• GradHacker

    A Blog from GradHacker and MATRIX: The Center for Humane Arts, Letters and Social Sciences Online


Navigating the Graduate School Internship

Learning to adjust your sails, no matter the weather.

March 30, 2017

Stephenie Snow is a MA student in Communication at the University of Charleston, S.C. at the College of Charleston. You can find her on LinkedIn and read more of her work in the MCOM Blog she manages.




We have heard it before - especially when applying for jobs:

Your degree is a wonderful achievement, but what experience do you have?


What happens, though, when that experience is no longer mutually beneficial?


You adjust. You adapt. And you come out better for it.


As an undergraduate student, I had two options for my final semester class: write a thesis or get an internship. Given my professional goals at the time, my choice was to complete an internship. So, for one semester I worked with Care for Kids Foundation, a non-profit organization that provided after-school care and tutoring for at-risk youth.


I would face the same choice several years later as a graduate student. Internships for graduate students are extremely important and quite common, especially for students who do not intend to pursue a Ph.D. following completion of a master’s degree. The stakes are high; graduate internships are where we make important networking connections, secure mentoring relationships with senior-level executives and further increase the practical knowledge we need to enter our field.  


As a graduate student, you’re expected to be more experienced, more mature and more informed about your practice, and as such, are not necessarily allowed to walk into an internship knowing nothing. We are compensated for our time by gaining the valuable, practical, experience that propels us to the top of the resume pile, yet sometimes experience alone is not enough.


Organizations that hire graduate-level interns typically know what they’re getting from us: we work tirelessly to prove ourselves, we are trustworthy and resourceful, we very rarely say no to opportunities, we can work under tight deadlines, and can handle almost anything thrown our way. That being said, organizations that work with interns at the graduate level must also offer a more robust experience, beyond the undergraduate level, to keep us challenged and engaged. The lack of clarity surrounding what a graduate internship should look like can often reflect poorly on both the organization as well as the student.


Graduate students expect opportunities and work responsibilities that undergraduates would not be qualified to handle. This elevated list of responsibilities, however, can easily blur the lines between intern and full-time employee. Many interns provide exemplary work throughout the experience, intent on becoming an asset that the organization is not willing to lose. When the internship does not result in employment opportunities, the intern can feel used, deflated and frustrated about the perceived waste of time.


In my program of study, internships are a necessary part of our graduate school journey. I began my internship experience during the summer, working with a small, public-focused nonprofit. Initially, I was “hired” to assist in securing funds for the organization but was quickly included in the media relations, crisis management and public relations work for the organization as well. At the end of the summer, I was asked to continue working with the organization through the following fall semester and I enthusiastically accepted, excited at the prospect of continuing my work.


Eventually though, I started to recognize that the line between employee and intern had blurred, leaving me unsure of my organizational role. I set up a meeting with my academic advisor and together, we came up with a plan to clarify those lines while still maintaining a great relationship with both the organization and my mentors. Throughout the internship, there were several periods of uncertainty, but maintaining professionalism as well as a relationship orientation allowed me to realize the long-term value of the experience, even though the short-term benefits were not easily apparent.


It is my hope that my experiences will be able to guide other graduate students who may be facing a similar internship situations or embarking on their own internship journey, so I have shared some advice below.



1.     Communication is key.

No one, especially graduate students, want to be characterized as being unable to handle a challenging workload. Speaking up when you are feeling overworked or overwhelmed, however,  is necessary. Your internship supervisors are also serving as your mentors. Approach them for advice on how to balance both your internship workload with your academic workload. As mentors, they should recognize that your academic responsibilities need to take precedence over internship responsibilities. With that said, if you don’t let them know that you’re having trouble balancing all of the demands on your time, they won’t be able to help.


2.     Know your boundaries.

This piece of advice coincides with the previous one, but deserves its own spot on this list. If you have three academic papers and a presentation due the same week, it is okay to ask to take a step back. Learning how to manage your time will help you during your time as an intern, and also pay dividends when you enter the professional world post-graduation. In addition, you should always suggest a way to make up the time lost if you have to miss a day. Offering to make up the time from home is a great way to ensure that you continue to deliver on your responsibilities to the organization while meeting academic deadlines.



3.     Have an internship plan in place.

Make sure that you know exactly what your responsibilities and expectations are. It is much easier for both you and your internship supervisor if your role is clearly defined early on in the experience. It is also important to keep in mind what you’d like to take away from your experience. Defining your role and a timeline will help tremendously when setting professional goals.


4.     Talk to your advisor.

Keeping your academic advisor updated on your internship experience is critical. Your advisor is focused on what your internship experience can add to your academic and professional career paths. Their advice is invaluable when uncertain situations arise. Your advisor can guide you through the experience, and ensure that you are not being taken advantage of. Because they understand your academic responsibilities, they can quickly determine when you may have taken on too much or too little.


5.     Know your worth.

As graduate students and graduate interns, we are quick to forget the value of our skills and abilities. Yes, we are in the process of earning a higher degree and we have sought out work for little to no pay in order to gain on-the-job experience, but that does not mean we don’t deserve compensation. If you are asked to be a part of a project that is outside the defined internship responsibilities, do not be afraid to ask for compensation for your work and your time. Also, if you begin to feel that your responsibilities outweigh the experience you are gaining, have a conversation with your internship supervisor or your academic advisor. Both parties want your internship to be a positive learning experience, and together you will be able to create a solution for moving forward.


6.     Maintain professionalism.

It can be hard for anyone to maintain professionalism at all times, but this can be especially hard for a graduate intern. Most interns are going to be working closely with other employees as well as the internship supervisor(s). You’re going to be part of an organizational team so you’ll want to keep in mind that you are representing yourself, your program, and your school in every interaction. Make every impression a positive one.


Internships at the graduate level are excellent ways to practice what you’ve learned in the classroom, while giving you exclusive access to organizational operations and deeper insight into your chosen field. At the end of the day though, these experiential opportunities should be mutually beneficial. And if they begin to be less than advantageous, simple adjustments can put you back on track.


[Image by Pixabay user Unsplash and used under Creative Commons license]


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