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In my current position as an intern, I have been learning about the business world and what it takes to be successful. I am not very experienced, but I do have the proper educational background for this role. At my company I work directly for the Board of Directors. While most of my assignments involve completing basic or menial tasks, I also appreciate all the mentoring and opportunities for learning they have given me. However, we are now orchestrating a project that seems doomed to failure. It went from an originally planned small project to a giant one, with the same deadline.

Now, nearly all the rest of the Board of Directors have paid little attention to the project, having been too busy with other projects, or have taken coincidental leaves of absence. This has caused me to realize that they may not want to be associated with this project when it fails (despite the whole organization being affected as a result).

My few remaining bosses are working overtime, and to compensate for the lack of manpower have thrust me into a position where I must do the work of the other directors (This work wast pushed onto me. I have not asked for this, and must still continue my regular duties.). I am not at a level where I am capable of doing their work, nor am I comfortable handling all the responsibility that I have been given (how can I go from gaining work experience to directly making all their decisions and handling all their affairs? I am not an executive assistant, I am a trainee).

I have asked what happens if this project flops. Their response was if this project fails, I will be dragged down with them, so let's not let that happen. That fact has made my life unbearably stressful as of late. Despite this, my bosses have otherwise been very good to me. So much so that I felt obligated to never let them down, to always take pride and professionalism into the work I do, and to try and exceed their expectations for any task they give me. However, I know my limitations. I am simply incapable of handling a project of this magnitude without, well, half-assing it.

How do I tell my boss that I simply can't handle all this extra work and responsibility and I am in over my head?

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    Is this an internship that's part of your school's curriculum, or did you take this internship to gain work-experience (not school-related)? – Edwin Lambregts Apr 29 '15 at 12:22
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You need to have a conversation with your manager about prioritization. Rarely is a single project so monolithic that there isn't some measured degree of success if the right things are done. If you jump in and suggest prioritizing the work so the most valuable parts get done first (and possibly with the highest quality), then even if/when the project fails you'll still have provided a valuable contribution. You can offer your take on what you think the prioritization should be, but really that is your manager's call to make.

You can also bring up within the context of this prioritization discussion how you might most effectively contribute to the overall effort. You may not be the best person to handle priority #1, but maybe you can take #2 off the plate of your boss so he can handle #1 more effectively. Having this discussion might help him know you've got #2 so he can focus on #1.

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How do I tell my boss that I simply can't handle all this extra work and responsibility and I am in over my head?

How about telling your boss, "I'm just an intern - I want to do my best, but I simply can't handle all this extra work and responsibility."

Then lay it out for them to see:

  • Work Exhibit A: Executive decision;
  • Work Exhibit B: Outside of my realm of experience;
  • Work Exhibit C: Requires expert knowledge;

After all, you are intern. What do they expect? What can they expect? Are you going to lose your position as an intern because you're an just an intern? That doesn't make much sense to me.

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