1) Be aware of office culture
There is nothing that annoys Germans more than lateness. Interns should make an effort to turn up on time – even if their job is unpaid. Being five or ten minutes late – especially on your first day – will create a bad first impression.
According to broadcaster Deutsche Welle, almost 85 percent of Germans take appointment times seriously and expect the people they are meeting to do the same. So if you are running late, call ahead with a good excuse.
Germans also tend to adhere to strict office hierarchies and it is best to keep things formal. Always address colleagues and business associates using their title and surname, unless or until they invite you to use their first name. It is also important to use the polite Sie rather than the informal du – at first at least.
Another way to appear professional and polite is by shaking hands with your colleagues when you come into the office in the morning – something Germans place great importance on.
As well as shaking hands with colleagues, it is also common practice to shake everybody’s hand in the room before and after a business meeting or conference. And if you have to leave early, do the rounds again, starting with the most senior person and working down.
Try to match the German handshake, which is firm but brief – said to convey confidence and reliability.
2) Express your interests
If you are working for free – as 40 percent of graduate interns are according to a study conducted by Institute for Employment Research (IAB) – you should take as much from the internship as possible. Tell your boss early on where your main interests lie and express a preference on what sort of projects you would like to work.
Of course you should try to make a good impression – particularly if you may be offered a job at the end of it – but you should remember that an internship is a two-way exchange.
Felix T. 22, who has just completed an internship in Berlin, said: “Make sure it’s a mutual exchange between the time and work you put in and the experience you gain. Basically I think that if you’re doing much more than learning, there is a danger of it no longer being a mutual exchange between employer and intern. I’ve found it’s important to have realistic expectations and not to expect to be given the most glamorous tasks at first.
“I’ve also found it’s important to be positive and willing to take on different tasks – even if it means putting yourself out. Your employer will appreciate this and it will help you get a good reference at the end.”
3) Be aware of your rights
Katja Petrova, founder and manager of Berlin Internship Justice, said: “Know what the law says about the internships in Germany. Remember, they have to be educational, and for the benefit of an intern. Be aware that as a foreigner, and a graduate being paid under €450 per month, you will not have a health insurance or pension scheme.
“If you get an internship in a start-up, remember start-ups work crazy hours, often multi-task and often change their business approach.”
Just one if five interns in Germany get a full-time job offer, according to a study carried out for the website meinpraktikum.de in 2012. But the study also showed that the majority of German interns were happy with their placements.
4) Pick based on your interest rather than location
The most important consideration is to choose a placement that will further your future career – if you have one in mind that is.
If you want to work in television for example, it would be best to find a job with one of the German television channels or production companies, but experience in other forms of journalism would also be useful.
If you know you are not interested in websites or phone apps, do not waste time and money by accepting an unpaid internship in a tech start-up in Berlin – however much you may like the city.
5) Think about the time frame
According to the IAB, the average internship in Germany lasts 4.8 months. Three months is often enough time to get a proper taste for a company, however, one longer internship at the right firm is more worthwhile than several short placements in the wrong place as it shows loyalty and staying power.
Katja Petrova said: “One to three months is the best length. It is enough time to understand how the organization works, get used to the work flow and see the critical points.”
6) Ask for feedback
You should ask for feedback on your work whenever possible. This is particularly important when you are doing unfamiliar tasks. If you don’t know where you are going wrong, you won’t be able to correct it the next time.
Katja added: “Every intern by law has to have an instructor, whether it is the boss himself or not, it does not matter.
“Ask him/her what your best performance of the week was, what was the weakest. Ask your colleagues what they think of your job/idea. Ask for criticism and suggestions – this is how you learn, this is how you become braver in your thoughts and decisions.”
Fred Searle, The Local’s intern who wrote this, has a degree in French and Politics with German, has been interning – unpaid – at The Local since September to learn about journalism and gain experience in a newsroom environment.