From Classroom to Cubicle

Coming out of my second year at the University of South Dakota, I didn’t know what to expect from my internship. No one told me how my skills and knowledge would transfer, or how my routine might change when I shifted my focus from campus to office for a summer internship.

One thing I’ve learned since I began my internship is that while, surprisingly, there are many aspects of my day that have remained the same, there’s a lot more that’s changed.

I thought it would be helpful for those of you out there who are preparing for a future internship to take a look at what I see as the major differences and similarities between the classroom and the cubicle.

Aside from the obvious change of role from student to employee, the key aspects that I’ll touch on include:

  • Time management skills.

  • Workplace expectations.
  • The appropriate attire.
  • Fitting into your environment.
  • Finding a culture you’ll enjoy.

Manage your time.

At college you’re expected to show up to class, maybe a part-time job, and extracurriculars. There are portions of time during the day when you’re free to study, socialize, or just relax. At work you’re on a set schedule. You’re focused on assignments, and you’re at your desk or in meetings for pretty long stretches of time.

Organize.

The best way to stay organized in both environments is to have a detailed to-do list. Planning will help you remain efficient. When creating a to-do list, prioritize your assignments or tasks by importance and deadline. While at school, you always know when an assignment is due, but at the office the deadlines can change based on the complexity of the project, client needs, and your manager’s and teammates’ input.

Prioritize.

Don’t be afraid to ask your manager or teammates when a project should be finished or when you need assistance in prioritizing tasks. I’ve found they’re always glad to help me sort out what to do and when, especially when project deadlines are shifting and new projects are popping up.

Be productive.

I find that planning out what I’m going to do at the start of my workday helps keep me productive. One thing I’m sure to include now that I’m in a cubicle is to stretch and walk a short distance every now and then to refocus. Just like study breaks at school, taking a breather is important at work, too.

Exceed expectations.

It can be a little challenging to manage the expectations of others, and in the workplace, I’m constantly striving to meet and exceed the expectations of my manager and colleagues.

In a classroom setting, you almost always know exactly what's expected of you. You show up, take notes, and turn in your assignments. When moving to an internship or first “real” job it can be a little unclear. Keeping an open line of communication and periodically asking for feedback on the quality of your work definitely helps.

Reach out to your colleagues.

Being a new employee can be a little overwhelming when the rest of the company runs like a well-oiled machine. If you’re unsure about your role just ask for clarification from your colleagues, manager, or HR. Remember that all of them were once in your shoes as the most junior member of an organization. And most will be more than happy to answer any questions you may have!

Earn their respect.

Organizations want to know whether they can depend on you to accomplish your tasks and projects, and they also care about your punctuality. They’re taking note when interns are rising above expectations and providing valuable contributions. In many cases, they’re evaluating whether an intern could be a good candidate for a future full-time position. Being dependable is a minimum requirement if you’re planning on applying for a position with the organization once you’ve finished college.  

Be a team player.

Group projects take place every day in the workplace. I’ve found it much more enjoyable than participating in group projects in my college courses, since I’m working with individuals in a field with a shared passion for creatively reaching our goals. Companies expect you to work well with your colleagues and complete your work as efficiently as possible together, so be prepared to listen, compromise, and be a team player.


Wear it well. 

When I’m walking around campus you’ll probably see me in a T-shirt and jeans. At the office there will most likely be a dress code, or a set of standards for attire set by the company. In most cases that seems to be business casual. On a student budget it can be difficult to dress nicely every day, but I’ve been able to mix and match clothing that will last me through the summer and, ideally, the beginning of my first job.

Consider your options.

Companies don’t expect a student in an entry level position to have lavish business wardrobe, but they want you to look presentable and professional for the office setting and they want you to look your best in front of clients.

You can build up your closet with affordable options that are easy to mix and match, such as:

  • Solid-color slacks.
  • Shirts.
  • Sweaters.

If you have any questions about what’s appropriate at your workplace, look at your employee handbook or ask HR.

I’ve also found it helpful to ask colleagues where they shop for work clothes. You’ll be surprised by the stylish and affordable options available out there to improve your professional wardrobe. 


Immerse yourself in the environment.

Work environments vary based on your industry and location, job requirements, and other factors. 

Consider your commute.

A long commute or a location in which you’re unfamiliar can be overwhelming. I chose a summer internship in my hometown. I’m spending the summer living with my family and I’m close to my longtime friends, so I’ve got a support system here for me.

Where do you belong?

Each division, department, and team has its own focus and character. It’s similar to college programs and their majors: birds of a feather flock together.

At my workplace, I’ve noticed that areas with customer engagement or sales representative sare louder due to their call traffic.

When interviewing for an internship position, be sure it aligns with your intended career choice, if at all possible. And also take note of where your department will be located, and whether that location would be a good fit for you. Many companies will have a relatively open floor plan that allows you to get an idea when you’re touring the facility during your interview.


Prepare for a little culture shock.

The culture is the environment that surrounds you at work. Whether it’s collaborative, entrepreneurial, dynamic, formal, or something else entirely, be prepared to experience a little culture shock when you go from your life on campus to life in the office.

Find the right fit.

During the interview process the hiring manager will assess to see if you’ll be a good “cultural fit” for the organization. It can be hard to define the culture in the workplace, but if it’s a good fit, it’ll just feel right.

Once you’re established in the culture, you’ll identify the language, symbols, work schedules, decision making, and other factors that make up the company’s culture. That’s why it’s important to use your first impressions of the office to help you decide if an organization is right for you.

It’s very similar to going on campus visits and finding which college best matches your personality and preferences. Culture is created by a collection of individuals. Finding individuals whose values are aligned with your own will make your time at school or in the workplace more enjoyable.


Deal with transitions.

Transitioning from a campus setting to an internship in my desired field has helped me to identify the important connections between my classes and the world of work.

I wish you luck in finding an internship that will help you gain valuable experience in your chosen field, and that will help you get to the next chapter in your life. I urge you to follow your dreams and find enjoyment in your time spent working during your summer breaks throughout college.

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About The Author

Taylor Telford

Taylor Telford is a marketing intern at Kuder. She is majoring in marketing and minoring in operations management at the University of South Dakota.