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We took on some interns who are still in college on the request of one of their teachers. The interns don't have much skill at all and don't seem to be taking things seriously. They lack enthusiasm: missing deadlines, just not really trying it seems. They seem to be taking the internship just for the sake of putting some experience on their resume.

From the start, since they have a lack of knowledge, they have been treating it more as a class than an internship. They seem to only try to learn while in the office and don't even try to go over anything learnt that day at home. Of course this means their progress is really slow since they just tend to try in the office.

I've given them deadlines to learn something by certain dates and they all come back without having gone through a single chapter/lesson. Just today, one of them told me they can't access something. Something I gave them Monday and they are supposed to get done by tomorrow. Had they gone through this all when given on Monday, we wouldn't have run into this issue.

How can we handle this? Are we failing as an internship program? Should we just cut the interns, knowing they are not putting forth any effort?


Thanks all for the feedback. We did communicate clearly that this was different from school and that deadlines are important and what the expectations from them were.

Noted on the feedback that homework shouldn't be assigned. I think that was maybe the biggest mistake to try to get things to move a bit faster. These are part timers, only four hours a day, so going through the material in the office without practice wasn't getting us anywhere. So we basically asked them to practice at home. It is kind of what a real life job would be.

It's frustrating when you try to teach them something like writing a paragraph and they don't know what a sentence is. You spend hours teaching them and a few days later they still don't have any idea what it is. Even though you have taught and given them many resources to figure it out. Then it's teaching the same thing over again.

You are right about the institute not caring. They just sent the students, no follow up or anything. The students don't seem to care much either than just meet the requirement of doing an internship. I think we will just let the time run out and not have them back or deal with that institute again.

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    Where in the world are you and what is an internship defined like where you are?
    – nvoigt
    Jul 1 at 8:40
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    Do you have me confused with someone? I have not said anything about internships. I ask because where I live there exist at least three types of placement of people that aren't done with their education yet, and all of them might be translated to "internship" using a dictionary, but all three are completely different in their expectations of what should happen from both sides and maybe even completely different from what a native speaker expects of an internship. So I'm asking this question because "internship" when you translate it and use it internationally like here is extremly ambiguous.
    – nvoigt
    Jul 1 at 9:24
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    Are they being paid? If not, why would you expect them to do more than the absolute minimum? Jul 1 at 14:48
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    "So basically asked them to practice at home. Kind of what a real life job would be." is not an appropriate requirement from any workers, interns or not. Any employer-required training and practice is part of work time, and should happen during work hours; people of course may choose to practice something during their free time, but they have zero duty to do so, it's reasonable for excellent employees to not do so and spend their free time practicing something totally unrelated to the job. Non-work time is theirs, it's unprofessional and unethical to make requirements on how they spend it.
    – Peteris
    Jul 1 at 16:10
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    Can you add more information to your question about the internship arrangement? For instance, are they getting paid? If so, how much (in relative terms, e.g., symbolic, subsistence level, or some significant percentage of a new graduate's salary)? Do the students need the internship in order to graduate? Why does the company offer internships? (But without "Edit:", "Update:", or similar - the question should appear as if it was written today.). Also consider not invalidating existing answers. Jul 2 at 11:55

6 Answers 6

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Interns are not expected to know very much.

Interns are expected to be taught and mentored until a decision can be made on whether they are going to become full-time employees.

If the interns' attitude is poor then simply don't invite them back and don't offer them a job.

Even if you employ CS graduates that know a great deal in regards to tech it may take them up to a year before they really hit their productive stride. Depending on how orthodox the tech that is used in the company, is.

If you have a good uni that produces good talent then it is natural to want to attract job seekers that are close to you.

You can call this an internship but whatever you call it consider it more like a glorified ad campaign to generate potential local employees. Rather this than expecting them to produce anything economically viable. Basically just sell your company as a place to work. Have fun with it but most importantly just have realistic expectations.

Internships, unfortunately, have become a farce. It is just a practice where you employ people to do real work but call it an "internship" so you can screw them out of a proper salary.

Internships as they should be done should bridge the divide between book smarts and first-hand experience of the work environment.

Not just coerce people to do work they are not ready for so as to save some money on a companies wage bill.

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    The deadline was just something to see if they can get motivated to finish something on time. The work they are doing is secondary and not important. Just feel our resources are being wasted. I think it should be a two way street where we are teaching them and they are trying to learn. The trying to learn part is missing. I have thrown out the doing a project thing and made it more of lets have them learn something but they are not even taking that serious. They are second year computer science students and dont even know how a variable works. They dont even put effort to learn that.
    – user135651
    Jul 1 at 8:29
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    "Internships have become a farce": Please don't make such broad generalizations. Obviously, this depends on the interns, the country, the university etc. I have had (and currently have) some absolutely stellar interns, and very few bad ones. Sorry to hear you've had worse luck with yours, but don't blame the idea of internship on some bad apples.
    – terdon
    Jul 1 at 14:14
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    @terdon My reading of "internships have become a farce" was more a complaint about employers trying to replace full-time positions with "interns". I don't think it was a criticism of interships with the genuine intention to mentor students
    – DavidW
    Jul 1 at 14:45
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    @terdon I think Neil is saying that many companies have made internships a farce by using them a source of cheap labour (skilled or not). I don't read it as a criticism of the interns themselves. The good interns are the ones who suffer most from this situation because they get neither the mentoring nor the pay.
    – Carl
    Jul 1 at 14:46
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    @lordbodom they should not be expected to "finish something on time" on their own. The expectation from internships is that they would receive constant supervision while finishing that something; if they are able to do something independently then that's not training but normal work, that's already beyond expectations for trainees (as they don't require training for that) and they should not be doing such tasks during internship, those tasks should be treated as proper paid employment.
    – Peteris
    Jul 1 at 16:14
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It's all about expectations and communicating them.

What can you expect from people 1.5 years into their CS education when they are placed in your organisation through some education program?

Well, if they come from a good education and well organized institution, you can expect to get a team of people that will develop an application for you, by the requirements you set. It might not be as good as professionals, it might not be as much as professionals would get done in the same timeframe, but it is a full fledged application with features. You can expect their mentor from the institution to come over and discuss progress with you, before, mutiple times during, and after the placement. You are obviously suppsoed to help them with everything specific to your organization, but you are not supposed to be their teacher. More like their manager. Or maybe as if you had hired contractors.

That is how my education path worked in the center of Europe. It was very successful, the company hired my team after that and I had many other teams and over the years hired a few of them myself as a technical manager in that company.

However you could also get some completely disinterested institution where people needed to be placed. That doesn't care. That did not teach enough for their people to be a benefit to the organisation. That does not follow up or check on progress. As a result, you would obviously not extend an offer to the students and you would not accept another placement from their institution. Lesson learned.

This is what we do here and it has obvious benefit to both the organization, the students and the institution.


You can always expect less, but you have to figure out what the benefit to you is then and if it is worth it doing it at all. Your company is not a charity for incompetent developers, nor is it college for people that cannot afford college.

Now, I have no idea what an "internship" is expected to be where you live. The problem is that even where I live, there are three different types of placement that would be translated as "internship", with wildly differing expectations. Add the typical US internship (that I know little about) and you have 4 types and yours are not even included. I would take a wild guess and say you have no idea either, how this internship of yours is defined exactly. So the first step is: clarify what an internship with your company is. Offer that transparently, meaning tell people beforehand what you expect. If they do not perform, talk to their teaching institutions supervisor. If they cannot get them to perform, do not take interns from them again. Please note that I mean "perform" in the general sense of doing okay inside your expectations, however you set them. They will obviously not perform as well as professionally trained, experienced people. They are on their way getting there.

You should discuss your internship expectations with your manager, because depending on what you expect, you have to invest vastly different amounts of time. And invested time is something that you have to deduct from the other projects you have on your desk.


One thing though is something pretty independent of your expectations: people placed in your organisation during their education will not study at home. This is their first contact with real work, they probably live close to their education institution and have to commute a longer distance daily to reach your company, where everything is new and complicated. If they get home, they are exhausted. They have 8 hours a day to learn stuff, that is enough. There should not be homework, neither explicit or implied. If you want them to do something specific or learn something specific, give it to them as a task during their work day, as you would with any other employee.

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  • I would not expect "a team of people that will develop an application for you, by the requirements you set", it takes years to actually get good at this stuff. It's fine to work with them, otherwise you will be left maintaining code that probably has all sorts of weirdness in it. Jul 2 at 9:24
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    @StuartAxon Well, that is what we do here. And it works. Yes, it's obviously their first work and not as great as a veteran professional's, but from people 1.5 years into their CS education, you can expect that level of expertise. They should be able to develop something on their own, with no need for teaching by the company. If people expect less from their student placements, then they are lowering the bar unneccessarily.
    – nvoigt
    Jul 2 at 13:07
  • Every company has different systems and expectations, yes someone could develop something on their own that is completely isolated, but that is rarely the case. Even doing this for coming on 25 years, I feedback from peers when I go to a new place is essential, there are all sorts of expectations and things you interface with you will only learn by people looking at your stuff. I've worked a student before where I didn't have any time to mentor them, and left them to it - and although they were competent, it worked out disastrously, and that is on me for not making more time for them. Jul 21 at 13:30
  • If you are going to leave them alone to build something, this isn't useful experience for them: in a real job, there are constantly meetings, and ad-hoc conversations with other devs, you aren't giving them a realistic version of the workplace. If you want someone to come in, and build a system then leave you want a consultant and should pay accordingly - in general these are really experienced people, because a lot of this isn't writing code, but everything around it. Jul 21 at 13:30
  • And yet, that is what those people at that stage in their education need most: the chance to do something without hand-holding and without guard rails and without somebody standing by knowing everything better. They have the same amount of meetings any other team has. They do have a boss that will check on their progress and they do have colleagues they can ask for help if needed. But no teachers. That is why I said the OP needs to clarify what an internship means for them: "my interns need something different in their stage of their education" is absolutely fair. Not going to argue that.
    – nvoigt
    Jul 21 at 13:41
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I suspect part of the problem is that your organization has not effectively communicated what it expects from interns to the interns from the first time you took them on.

We took on some interns who are still in college from the request of one of their teachers

I'd have to wonder if you interviewed them or just took them on as a block, which is what it sounds like.

They should have had a process at the start that signaled to them that :

  • this was not college and missed deadlines mean the company can lose business
  • that they are being trusted to carry out tasks that, while perhaps not glamorous, do need to be done properly and enable others to complete their tasks. Note that school work does not have this kind of "chain" - they'll mostly be used to doing a task and failure only impacts them. This is a key difference between work and study.
  • that in return for their effort the company will give them knowledge and experience of a real workplace.
  • It is an opportunity for those that want to impress possible future employers to show their ability to learn to work effectively, because learning to work is different from learning knowledge.

I get the impression that to them it is being communicated, perhaps by the school, that this is "just" something they have to complete to pass the course. That would certainly explain their attitude to the process.

Your company needs to communicate the difference between what is expected of workers (interns) and students (which is what they may be thinking of themselves as).

Don't rely on the school to make this clear to them. Schools have their own goals and agendas and often the people teaching have relatively little (or no) experience of workplaces their students may end up at. They have an academic mindset and may even regard the internship as unimportant from their point of view.

It may not be too late to set this right with the existing interns, but it's something you whould consider for the next batch.

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    Assuming an unpaid internship, interns are very different from workers and it's entirely inappropriate (depending on country, even illegal) to have expectations from them as from workers. Quoting US Department of Labor thebalancecareers.com/… "The internship (even though it includes the actual operation of the employer's business) should be similar to training given in an educational environment and include hands-on experience." - noting that the expectations should be as from students and not as from employees.
    – Peteris
    Jul 1 at 16:06
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    @Peteris I think that Dept of Labor quote just shows how detached from reality it is. Future employers will expect an internship to have workplace experience, not something like an educational environment. However I take your point about expectations being the issue here even if we're disagreeing about what are realistic expectations.. Jul 1 at 22:21
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    Peteris is correct. Statements such as "this was not college and missed deadlines mean the company can lose business" in regard to interns are a big red flag that the company is inappropriately attempting to get cheap labour rather than provide training in how things work in a business as compared to a university. In most situations a company should never be giving business-critical tasks to interns, especially without very close supervision. That's both foolishness on the part of the company and an inappropriate attempt to exploit the interns that's likely to end in failure.
    – cjs
    Jul 2 at 8:49
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The Accountability Loop Applies to Interns

  • Set Expectations
  • Observe performance
  • Provide feedback and consequences
  • Repeat
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When I was ~30 I went back to college for computer science.

I was shocked at how my 18~20 year old undergraduate "peers" thought and acted.

To them, googling for how to perform a programming task or reading an existing answer on Stack Overflow (or any other source outside the course text) was cheating, not learning. Looking up related concepts or chasing down a trail of implication was alien, they just wanted to complete only tasks that were explicitly assigned to them, with minimal effort.

It's not that they were lazy (they put in the requisite hours trying to solve homework problems using the course text as a resource), but more that their entire world consisted of ticking off list items because some authority figure told them to. And can you blame them? For most of them that had literally been their entire waking life for the last decade+.

And thinking back, I'm pretty sure I had the exact same broken mental model of how the world worked when I was their age.

I've for the most part observed this same dynamic in others who went back to university or when through coding bootcamps as adults (with the necessary nod to survivorship bias) vs. fresh ~22 year old university grads, which leads me to believe that the disconnect is that you are expecting them to act like adults who just lack domain expertise, when they are to a large degree still children.

I'm not saying that you will have to wrangle them like small children, but you are going to have to help inculcate how to be an effective, professional employee. The expectations of the workplace are completely different than the expectations of primary school or an undergraduate program (which is perhaps an indictment of how we educate young people, but such is a topic for another time).

If you hang out much on Academia.SE you'll see the same thing happens to a lot of graduate and doctoral students: after almost 20 years of exclusively dancing to someone else's very specific tune they suddenly expect you to pick the music yourself and a lot of people struggle.

There are exceptions, people who through personal inclination or some other education (previous part-time jobs, parents, etc) already have a certain level of professionalism/self-motivation/what-have-you, but it isn't common and you can't just filter for those gems, there aren't enough of them.

So you're going to have to teach them. Teach them that when you say "go do X" what you're really saying is "go figure out how to do X on your own and report back to me if you run into issues". Because they expect a step-by-step guide, it's what they're used to.

I'm not the person on the scene but I suspect that since you aren't meeting that expectation and they don't know any different/better they're just filling their time with whatever they think productivity is supposed to look like, they simply don't know any differently.

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    This is good advice. Trying to read between the lines and give an answer that goes further than what the post gives on face level. Good Post!
    – Neil Meyer
    Jul 3 at 13:21
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As an Intern in a company myself, It was made clear that having an internship can be and often is a great opportunity, we are also told that if we don't comply with the company's policy or dont do the assigned tasks, the internship WILL be terminated, (I dont know where the situation in the question is, but I'm talking about more specifically my experience in Portugal).

That being said, we get a grade from the person responsible for us at the job site (a worker / someone from the office where we are staying who we see / talk with in a daily basis). If said grade is bad / not the expected, our final grade will be reduced accordingly, both because it means we didnt learn what was expected and that it WILL give a bad image to the institution where we are learning from.

I dont really know how that would work for you / how possible it is, but give a feedback to the teacher responsible for the internship and maybe terminate the internship. (also try talking with the interns about said problems).

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