I have been at an internship with a big company for the summer and it's coming to an end in a few weeks. I was hired as a programmer and this was my first "real" programming job.

The first assignment I was given, which I asked for because I hadn't been assigned anything to do, was a spur of the moment idea to develop a prototype for a tool that they were using. I was given instructions which ended up being very different from what actually needed to be done and thrown into a project which had been going on for years. The colleague who was supposed to be helping me ended up frequently giving me incorrect instructions and would answer my questions vaguely or without actually looking at the problem. This made me think he was under the impression that if he knew it, I should too. As a result, 95% of my problems were due to lack of understanding their existing system or getting told to do the wrong thing.

The project I made up ended up becoming requested by someone so it was reassigned to a different college (it took him around 2-3 weeks). I feel that the project was over my head and that I was not provided proper guidance. However I can't help feeling like I failed or that management will feel the same.

I'm worried, as the end of the summer approaches, that my lack of anything concrete in terms of products will impact my review negatively. I did learn a lot and came away with experience which I value if nothing else.

So my question is: As an intern, is it really to be expected to be on the same level as the full time employees and is it normal to feel the way I do when not being able to do the task assigned?

  • possible duplicate of Wondering if my expectations are too high? Commented Jul 22, 2014 at 21:51
  • 1
    I saw that one, but my issue is that I was assigned something but it was just way too far out of my scope of experience to do and had no guidance. I managed to do somethings but at the end what I was told to do ended up being different than what actually needed to be done.
    – Ben
    Commented Jul 22, 2014 at 22:01
  • Very related question
    – enderland
    Commented Jul 22, 2014 at 22:13
  • Should the question title perhaps be "too much expected of intern?"
    – Móż
    Commented Jul 23, 2014 at 5:07
  • 5
    "I was given instructions which ended up being very different from what actually needed to be done" Welcome to software development! Commented Jul 23, 2014 at 9:47

2 Answers 2


As an intern, is it really to be expected to be on the same level as the full time employees

An intern isn't a full-time employee.

In many shops, that means you shouldn't expect to "be on the same level" as full-time employees. Perhaps in other shops that differs (although I haven't personally experienced such a shop).

In my shop, because interns have less experience, because we don't yet have an accurate gauge on their abilities, and because they are only with us for a short period of time, we can't give them very important projects.

Instead, we try to give them short duration projects. We try to give them projects that we think will challenge them and benefit us, but which wouldn't cripple us if they couldn't be finished during the internship.

We've had good luck with this approach. Many times, the interns make a real contribution to a small project. Sometimes that project is the start of something that eventually turns into a longer, even more meaningful project.

Sometimes, the project isn't actually completed. Still, the interns gains some helpful experience, and that's where you should look for value from your point of view.

Measure the success of your internship by the learning and experience you gain - not by the projects you complete or don't complete.

  • The way I read the question. The user was an intern at this company. The company decided to extend a job offer to the intern which they accepted. Of course I don't consider interns to be "hired" because of the nature of their position. Yes; I know they get paid;
    – Donald
    Commented Jul 23, 2014 at 11:38
  • Your answer is wonderful; I read it different; which is a problem of sorts.
    – Donald
    Commented Jul 23, 2014 at 12:11

An intern shouldn't have the same amount expected of them as a full time worker. If that was the case, they should give you the same pay and benefits as a full time worker! An intern is there to learn and by definition is probably quite inexperienced. If you are on a paid internship the company might be a little upset that they didn't get something out of it, but if they were really upset, they could have just let you go rather than keep paying you. If you are on an unpaid internship, then to get your course credits think about and explain what you learned. In that case, nothing is really at stake and failing isn't necessarily a bad thing. I've learned the skills to be a programmer mainly from books and tutorials, but I've learn the skills to be a software engineer through lots of controlled failures. Sliding project requirements, unrealistic deadlines, fighting a contract with ambiguous deliverables, etc. Lots of the things that distinguish a seasoned programmer are seeing what doesn't work. It's normal to feel down about a failure, but for your sake and for when you talk to your employer or school, handle it constructively. Ask yourself questions to make this a learning experience:

  1. What could I have done differently to improve?
  2. What external factors prevented me from completing the project? How could I lessen those?
  3. What issues likely won't go away, and how can I plan for them?

Some more targeted questions:

  1. Did you commit to ("which I asked for") a project's completion terms (schedule, quality, etc.) before understanding all of what it entailed? Did you understand if you had the capability to carry it out before agreeing to it?
  2. When you were "given instructions which ended up being very different from what actually needed to be done" could you have expressed that concern? Did you feel you were still on course to the outcome? Was there a clear effort to know what the outcome was and how to get there? If the terms of the outcome changed, did you consider or voice how those changes might impact you ability or schedule to deliver the project?
  3. When you had a colleague giving you incorrect instructions without looking at the problem, did you talk to the colleague about this? Did you talk to your supervisor about this? Could you have looked for other ways to find that information? How will you prevent a non-cooperative coworker from derailing your project in the future?
  4. Would bringing any of this up early on change the outcome?
  • @Ben: please answer these questions; they are similar reactions to what I was about to ask you.
    – smci
    Commented Dec 18, 2014 at 17:31

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