I am an undergraduate student who got into a voluntary internship for a year in my department.

Without going into much detail, I'm a trainee in the lab where programming lessons are held with lots of computers available for the students(Teaching Lab).

The main problem of concern is that my supervisor, who also happens to be the administrator of the lab, does not seem to believe in my abilities and underestimates my intelligence, which I can't understand why.

When I signed up for the internship I submitted my resume, followed by a short interview from the university. I can say I got the job easily mainly due to my background.

I was hoping that I was going to work on something productive, like a research project. On the contrary, my supervisor seems to be very lazy and constantly assigns chores to me (cleaning, being his personal mailman on the university etc).

At the start since he found out I was bored he suggested to study some basic HTML (Fact is, I worked as a professional web developer some time ago!). If I reply that the tasks he sets for me are easy, he gets mad and tries to get me wrong so that he can show that I have no idea what I'm talking about.

Professors who knew me before and visited the lab asked my supervisor to offer me some motivation for extended bibliography and some more productive learning. He answered that if I have the right foundations then we can negotiate for something more productive! (Yet, he only has one paper, published 20 years ago).

What are your opinions on this? I was about to withdraw due to boredom but I only have some months left. Should I talk to a professor about this topic? Am I expecting too much or am overqualified?

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    If this is an unpaid internship, and is a waste of time (if I understand you correctly), what are the reasons for not just quitting? Commented May 10, 2015 at 3:50
  • tries to get me wrong so that he can show that I have no idea what I'm talking about, did he succeed doing so?
    – Nobody
    Commented May 10, 2015 at 4:58
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    So you are in the upper left corner, huh?
    – StasK
    Commented May 10, 2015 at 7:26
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    "I only have some months left." That sounds like quite a lot of time to me. How many hours a week are you working at this job? Commented May 10, 2015 at 8:25
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    So around 100-130 hours. Not a huge amount of time, but not nothing. I guess the question is whether there are reasons for sticking it out. Avoid upsetting someone or someones you don't want to upset? Commented May 10, 2015 at 8:49

3 Answers 3


I don't say this lightly, but given everything you've said: I think you should probably quit the internship, or at least present the prospect of that to your supervisor.

Some key points:

1) You say it's a "voluntary internship". Well, all academic internships are voluntary (I hope!), so I think what you mean is that you are a volunteer, i.e., unpaid. [Added: I just looked this up, and apparently this phrase is quite common in parts of the anglophone world outside of North America. Sorry.]

2) You wrote

I was hoping that I was going to work on something productive, like a research project.

That is a very reasonable expectation for a volunteer internship. However, the parameters of the job seem to be very different:

I'm a trainee in the lab where programming lessons are held with lots of computers available for the students.

But that doesn't sound research-related at all: it sounds like you're in a teaching lab, not a research lab. If you were actually doing the training, you'd be some kind of TA...without pay. Unfortunately:

On the contrary, my supervisor...constantly assigns chores to me (cleaning, being his personal mailman on the university etc).

Having to clean up a laboratory space after using it is very reasonable. In my branch of the academic world at least (North America), cleaning up after other people is a paid job, not part of an internship. Similarly, mail delivery is the sort of thing for which someone is usually paid an hourly wage. If you are doing some of this and some of something else, it might be okay if the something else were especially attractive and rewarding. But given that you're not, it sounds to me that you're simply being exploited. Certainly I would feel that way if I were you.

Yet, he only has one paper, published 20 years ago.

Yikes. So the professor is probably not even research-active, or at least not to the level necessary for it to be plausible that he is the head of some kind of research team. He is not a good choice to supervise your research. In view of everything else you've said, I'm afraid that it seems likely that the business about your having a "proper foundation" -- especially in the context of his willful ignorance of the skills that you already have -- is just an excuse.

I would go to this professor and say that there's been a misunderstanding. You thought you were getting involved in a research internship, and as it hasn't panned out that way, you'd like to give notice. If he wants to change your mind, have him mention not just the prospect of future research "when you're ready", but actually nail down research that you can get started on right away.

It would also be good to speak to at least one of the other faculty members you've mentioned. I don't know where in the world you're writing from, so it's possible that your local academic culture is very different from mine. But unless you find out that it would be a big bridge-burning mistake to quit your internship, I think you should be angling for that outcome.

  • By saying "voluntary internship" I mean it is not an internship in the sense of working before obtaining a degree in order to gain experience. It is not part of my studies! Commented May 10, 2015 at 6:55
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    @Nickolas: Are you getting paid for it? Commented May 10, 2015 at 7:08
  • As I mentioned in my question, no. It's voluntary. Commented May 10, 2015 at 7:10
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    @Nickolas: It's no big deal, but I interpreted "voluntary work" as meaning that you are not obligated to do it. It is not used -- at least, not in my part of the English speaking world -- to indicate unpaid. But I just looked it up, and your terminology is also used by some: usingenglish.com/forum/threads/…. Still, it couldn't hurt to edit your post to clarify this. Commented May 10, 2015 at 7:17

Your relationship has degenerated into mutual provocation, it sounds like. Not a healthy situation. Just try to get out of there as gracefully as possible. If you were being paid, it might be somewhat different. But in an unpaid internship -- well, it's reasonable for you to make yourself useful to some extent; but you should be learning and growing.

You might be interested to read what the U.S. government considers the definition of an unpaid internship to be:

  1. The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment;
  2. The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern;
  3. The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff;
  4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded.

See http://www.dol.gov/whd/regs/compliance/whdfs71.htm


Should I talk to a professor about this topic?

Yes, that would be fine, as long as you can avoid whining or complaining. If you're past the point of talking about the problem calmly then it would be better to leave as soon as possible.

  • I agree with your answer, and I'm quite sure that my working rights are being exploited! Commented May 10, 2015 at 7:05

While your situation is tricky, from your description it sounds like you have a bit of an ego which is not helping you.

One sure shot solution to the problem is to let your actions speak for you.

For instance, try to apply your web development skills when your supervisor expects something done in HTML. Try to show how meticulous you are when you are given chores (I know it can get boring but may be you will rise in his eyes if you do chores in an impressive manner). Find out what he is doing and has done in the recent past and see if you can act on something that helps his work.

  • 3
    Ego? Recent past? Do you mean less than 20 years ago? Commented May 10, 2015 at 2:56
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    The supervisor didn't ask for some task to be done in HTML: he asked the student to learn some basic HTML, which he already knew from his professional web-developing experience. And, ego or not, cleaning and delivering messages is not appropriate activity for an intern: internships are supposed to be about training the intern to do things they wouldn't learn in the course of their ordinary education, not about having a free supply of menial labour. Commented May 10, 2015 at 9:49
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    @aparente001 By ego I mean a feeling of being underutilized. In my experience, people quite often do work that is below their skill levels simply because the job at hand needs to be done. David Richerby, I do understand that cleaning and delivering messages is not an appropriate activity for an intern. However, I think it is ok to help your supervisor once in a while with chores. This will benefit the intern at least to understand the general style of their supervisor if nothing else. It is certainly a red flag if chores is a routine.
    – Ketan
    Commented May 11, 2015 at 15:33
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    @Ketan What bothers me about your answer is that you seem to blame the OP for the untenable situation he's in. An internship, especially an unpaid one, is, by definition, supposed to be mainly about growing in one's field, by participating in some hands-on, real world activities.... Note, we know the chores are routine because the OP wrote "constantly assigns chores." Commented May 20, 2015 at 13:04
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    @aparente001 I think I am trying to indicate to the OP that things could work if they try to adjust. I know it is not an ideal situation but in real life one often has to bend ways to get the end results. From the narrative of question I had a feeling that the OP and their supervisor are not on same page and some adjusting needs to happen. I suggested one way how this could happen. Not ideal but ultimately OP will be on receiving end if things go south.
    – Ketan
    Commented May 20, 2015 at 15:53

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