has completely changed my outlook on my job. Having goals means I can now celebrate achieving them, and cherish the little wins that bring me closer to the final objective. Thanks to everyone for their suggestions.

Update: Actually not a happy ending

Having now achieved the over all goal of the project, I cannot get any direction from my bosses. I have told them explicitly that I don't know what to do. I have sent them the results of my research project etc, and proposed meeting to discuss what I should do from here but I am getting no response. When I asked my boss "What should I do now", he just said "I don't know" and walked away. There was never any sort of "on boarding" process where someone actually showed me how the company works or anything, and since I've been on this solo project for 8 months now, I'm not included in any other projects and my bosses don't seem to care or want to give me things to do. This poor management seems to be going on all over the company (I've had many conversations about this with colleagues), so I'm just looking for another job now....

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    Does this answer your question? I'm that awkward intern. How can I salvage it? – gnat Feb 16 at 12:13
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    @gnat I'm not sure that question does, because there could be a difference between an internship (which are sometimes done on your own initiative, outside of your formal studies), and a work/study program assigned to you as a part of a university program. – nick012000 Feb 16 at 12:20
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    Perhaps you could clarify just what your problem is? From what you've written, it appears that they have given you work. Perhaps not specific tasks, but an open-ended R&D project. (Which some people would prefer.) So what is the problem? – jamesqf Feb 16 at 22:08
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    "… over a week…" doesn't sound unreasonable in the corporate world or compared to "every other month for 3 months (and three months of school)…" Either way, on a project with no clear objectives, why not set your own? This is the situation in which I find myself; this is the mission I've been given; these are the objectives I've identified; these are the methods/resources/techniques I propose to use; these are the targets/measures I propose working to; these are the performance indicators I will report to management… Get the details agreed and the world should be your oyster. – Robbie Goodwin Feb 17 at 1:43
  • @RobbieGoodwin I get that a week is not super long, but this has been going on since the beginning so it's actually more like 6 months. Anyway, I finally got them to give me an explicit list of that which they want so thanks to everyone for their advice – E.Aigle Feb 17 at 10:30
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Talk to your university.

I'm not familiar with the particulars of French academia (and academia can vary more than many people think it does), but your university arranged this work/study program as a learning experience for you. If you're not doing anything productive or educational, then you're at risk of failing to meet the requirements that the university put in place for these programs. As a result, I would recommend talking to the faculty member at your university about the requirements of your program and what steps you and they might take together to ensure that your work/study program meets them.

After all, you don't want to fail the course it's attached to and have to redo the whole thing.

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  • The problem is the university is worse. I have spoken to the head of the program. He said he'd be in touch, but hasn't. He hasn't even returned grade from last semester. I'm really not hopeful on that side of things.... – E.Aigle Feb 16 at 10:26
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    @always_confused Is there anyone at the university with a title like "academic coordinator" or "academic liaison" for the work-study program you're doing? (The titles that university academic staff use can vary tremendously between different universities in the same country, let alone between different countries.) I'd recommend talking to them. If there isn't anyone obvious for you to contact at your university, you might want to consider talking to your university's student ombudsman, who should be able to advocate on your behalf and find someone for you to talk to. – nick012000 Feb 16 at 10:30
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    This is the first year that this program has existed and with Covid it's basically half staffed, but that's a good idea, I'll look into it – E.Aigle Feb 16 at 10:35
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    @always_confused Make sure you have your communications in writing (email) as well as phone conversations, so that you can prove it's not your fault if things don't get resolved. – Kaz Feb 16 at 12:49
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    Because this exchange between the school and the company is part of the curriculum of your school, the head of the program likely is responsible to either scolarité (in the shorter run) or / and la commision permanente des études (in the longer run), too. As by own experience (ante corona), their members may assist you (daily business, the former) and each other, regardless if the formal meetings (of the later) are scheduled, or not. – Buttonwood Feb 17 at 15:07
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The general advice for this kind of situation is to present solutions to your bosses, not problems.

"I don't have any work to do" is a problem. You're asking them to spend time and effort to solve this problem by finding work for you to do. (whether they ought to be doing that, given that this is a work study program, is neither here nor there. It is what it is right now).

"I don't have any work to do, but I've found [X] which is something I could work on for the company which will help improve [Y], am I ok to go and work on that?" is a solution. One that they can just say "yes" to.

See if that works.

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    This is great general purpose advice even in a normal day to day job. – Kirk Woll Feb 16 at 21:16
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    This has the added advantage of: you can pick out things that would be interesting to do. – Erhannis Feb 17 at 2:37
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    The last thing a busy boss wants is MORE work, and telling your boss "I have no work" is more work. This is an excellent frame challenge answer. BTW, this can easily happen in the corporate world. Learn to be a solutions provider. – Nelson Feb 17 at 4:13
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    This is not really good advice. In any normal company work is organized and prioritized. – BЈовић Feb 17 at 14:50
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    Though this is good advice in general, we're talking about a student intership here. It's unreasonable to ask someone with no experience to manage and find projects himself, the employer is neglecting his task here, and it put op at risk of failing its year. @nick012000 answer is the way to go about this – BiAiB Feb 17 at 21:52
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You have two separable objectives in this work placement:

  1. Gain as much useful knowledge and experience as you can.

  2. Meet your university's formal requirements.

You should find out from your university one simple thing: what constitutes "official success/credit" for the work/study. If there is someone at the company who will need to certify to the university that you performed well/adequately, that person becomes your main "customer" and you should do as they suggest (or document that you are reaching out to them and not receiving guidance).

Don't stir things up more than necessary. If you give the university the impression that there is a big problem they need to get involved in, they might take a heavy hand and put you under extra scrutiny, require frequent reports, etc. That might be fine, but think about whether it's what you want.

The ideal outcome is that you make sure to "check the boxes" so that whoever needs to be happy is happy, and within that constraint, you self-direct (and communicate what you're doing) to fill in the gaps in your bosses' guidance.

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You have a subject, that's at least something. What I would suggest is define yourself a goal. Let's say you're studying IA, you could set your sight on a AI tool like Tensor Flow and build something. Even just following a tutorial to learn the tool. Give you a day or two max to find something. Once you have define yourself a short, clear and achievable goal you can go to step two.

Step two is contacting both your boss (direct boss only) and school (head of department for example) in the same email. Restate that you still haven't received activities to perform or clear goal. In the absence of a clear goal or you have decided to do X because it will help you understand subject Y.

Hopefully your boos will wake up of your school will unlock the situation. What is really important is to not stay passive. I think you are in "Apprentissage" or "Alternance", you are paid for your time at the company so exploit this time as best as possible.

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  • IA is French. In English you say "AI" for "artificial intelligence" or "abstract interpretation" – Basile Starynkevitch Feb 18 at 15:09
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Sorry you're having difficulty. I don't know how things are in France, but I did a similar program in the US and learned a great deal, some of which had nothing to do with my field of study (engineering). In fact, the most useful things I learned were about dealing with different managers and co-workers, so you have an opportunity to learn here.

Here's a suggestion to consider:

Perhaps, instead of going up the chain of command, go directly to people actually doing work and get to know them. Most people like to talk about what they do for a living and if you're polite, curious and listen well, you may be able to discover an interesting job where they need help.

Try to focus on what you can do for them, rather than what they need to do for you. Also, even if you've been treated terribly by the company, resist the urge to complain about this -- it turns people off. Instead try to focus on how you'd like to understand their job and help if you can. It's a little like asking someone out on a date, you have to show your best side.

Hope this helps, best of luck!

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Context: French, in a large company, many times in charge of either interns or apprentices.

When choosing them, I always told them that I am not a good manager and that I expect them to be very independent. They will have a more or less defined subject and that they will be on their own. They will be free to come anytime to discuss, challenge, get advice. We will discuss their progress weekly.

You may be in such a situation, especially if you work in tech.

Going to HR does not make sense, they will not help (not even because they do not want to, but they simply will refer you to your supervisor).

If I were you I would do things I like (not having any specific orders), learn something, get to know people.

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    Going to HR fixed the problem, but that's for your input. It's a small company and I literally asked my bosses for advice about the project I'm working on and they basically just told me to change the font, add a graph, just tiny tweaks that don't really help me to move forward. The HR person got ALL the bosses together (I was hired by the CEO personally without even applying for a job so I find it reasonable to believe they want me to do something specific) and they all discussed what they're actually expecting from me and gave me a list of what they want. – E.Aigle Feb 18 at 7:00
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    @always_confused: that's fantastic, the HR team is top notch then (and good job). Kudos to you to have followed-up and good luck. – WoJ Feb 18 at 8:42
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Documentation

In general developers like developing. They have deadlines - usually unrealistic. Documenting what they have done is very often the last thing on their mind. If the software works leave it alone and move on to the next stage.

The problem associated with this is that end users don't understand and future developers don't dare to meddle too much with established code but may find it difficult to interface with it.

One of the best ways of becoming good at software development is to read and understand the code written by others. If you can also explain it clearly to someone who doesn't have time for the microscopic approach then you have made an invaluable bridge. At the very worst, even if no-one ever reads your documentation, you have increased your knowledge in the field, you have a nice fat document to wave in front of supervisors, and you can impress management by doing something that they have trouble persuading their developers to do.

The point about this is that you can get intimate access to the code and the nuts and bolts of the software even though they wouldn't dare given you actual developing responsibilities. You have a great excuse to ask, "Why did you do this" and "How does this work?" from the horse's mouth.

I did some of this while studying. It's a great way of doing something that is actually useful whilst learning. I even got paid for it and was offered more work as a result, although I didn't take that path.

Where this can lead

If you understand the project broadly, or just its core, you can suggest improvements from your technical overview. They may let you produce prototype API interfaces that will utilise the main code without any chance of damaging it.

Choose your level according to time constraints

Get started user manual.

Comprehensive user manual.

Summary for non-technical management/salespeople.

Developer's manual.

Developers API.

etc.

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