Approaching Your Internship With Intention

Despite the daunting nature of engaging in an internship in graduate school, the pros can outweigh the cons, writes Tina Solvik.

October 21, 2019
 
 
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Pursuing an internship while in graduate school is no easy feat. You have already invested time in understanding how to best work with your thesis adviser, crafting a thesis topic in which you must become an expert and balancing research with taking or teaching courses. And now you are considering adding an additional responsibility that requires its own period of training and adaptation, all while fulfilling your obligations as a graduate student.

Despite the daunting nature of engaging in an internship in graduate school, the pros can outweigh the cons. Experiential learning is widely recommended as an effective, albeit time-intensive, way to not only explore postgraduate careers outside academe but also gain confidence in your ability to do so. And the evidence supports this: two separate studies on the impact of internships on biomedical graduate students and postdocs demonstrated that internships increased trainees’ confidence in their self-development, career choice and ability to secure a job. Further, some professionals in the career development field argue that internships are crucial for graduate students to transition out of the academy, allowing them to develop specific skills and gain direct experience that employers prioritize when hiring.

So you’ve weighed the pros and cons of doing an internship during your Ph.D. and have decided to take the plunge with the purpose of learning more about a career field, developing a relationship with an organization and/or learning new skills. You can't avoid the fact that internships require additional time and work on top of graduate school, but you can keep certain objectives in mind to adapt to your new work environment and stay on track to fulfill your internship goals.

I should know. That has been my own aim for the past year as I have held a part-time internship while continuing to work full-time on my Ph.D. Consider the following recommendations for approaching your internship with intention, which have not only been recommended by professionals in the career development field but have also been vetted by an actual graduate student intern.

Set expectations with your supervisor on how you will work together. Success in your internship requires having a conversation with your supervisor to define expectations for the goals of your internship and how you will work together. Make sure to clarify what skills you should develop, who will help train you in those skills and what specific projects you are expected to complete. Whether your supervisor provides a rubric for assessment or has a more laissez-faire approach, actively ask what success looks like in your internship and how you'll know if you achieve it.

You should also clarify how you will work with your supervisor throughout the internship. How often will you get guidance or support on projects? Is your supervisor going to be very hands-on, or will you need to be proactive in asking for help? When might you receive constructive feedback? Will you perhaps even get recognition for your achievements? Bring your questions about your supervisor’s expectations for internship goals and structure to early meetings so you will have clarity as you proceed.

Understand both your own and your supervisor’s communication styles. Determining your style of communicating -- and that of your supervisor -- early on in your internship is essential to making the most of your meetings. Core components to consider are how both of you think, organize and phrase your ideas.

Do you need to process your thoughts before you’re ready to speak or, in contrast, to verbalize your thoughts as they come up (referred to as internal and external processing, respectively)? Do you lay out your points in a systematic and linear fashion or speak in a more organic, circling style? When speaking, do you use analogies or more concrete descriptions? Understanding where you and your supervisor align and differ in communication styles will remove stress from your meetings so that you’re less preoccupied with thoughts of “Why can’t I understand what they’re saying?” and can instead focus on “What are they trying to tell me?”

Develop your own deliverable from the internship. Carrying out a project you can call your own is a remarkable achievement, indicating your ability not only to learn in a new work environment as a trainee but also to develop into a contributing, innovative colleague. That will make your internship experience all the more impressive when you apply for jobs. After you have addressed the pressing tasks that your supervisor assigns at the beginning of your internship, consider asking them if you can work on a deliverable where you will be the main contributor. It will demonstrate your ability to learn skills and do tasks during your internship, as well as to apply your knowledge to developing something new.

Depending on the length of your internship, this deliverable can take several different forms. If your internship is coming to a close, you can write a summative report or make a presentation to members of the organization on the project you were assigned and your recommendations for follow-up work. If you have time to research and propose a new project -- whether a follow-up to your initial project or an entirely separate initiative -- consider what further concepts or skills you want to learn and use that to inspire your project design. If your internship is an extended experience, you may even be able to manage the project you propose to completion. Regardless of whether your deliverable is a report or a project you carry out entirely by yourself, your internship colleagues and the future hiring managers who read your résumé will recognize -- and most likely be impressed by -- your intention to go beyond the expectations of a trainee.

Access other professional growth opportunities at the organization. Your professional growth during an internship does not begin and end with your work for your supervisor. Taking advantage of other mentors or opportunities at your internship organization not only benefits you but also identifies you as an engaged, thoughtful and hardworking contributor. Make time to meet with other members of the organization -- whether it be simply for an informational interview, shadowing them on a job task or even training to develop an additional skill. You will develop allies for your internship success now and, potentially, job references for the future.

Similarly, seek out staff meetings to gain a broader perspective of the organization’s work or attend local conferences to understand its contribution to the wider career field. Use such opportunities to introduce yourself to new contacts and discuss your own internship projects and what they offer to the field. If you demonstrate the initiative to go beyond your supervisor for career insight or training, it will raise your profile within the organization or field and ultimately increase your self-confidence in transitioning from graduate school to a postgraduate career.

These four intentions to approaching your internship will help you transition smoothly into working in a new environment with a new supervisor. It will also allow you to build a professional identity that will have a lasting impact on your career success.

Bio

Tina Solvik is an intern for the Non-Academic Career Development Program in the Office of Career and Professional Development at the University of California, San Francisco, where she is also a fifth-year biomedical sciences Ph.D. candidate. She is a member of the Graduate Career Consortium -- an organization providing an international voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders.

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