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“But how do I know if I’m going to like teaching?”

That was the sentiment expressed by one of the very first postdoctoral fellows to come through Vanderbilt University’s career development office more than 10 years ago. He was applying for teaching-focused faculty positions because he had enjoyed being a teaching assistant and guest lecturing for graduate-level courses, but his lack of significant experience in an undergraduate classroom left him feeling woefully uncertain about his next step. His concern is still echoed by many Ph.D. students and postdoctoral fellows today, regardless of their career interests, who are in the midst of determining what they will do when they finish their training.

Although internships have long been common practice for undergraduates and many professional students, internships are not a standard part of Ph.D. training, especially in the biomedical sciences. But the tide is shifting. With support from the National Institutes of Health’s BEST program, many colleges and universities -- including Vanderbilt through its ASPIRE program -- are now beginning to organize and promote internships for their trainees. This culture change is also evidenced by internships being offered as an integral part of NIH training grants and by career-development programming being touted as a valuable strength of the training environment in fellowship and training grant applications. We are hopeful the trend will continue and that institutions will increasingly recognize the value of internships and experiential learning for Ph.D. students and postdoctoral fellows, especially for those considering nonfaculty careers.

While our experience has been with Ph.D. trainees in the biomedical sciences, the employment landscape has been shifting over the past several decades for Ph.D.s across all disciplines. As such, using an internship as an opportunity to explore a career path, gain transferrable skills and network can be beneficial to Ph.D. students and postdoctoral fellow, regardless of field.

What is the value of an internship, and how can it help me in my career?

Internships are a chance to apply your Ph.D.-level skills in a new setting and test out the waters before committing to a full-time position in a particular career area. They give you the opportunity to participate in meaningful projects, learn new skills, understand workplace norms and expectations, network, and provide value to a potential employer. All these activities can help you to assess whether the career area engages you, and they also provide you with meaningful experiences to include on your résumé and discuss in a job interview. In addition, internships can be a valuable avenue for you to transition from your Ph.D. program or postdoc into your first “real” job, as many employers routinely use internships as a means of identifying and recruiting new talent.

Where can I find an internship, and how do I go about setting it up?

Since internships have not historically been part of Ph.D. training, it may require a little more effort on your part to identify opportunities and explain your interest and value to potential hosts. There are two main ways to approach finding internship opportunities: applying for a position through a pre-existing program or creating your own opportunity.

Pre-existing programs are typically offered by well-established companies or organizations. Some companies do advertise programs for graduate students, but often advertised internships are aimed at undergraduates. Don’t let that stop you! If you see an undergraduate internship opportunity in line with your career interests, you have nothing to lose by contacting the company to ask if they would consider hiring a graduate student intern. Be ready to explain how the opportunity fits with your interests and skills.

If you plan to create your own opportunity, identify companies and organizations whose mission aligns with your targeted career goals. Do your research so you can identify the right person to contact and then send an email asking if they would consider taking you on. The best way to get their attention is to show enthusiasm and explain where you see your skills and interests making an immediate impact on their organization. Places to consider looking for opportunities include your state biotech/life sciences industry advocacy organization, entrepreneurial centers and incubators, start-ups, nonprofits, and local schools and colleges.

What are some of the things I should consider when thinking about taking on an internship?

  • Open communication: It is always best to maintain open communication with your adviser. Whether you are participating in a part-time internship near your campus or a full-time position in another city, the internship will alter your schedule, so it is important to have your adviser on board supporting you. Have an honest conversation about your career goals and explain to your adviser why the internship opportunity will help you in your future job search.
  • Timing: You should also think about how to best time the internship with your scientific training. Some times are better than others to be away from your research. For example, later in your training -- when you are writing a manuscript or your dissertation and not actively pursuing new data -- is an ideal time when you could more easily work on your writing at night and on the weekends.
  • Budgeting: Some internships are paid, while others are not. This varies widely depending on the hosting organization and the goals of the internship. You will need to plan and budget accordingly.
  • Leave of absence: For full-time positions, you will probably need to consider taking a leave of absence from your training while you pursue the internship.
  • Funding source: Some grants and other funding sources directly prohibit taking a leave of absence or decreasing your effort. Be sure to verify that you are eligible for an internship.

What can I do to make the most of my internship?

  • Set expectations: Be sure that you and your host have outlined how many hours you are to work each week and what specific project you’ll be working on. If your host has not advertised the internship with a formal description or scope of work, draft your own with your internship supervisor to help you both stay on track. In addition to expected start and end dates, hours per week, and pay rate, this document should include a list of skills and experiences that you expect to gain and any deliverables that should be completed.
  • Consider deliverables: Keep your goals in mind as you develop an internship project and focus on tangible contributions you can make that will support your career goals. For example, if you are interested in pursuing a writing career, seek out opportunities to write so that you can build your portfolio. If you have a teaching internship, ask if the students can evaluate you and thus provide valuable feedback to use in your faculty application package.
  • Network: Keep in mind, an internship isn’t just about completing a project. The host organization has many valuable professionals you should meet and get to know. Set up informational interviews with others in the office to learn what they do.
  • Ask for feedback: Put a plan in place for gaining feedback on your performance through weekly meetings with your supervisor and an end-of-the-internship evaluation.

While most internship opportunities aren’t going to lead directly to a job, they are an incredibly valuable tool to help you navigate your career path. You can learn more about the different career options that are available to you and identify what you do and don’t like about various workplace cultures. The experiences and skills you will gain will give you specific examples to share in a job interview and will make you a stronger candidate. Moreover, through the process, you will, without a doubt, meet many new people who can help you along the way.

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