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The benefits of completing an internship as a doctoral student are far-reaching. An internship can assist you in developing new skills by learning from professionals in a particular field, demonstrate your ability to work collaboratively for an organization and illustrate your commitment to a particular type of work. You may also find that the experience of doing an internship reshapes the ways you think about your research, scholarship or course of academic study in generative ways. Internships can also provide you with invaluable networking opportunities across a company or sector, in addition to the chance to contribute your skills and knowledge toward making broader public, community and social impacts that might not otherwise be possible through your research alone.

As program managers who oversee internship programs at the University of Michigan’s Rackham Graduate School, we hear from an overwhelming number of students who cite an internship as the most valuable experience they had in graduate school. We also know from employers that candidates who have completed an internship are often the ones who gain a competitive advantage in diverse job markets, including and beyond faculty roles. Yet students also tell us that navigating a conversation with their adviser(s) about doing an internship can be a challenging hurdle in the process of pursuing one.

There are many people who can assist you in crafting a plan for an internship, such as mentors working in the fields that interest you and staff members at your graduate school and/or university career center. Tools like ImaginePhD can also be useful in assessing your interests and values. In this essay, we’ve outlined some of the ways we regularly coach students in talking about doing an internship with their adviser.

If the career(s) that you are considering is/are outside the tenure-track faculty route, you may be feeling a bit anxious about approaching your adviser with your proposal. The reality is that some advisers will be fully supportive of having their students complete internships, and some may even help you make connections in companies or industries of interest. Other advisers may need more convincing, however, especially if they assume that you will pursue a faculty position after graduate school. To complicate matters further, doctoral internships may be more or less common depending on your discipline.

Having a conversation with your adviser about completing an internship during graduate school can be intimidating. And a host of factors shape such conversations, including the relationship you have with your adviser, your communication style, the power dynamics and the complex intersectionality of social identities. Below, we hope to give you concrete tips about how to approach the conversation and navigate your adviser’s response.

Talk early, and bring an open mind. First and foremost, go into the conversation with an open mind. Don’t assume that it will be a difficult conversation! As we mentioned before, some advisers will be fully supportive of your proposal. Most will just ask for details and want to know more, which is why it’s important to go in prepared.

Ask yourself: What do I hope to get out of this internship? What details still need to be worked out? Have I already determined an internship site, or am I still in the preliminary phases of searching? If you bring your interest in pursuing an internship to your adviser as early as possible in your planning, you will have the most flexibility for listening to their thoughts, answering their questions and shaping an opportunity for professional growth that is beneficial to you while maintaining your commitment to research and completing your degree requirements.

It may take multiple conversations to determine the best way to complete an internship. Compromise around timing, duration, location or the specific career field or organization may be necessary, and talking early will give you the maximum possibility for adaptation. Your adviser may also have helpful connections or ideas for where you might complete an internship, but you won’t know that unless you initiate a conversation and remain open to the possibilities.

Prepare details to make the case. Your adviser may or may not know how a doctoral internship can be beneficial for you, your research or your career plans. To guide them toward a deeper understanding of the advantages you see for your professional journey and interests, consider the ways you can make the case for its value to you and your learning. For example:

  • What new skills, opportunities and the like do you hope to get out of this internship?
  • How will you manage any ongoing research work or make the necessary progress toward your degree while you’re focused on your internship?
  • What details need to be worked out? Have you determined a site? Will it be in the same geographic location as your graduate program or a different one?
  • Is the internship full- or part-time? Will you be able to work on your research while you hold the internship? How long will your internship last?
  • How will you be funded while you complete an internship?
  • How will you bring back what you gained to your research setting (techniques gained, connections made with individuals at the organization and so forth)?
  • What are your nonnegotiables? An example might be a need to focus entirely on the internship experience and not be expected to participate/contribute to research grant applications or similar work during the internship period.
  • What data can you share that demonstrates others have benefited from internships in your program?
  • If you are an international student, do you know the details of curricular practical training?

Having answers to those questions and mapping out the details of how you will complete an internship will show your adviser that you’ve done your homework and that this is not just a casual interest.

Keep in mind your adviser’s perspective. As much as possible, try to consider the situation from your adviser’s viewpoint. If you plan on doing a 12-week internship, your adviser may be seeing it as a loss, as you won’t be focusing 100 percent on your dissertation research or the projects you are working on with them. Being able to articulate that you’ve been thoughtful about such concerns can go a long way.

Think ahead of time about how you might be able to manage any continuing work while you’re away. For example, if you have to conduct ongoing lab work, can you turn for help to fellow lab members whom you could later assist with their own projects in return? If you are in the humanities or social sciences, could you do an internship near or even at archives that you plan to visit for your scholarship or with a community-based organization doing work that would lend new perspectives to your research?

Another important question for your adviser will be how you will be funded during the experience. Some organizations have formal programs to pay their interns, and others do not. Your institution might have other resources for supporting internships, like those through Rackham.

You might also highlight benefits to your adviser with regard to how you will bring back what you gained to your own research setting. Will you be learning about a new technique or assay that would increase your lab’s productivity? We assure you that these are not hypothetical examples; we hear these things from students all the time! Think about other data that will help bolster your case. Your adviser might worry that doing an internship prolongs one’s time to degree, and you can highlight research that supports that is not the case. Are there other students or alumni in your department or program who did an internship and can tout the benefits, or perhaps professionals at the internship site who have hired graduates after they completed an internship? Again, having some of this information at your fingertips shows that you’ve prepared for the conversation.

Connect the internship to your graduate work. Another way to illustrate the benefits of completing an internship as a doctoral student to your adviser is to select an internship site where the work and skills you would develop are closely connected to your research, scholarship and/or teaching. For example, a student who uses multiple languages as a part of their research might be able to grow those skills by translating advocacy materials for a nonprofit or publications for a publisher. If you are a humanities student and need to travel to an archive for your research, could you work part-time at a museum or organization connected to your work while you are there? If you are in a STEM field, could you learn a specific technique or technology to bring back to your lab?

Helping your adviser move beyond any narrow misconceptions they may have about internships as only a means of preparing for “alternative careers” outside the tenure track will help create a productive, generative space for conversation about how your research skills can contribute to and benefit from wider experiences. Frame your internship as a way to deepen the learning that is contributing to your growth as a scholar and professional prepared to address many kinds of challenges and research problems for audiences inside and outside academe.

Consider evidence-based communication strategies. There’s a reason so many books have been written on the art of conversation. Communicating your wants and needs is difficult, especially when the topic is important (e.g., your future career!). In their book, Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High, Kerry Patterson and co-authors define a crucial conversation as one in which the stakes are high, views differ and emotions run strong. If you don’t have time to read the book in entirety, skim through a summary here or here.

One helpful acronym described in the book is “ABC”: agree, build, compare. It means you will determine where you and your adviser agree, build upon those ideas and compare your opinions. For example, you might identify that you and your adviser agree on the fact that you should be on track to defend your thesis in two years’ time. Perhaps you build on this by saying that you understand that before you defend, your program expects that you will have written two first-author papers. Then you can compare your opinions. “John, you and I both agree that to defend in two years, I will need to have two papers submitted for review. You think that an internship will delay my defense date by putting me three months behind in my research. Here’s where I see things differently …”

The authors also describe how to take decisive action after the conversation by making expectations very clear with regard to “who does what, by when.” Having the conversation is one thing, but make sure that you record the results and expectations so that you have a document to point back to if any concerns arise in the coming months.

Similarly, you might use a version of the “OARS” approach to motivational interviewing (open questions, affirmations, reflective listening and summaries). Although people typically use motivational interviewing to create a change in behavior, it can provide a helpful framework for this conversation; you can access a summary of the approach here. Using our above example:

  • Open question: “Help me understand what concerns you have about my completing an internship.”
  • Affirmations: “I appreciate that you shared that concern and helped me understand your perspective.”
  • Reflective listening: “So you feel that if I complete this internship, it might delay my defense by at least three months.”
  • Summaries: “Here’s what I’ve heard about your concerns. Please let me know if I’ve misinterpreted anything.”

In summary, the good news is that an increasing number of advisers are learning that internships can be an important part of graduate training. Although doctoral internships are not yet a typical part of the graduate curriculum, the professional benefits of completing one are clear.

Shaping your professional trajectory might involve challenging conversations. In the end, though, participating in opportunities like internships is your choice. We hope these suggestions empower you to begin and complete an internship during your doctoral program if you want it to be a part of your educational experience and professional growth.

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