In many graduate programs, and some undergraduate programs as well, getting an internship is a crucial element of the educational process. All the classroom learning of an entire program is often brought into focus in a semester-long "real world" application. An internship won’t come walking down the road looking for you and isn’t always easy to get, but one can be arranged if you follow the steps discussed below. Your major professor may have some leads and locations for you to try out, but most of the work can, must, and should be done by the student. It's not that hard—just methodical and detailed.
Desired Features of an Internship
The first step in getting an internship is to know what features mark a good internship. Educationally effective internships are characterized by the following features:
- Are cross disciplinary
- Require teamwork
- Are financially viable and advantageous for both the hosting site and the student
- Are directly supportive of the student’s education; i.e., are not on-site “make work”
- Result in a specific, deliverable outcome or product from the student, of value both to the student and to the hosting site
- Can be completed in a reasonable amount of time: ideally a semester, certainly less than a year, though it will have long-term implications, financial and otherwise
Steps Toward Landing an Internship
Usually, one finds what one is looking for. Knowing what a good internship looks like (as in the list above) will make it much easier to implement the following steps to actually getting an internship:
- Examine in detail the current internship resources at NAU, such as the Gateway Center, individual college and department methods and procedures, and the internship website currently being developed by Bryan Cooperrider of the College of Engineering.
- Look at businesses and other places of work with which you are familiar. The best place to start is the place you currently work. Every working environment has something that could be improved. In other words, you identify a real problem in a real place with which you are familiar.
- Assess the effectiveness in solving this problem of the resources and operating procedures currently being used in your chosen workplace. Workplaces don’t try to have problems or ignore them. Next, with the problem identified, identify crucial missing elements keeping the current resources and procedures from reaching the workplace goals. In other words, you identify a solution.
- Create a program that you can do as your internship project which demonstrably makes use of the existing resources and procedures, but at the same time fills or meets all the missing components and, most importantly, gets the workplace goals met—that is, the problem solved. In other words, you identify in detail an internship project that implements your solution. "In detail" means that your internship project has a measureable goal; a clear methodology; effective methods of data gathering and analysis; a procedure to turn these data into a solution that can be implemented (not a pie-in-the-sky piece of wishful thinking or an unsupported guess at what might work); a concrete timeline with milestones; and a list of required resources, such as time, money, access to people and/or technology, etc. Your internship is not “hanging out” someplace; it is solving a real problem.
- Establish an assessment methodology which will be used to determine the effectiveness of the program you propose. Give the decision makers in the workplace a measureable way to see if you have solved the problem or not.
- Take all of the above and write it up into an internship proposal of about 10 pages. Take this proposal to a professor in your field of study—and make it a professor who has some interest and expertise in the basic subject of the internship. Get your professor’s input and suggestions on your proposal.
- Take the approved proposal to a decision maker in the workplace for which the proposal was designed in the first place. The decision maker is highly likely to be impressed with all your up-front work and the fact that you are a “cheap date” who might solve a real problem. What’s he or she got to lose? Very little. And if your proposal is a good one, he or she has a lot to gain. So the decision maker does a quick risk/reward analysis, approves your internship, and away you go, putting all your tedious days of classroom theory to work in the real world.
In my experience, roughly one-half of the internships I have supervised have resulted either in the intern receiving a job offer for on-going employment or an upgrade if the intern was already employed in that workplace at the start of the internship. Even in today’s economy, decision makers and supervisors love finding people who can solve problems. There is always room for such people. Employing such people is exactly why successful companies are successful—and stay successful.
—Greg Larkin, PhD, English