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Andrew Bishop is pursuing a Master of Public Policy at the University of Virginia. You can follow him on Twitter @xiongandi.

For many grad students, summer is a chance to leave the classroom and have a new experience outside of the university environment. Some programs (like mine) require students to participate in a summer internship within their respective disciplines so that they can practice newly acquired skills, explore potential career paths, and build their resume. Internships can provide you with a new lens through which you can contextualize your work and see where you fit in the broader field.

The problem with internships is that they can often be hit-or-miss. While some organizations have a robust program that allows interns to dive into engaging projects and receive mentorship, others are ill-equipped and barely have enough work to fill one’s time. As an undergraduate, I had internships across this spectrum. I remember the excitement of digging into research on education policy that came with one internship, but also the boredom that came with another.

Internships require a significant investment of time that can take away from personal research projects as well as much-needed downtime over the summer. They are also often unpaid. Although some programs offer financial assistance, internships can come at a great expense if they do not provide an in depth and relevant experience.

Other Gradhackers have written about how important it is to learn how to navigate your grad internship. This is especially true if your previous internships were meant for undergraduates. As I moved into my internship experience this summer, I took a number of steps to ensure that I would make the most of the experience. From day one, I was able to jump right in with a plan of action that has guided me in the right direction so far. I’ve listed those steps below in hopes that others will be able to find success at their summer internships, no matter where on the spectrum your internship falls.

1. Set goals for what you want to accomplish over the course of the experience.
One of my biggest areas for growth when I was an undergraduate intern was not knowing what I wanted to get out of the experience. I went in with the mindset of simply wanting to sample what working at a specific organization would be like. While I gained some valuable experience, I also missed opportunities to push myself outside of my comfort zone and grow through that process.

This summer, I set specific goals around improving both hard and soft skills that I know I will need in my career moving forward. Since coming to grad school, I’ve taken several quantitative classes, and I’ve made sure to incorporate what I’ve learned into my internship each day. For example, while email is the preferred method of communication for most of us in grad school, it is often slower than making a phone call. I’ve set a goal to make sure I always make the call if it will improve my productivity. Setting these goals has not only made me more efficient, but has also deepened my understanding of my graduate coursework thus far.

2. Be proactive in learning from those working around you.
Part of what makes a successful internship is learning from others working in the organization. Yet not all environments make this process easy. I distinctly remember one internship experience where I rarely felt a part of the team. The office had very little social interaction, preferring to communicate almost entirely via email even though we all sat right next to each other. I had trouble understanding the roles that people held, and as a result never felt entirely comfortable reaching out and seeing if there was more I could learn. After completing that internship, I knew I never wanted a working experience like that again.

It is important to recognize that many of those who you will be working with are incredibly busy and may not have a lot of time to chat during the workday. However, a little bit of online research can help you better understand the roles that they play as well as how you might be able to contribute during your time there. Most organizations have an org chart available online that can help you figure out who you may want to speak with during your internship or what office might have projects in which you might be interested. It also never hurts to ask if someone is available to speak with you over lunch or to formally schedule a meeting with someone.

3. Have a plan for downtime.
Whether you are collecting data, waiting for an email response, or your boss is out for a day, it is inevitable that there will be a degree of downtime during your internship experience. Rather than spending that time aimlessly perusing the web, have a plan that you can implement to use that time for your own professional development.

I decided early on that I would spend any downtime catching up on relevant journal articles in my internship’s field. Not only would this allow me to work towards my goal of improving my quantitative literacy, but it would also give me the chance to gain a more nuanced understanding of some of the areas I am working on at my internship.

How do you plan to make the most of your summer internship? Please feel free to share in the comments below.  

[Image taken and submitted by the author.]

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