Getting the most from professional internships during your doctorate

Getting professional experience puts postgraduates in situations that they are unlikely to have faced in their university life, says Alfredo Cumerma

February 18, 2018
PhD lettered on book spine

Not all PhD students crave a life in academia. Many want to go on to become “post-ac”. That is, turn their back on academia and seek work elsewhere. 

As a result, they may find themselves completing internships in the public or private sector, and the chances are that they will be working with a large number of undergraduate interns, who are also preparing for life after university. In some cases, these undergraduates will be their supervisors. 

All of a sudden, the typical student-teacher relationship is reversed: you are the student and they are your teachers, although in most cases there is a situation of parity or differing roles within a team. Regardless, how should a post-ac PhD approach this Billy Madison-esque situation?

Here are some tips from the three internships that I’ve completed so far.

Make it clear that you’re not the competition

Often, the knowledge that you are pursuing a PhD may scare off undergraduates from networking situations. At the workplace cafeteria, they will sit together. In the common lobby, they will set up their laptops and work together.

It is up to you to break the ice and sit with them. Talk, joke, and be yourself. Get out of your scholar’s suit and into the jeans and flannel shirt of the down-to-earth, blue-collar student.

Set an example

Depending on your personality, you may notice that you have an easier time networking compared with your undergraduate peers. At my current internship with the Maryland General Assembly, students are always impressed by how I chat to people on the bus or in the elevator, followed by my offering them a Johns Hopkins business card to close.

Explain to your fellow interns that this is a normal part of workplace life, that these “adults” have hobbies, families, girlfriends and drinking buddies, too. Encourage them to do as you do. It goes a long way towards forming friendships and may even turn into a mentorship opportunity for you.

Go out with them

Not literally, of course – although I have certainly met a PhD student or two who ended up meeting their future partner during an internship. But love aside, be sure to accept co-worker invitations to drinks, brunch or general recreational activities.

The university is perhaps the only place in the world where it is taboo to hang out with people who are seven, eight, or 10 years younger than you. Not so in the working world: age is just a number.

Keep in touch

Thanksgiving and Christmas are my usual choices, but sending correspondence at random times – just to provide an update or ask how people are doing – is even better. Remember that many of the interns who you are working with will be at organisations that may interest you later on. And having someone on the inside is the best way to have your application magically forwarded to the hiring manager.

As your pursue your PhD and build your post-ac future, you will likely complete several internships. Just remember to keep it human, because the adviser-advisee relationship that comes with a dissertation is not exactly “work in teams”.

We must work to dispel the myth of the lofty PhD student who seems a cut above the rest. We may possess certain significantly stronger skills, but if we don’t humanise ourselves, no one is going to hire us.

Alfredo Cumerma is a Gilman research fellow at Johns Hopkins University, where he teaches Spanish language and conducts research on Latin American culture and American foreign policy. Follow him on LinkedIn.

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