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Rackham Internship Guide for Doctoral Students

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 opportunities to contribute your skills and knowledge toward broader public, community, and social impacts that might not otherwise be possible through your research alone.

This guide is intended to assist you in deciding how you can complete an internship as a part of your professional development as a graduate student during your time at Rackham and U-M. Whether you pursue an internship through one of Rackham’s programs or another way, this guide provides the steps and considerations necessary to meaningfully integrate an internship into your doctoral study.

With this guide, you can explore the ways an internship can be a part of your graduate training, at any stage of your professional and academic development. For doctoral students, an internship should:

  • Assist you in learning how your research, scholarly knowledge, and teaching can contribute to meeting the needs of diverse organizations.
  • Result in the development of transferable skills such as collaboration, leadership, project management, and professional communication skills that are desirable across fields and job roles.
  • Enable you to gain experience working collaboratively, as a team, and make an impact outside the classroom or lab.
  • Allow you to see yourself as a colleague, assuming leadership, and building intellectual self-confidence in your skills.
  • Provide an opportunity for you to implement a concrete project or initiative based on your expertise.
  • Increase your confidence in career decision making by introducing you to the many pathways doctoral students pursue after graduation.

Whether you have considered completing an internship during your graduate training or not, this guide provides a scaffolding for the questions and logistics you should consider, whatever your motivations are for doing so.

Rackham Graduate School Internship Support

Given the diverse careers that our graduates pursue, Rackham is committed to providing funding opportunities, learning structures, and support for internships that prepare students to succeed in the diverse careers available to you as part of a reimagined approach to graduate training—one where your knowledge and skills can have significant impacts inside and outside the university.

Rackham offers three programs to support graduate students in completing an internship as a part of their graduate experience:

Biosciences Internship Grants

Rackham Spring/Summer Internship Grants fund a supervised practical experience for a maximum of 12 weeks during the spring/summer terms that provides insights into career opportunities for doctoral students enrolled in bioengineering, biological, biomedical, or health sciences programs. Internships can be on-campus or off-campus and take place in industry or government, academic (e.g., small college), or other non-profit settings.

Fall and Winter Term Rackham Internships

These internships provide full fellowship support (stipend, tuition, health benefits) for doctoral candidates to complete a 20 hour per week internship project at one of our partner organizations during the fall or winter academic term. The application process is competitive. Students submit a cover letter, resume, and references through Rackham’s application system. Supervisors at sites then select which students to interview and which student they hire. Students completing an internship through this program receive a stipend and attend cohort meetings with peers that cover a variety of professional development topics.

Summer Rackham Internships

These opportunities are open to graduate students at any stage in their degree program, and preference is given to doctoral students. Summer internships include projects we have established with our partners, as well as an option to apply for funding to support an internship you have identified. Students completing an internship through this program receive a stipend and attend cohort meetings with peers that cover a variety of professional development topics.

Why Do a Doctoral Internship?

You may have done an internship as an undergraduate student or during another period in your life. It may have even informed your decision to pursue graduate study. As a graduate student, you now have an even wider range of skills and expertise to put to work in the world.

As a doctoral student, 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 benefits or reshapes the ways you think about your research, scholarship, or course of academic study too.

You can complete an internship as a part of your doctoral program to:

  • Use your expertise and skills to contribute to exciting work outside your home department
  • Develop new skills or hone and apply existing skills
  • Learn about a specific career field that interests you
  • Determine whether a particular type of work or organizational context is a good match for your values and career goals
  • Expand your professional network
  • Gain applied experience that can make you more competitive for future job opportunities while benefiting organizations, communities, and border audiences outside the university.

Rackham believes experiential learning and the career options these opportunities unlock are integral to graduate training in the 21st century. Although not every doctoral student completes an internship during their graduate school tenure, if you choose to do so, Rackham is a resource for helping you navigate the process—from finding an opportunity to securing funding.

Talking With Your Advisor

Many students are nervous about talking with their advisor about wanting to complete an internship. Some advisors will be fully supportive of the proposal, and others might need more convincing. Either way, there are some key points you will want to consider:

Talk Early, and Bring an Open Mind

Don’t assume that it will be a difficult conversation. If you bring your interest in pursuing an internship to your advisor 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.

Prepare Details to Make the Case

Your advisor 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.

Keep in Mind Your Advisor’s Perspective

If you plan on doing a multi-week internship, your advisor 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. Think ahead of time about how you might be able to manage any continuing work while you’re away. Another important question for your advisor will be how you will be funded during the experience. You might also highlight benefits to your advisor with regard to how you will bring back what you gained to your own research setting.

Connect the Internship to Your Graduate Work

Another way to illustrate the benefits of completing an internship as a doctoral student to your advisor is to select an internship site where the work and skills you would develop are closely connected to your research, scholarship, or teaching.

Consider Evidence-Based Communication Strategies

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. One helpful acronym described in the book is “ABC,” agree, build, compare. It means you will determine where you and your advisor agree, build upon those ideas, and compare your opinions. 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.

For a more extensive review of advice talking with your advisor, see “Making the Case for an InternshipInside Higher Ed, April 2021.

Making the Most of Your Internship

This section was modified from a resource developed at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan.

Your internship will help you clarify your career direction, develop new skills, and establish valuable professional networks. The following list offers some suggestions for ways to build on your experience and make the most of your internship:

Schedule a Preliminary Meeting with Your Supervisor(S)

This may sound obvious, but meeting with your supervisor(s) in the first few days on the job is critical to getting started on the right foot. If your supervisor doesn’t set up a time to talk about your projects and goals early on, you might reach out to see about setting up a meeting, if you’re comfortable doing so. Consider clarifying both your expectations and the supervisorʹs expectations regarding types of assignments you will handle, work schedule, training, and supervisory opportunities, etc. Discussing these issues BEFORE you start your internship can help stave off miscommunication problems and disappointments down the road.

Set Expectations with Your Research Advisor

Setting expectations with your research advisor can be just as important as setting them with your internship site supervisor. Some advisors may expect you to carry on your research without interruption throughout the duration of your internship. Make sure you have addressed this before your internship starts to ensure that you are able to dedicate as much time as possible to your internship. Also make sure that you have discussed any concerns that your advisor may have so that you both know what to expect (e.g., who is maintaining that cell line while you’re away?). Maintaining clear lines of communication is key, and working two full-time jobs is not the desired outcome!

Take the Initiative

Be proactive in making the most of your internship. Your professional development and summer internship outcomes are ultimately your own responsibility. If things are not working out as you anticipated regarding the level of skill required for the bulk of your projects, etc., think about talking to your supervisor about taking on different responsibilities that are of more interest. Many employers may not be familiar with the skills and abilities you bring to the table.

Network, Network, Network

Some internships rotate you among departments and supervisors, but if yours doesn't, don't let that stop you from meeting people outside your department, attending social events, and networking within the organization. Talk with your supervisor about individuals in the organization (or related organizations) who might make sense for you to meet. This could include staff who can give you a broader understanding of the organization’s mission, recent hires who can talk about the nature of their work and share with you tips about their job search process and classes they now wished they’d taken, etc. Maintain a contact list with names, titles, addresses, phone numbers, and email addresses that you can refer to in the future, or connect with these individuals on LinkedIn. These contacts may become key connections for your full-time job search. If you are completing a virtual internship, don’t let that stop you from networking. Networking virtually may look a bit different, but it is still possible.

Conduct Informational Interviews

Take advantage of your proximity to other employers of interest to you to conduct informational interviews. Conducting these in person is a great way to learn about various workplaces and make contacts with professionals in your field of interest as well as explore different sectors and fields. Again, don’t let a virtual internship stop you from having these valuable conversations. Rackham alumni are a valuable resource. Rackham Connect and LinkedIn are great places to start looking for connections at your company or site.

Track Your Skill Development

Your internship should afford you the opportunity to develop transferable skills in the areas of project management, leadership, teamwork, and problem solving (to name a few). It can be useful to keep a list of specific experiences that enabled you to develop these skills. This worksheet is one way to track and organize your ongoing skill development. It will be useful when it comes time to articulate these experiences and skills in future job applications.

Update Your Resume

Capitalize on the opportunity to get the employer’s perspective on your updated resume before you begin your full-time job search. Your supervisor and colleagues can offer the “hiring manager’s perspective” on your resume. Ask if you’re highlighting your experience in an effective way and if your resume reflects what your employer would see as the skills and strengths most important to their organization. And if you have a LinkedIn profile, don’t forget to update it with your internship experience.

Remember That “Past Performance Is The Best Predictor Of Future Performance.”

Keep in mind that for most employers, the most effective recruiting strategy is hiring former interns who have already demonstrated themselves on the job. The quality of your work in small and large tasks as well as your attitude and approach to your work and colleagues are being observed by supervisors and colleagues alike. Whether you ultimately want to work for your intern employer or not, the recommendation from your most recent employer is often a key component in most reference checks.

Explore the Local Area

If you are completing an in-person internship, get to know the area in which you’re residing. Can you see yourself living there after you graduate? There’s more to work/life integration than just work! Enjoy the cultural and social events the area has to offer.

Keep Rackham In The Loop!

If you are completing a Rackham internship, the person who coordinates your internship program wants to hear from you. In fact, for some Rackham programs, regular cohort meetings and reflections are integral to the experience. If your internship doesn't seem to be progressing the way you had expected, or if you experience any unanticipated challenges, let us know. You do not have to go it alone; we can help you negotiate your way through some of the issues you might encounter during your internship. We also look forward to having you share your insights, wisdom, and lessons learned with incoming internship cohorts in the future.

International Students and Internships

If you are an international student seeking to complete an internship, you should contact U-M’s International Center as soon as possible to determine your eligibility. Your eligibility to complete an internship will depend on your visa type, field of study, as well as the connection between your field of study and your internship work. As a general rule, you will likely need some form of CPT or OPT in order to complete an internship in the United States. The University Career Center has an extensive list of resources for international students.

If you are a current student completing an internship for a unit or office that is a part of the University of Michigan, you do not need any additional approvals.

Remote Internships

Remote internships, where you work from your home location for an organization located in a different region without going into an office, can be a more flexible option for completing an internship depending on your circumstances (such as the ability to relocate to another region for a short period of time). They can be equally as beneficial and rewarding as in-person experiences, though in addition to the same considerations for in-person internships, you will want to consider:

  • How will a remote internship with this organization benefit my professional and academic development in a way that wouldn’t be possible otherwise?
  • Is the organization well equipped for remote work?
  • How will I be integrated into the team and organization remotely?
  • Will a remote experience limit the kind of experience and skills I am able to develop?
  • Is my home work space well equipped to support a remote work experience?

Although you will be working for an organization and team, remote work will likely feel more independent. You will likely need strategies and tools to set your working hours and tasks during each day, in addition to frequent check-ins with your supervisor to ensure you are meeting their expectations, as this is less likely to happen informally (i.e., in the hallway, between meetings, etc.).

In addition to completing a project and contributing to the mission of an organization, networking and connecting with people is a key part of what makes an internship important professionally, so you will want to be even more intentional about how you do this when working remotely.

Assessing Your Interests and Motivations

An internship can be rewarding and beneficial to your professional and academic development, and having a clear sense of your interests and motivations for doing an internship will make it more beneficial and rewarding for you personally, professionally, and academically.

Graduate students often seek out internships that allow them to apply their research skills and knowledge outside academia where they can have greater social, community, and public impact. For example, a student in psychology might pursue an internship with a nonprofit that uses their skills in conducting survey research, focus groups, and qualitative data analysis to meet a community need, but on a project that does not directly relate to their specific area of research.

Searching for and completing a graduate level internship can also be a large time investment. Before you begin searching for an internship, it is important to reflect on your motivations and your timing for doing an internship as a part of your graduate program.

Some questions you should consider in advance:

  • What are your program’s requirements and timeline for degree completion? When does it make the most sense for you to complete an internship?
  • What other personal and professional responsibilities do you have to consider when seeking out an internship location and time commitment? For example, many students find it easier to complete a part-time internship, even during the summer, as this allows them to maintain their focus on requirements for their degree completion.
  • Do you want experience in a particular field, size, or type of organization?
  • What skills and experience do you hope to gain from completing an internship? For example, if you plan to search for a job in industry post graduation, it is useful to hone transferable skills such as communicating with diverse audiences, managing complex applied projects, and working collaboratively with people outside of your discipline.
  • How important is it to you that your internship be aligned with your area of research or academic focus? Are you interested in applying your skills in a focused way or would you prefer to apply them more broadly?
  • Do you want to complete an internship in a particular region? Internships are good networking opportunities, so if you know you will pursue future career opportunities in a particular region, it can be beneficial to do an internship in that same region.
  • Does it make sense to complete an internship before or after your preliminary exams? For example, if you know you will be doing field research in a particular region, that might be a good time to consider an internship outside the Ann Arbor area.

Rackham’s Graduate Career Counselor and Other Resources

If you are not yet sure about the answers to these questions, that’s okay. We recommend meeting with Rackham’s Graduate Career Counselor or attending career panels and events with alumni and other guest speakers from a variety of fields and professions to help get a sense of the possibilities that exist.

Rackham’s Graduate Career Counselor

Rackham’s Graduate Career Counselor helps Ph.D. students consider a diverse array of career opportunities based on their academic experiences, interests, and motivations. The counselor provides career coaching, advising, and programming to doctoral students in order to help them navigate challenges and build a successful career.

ImaginePhD

Career exploration and planning tools and resources for humanities and social science doctoral students.

Versatile PhD

Designed to empower Ph.D.s to explore diverse careers, this resource offers webinars, an online career exploration course, and career exploration tools for the wide range of careers beyond the professoriate.

MyIDP

Career exploration and planning tools and resources for students in STEM fields.

Assessing your interests and motivations for completing an internship is the first step in the search process. As you determine which types of organizations and industries are most of interest to you (i.e., environmental nonprofits, consulting, biotech, museums) you will want to develop a process for searching. However you search for an internship, you will want to start the process four to six months before you plan to complete an internship.

Two of the main ways doctoral students tend to find internships are through networking and applying for open positions, whether through Rackham’s internship program or directly at an organization. While networking may seem intimidating, you can think of it as talking to others to learn about their experiences and opportunities.

You might network by talking to your graduate student peers in your program, finding alumni by searching on LinkedIn or Rackham Connect or doing a cold outreach to someone. Unlike in academia, where individual research goals and interests tend to be the primary focus, in seeking out internship opportunities beyond academia, it is important to consider how your skills, background, and expertise will help an organization and its staff achieve their goals and mission alongside your professional goals and interests. Rackham staff can assist you in thinking about how and where to foster connections.

Connecting with people can be one way to find an internship opportunity and can help you when applying for internship opportunities at their organizations. You can also seek out pre-established internships. You will likely have more competition when applying to broadly open positions, but this approach can ensure you have a clearly outlined project from the beginning without having to design one from scratch. Open positions have defined descriptions, so you already have a sense of what kinds of skills and background the host organization is looking for. Rackham’s fall, winter, and summer internship programs offer the opportunity for Rackham students to apply for internships with our partner organizations.

The University Career Center (UCC) has a resource with step-by-step details to guide you through your internship search.

The Importance of Networking

Many students avoid networking because it can feel awkward. Remember that networking is a skill, and it gets easier as you practice. Although the numbers constantly shift and depend on the job market, it is estimated that approximately 70 to 85 percent of jobs go unadvertised and are secured through networking.

What Does This Mean for Students Completing Internships?

Presumably, students select a company or site depending on their career interests. This puts interns in a prime position to network with individuals who are working in the industry where they would ultimately like to land a job. Even so, it’s easy to get caught up in one’s internship project and let networking fall to the back burner. To make the most of your internship, consider thinking about networking intentionally. Here are a few tips to build connections:

Start Early

As you begin your internship, do your research on the organization. Identify several individuals with whom you would like to connect, and make a plan for reaching out to them.

Prepare an Elevator Pitch

An elevator pitch is an approximately 30 second description of who you are, your research area, and jobs or areas that interest you. Developing a clear and concise elevator pitch can take some of the awkwardness out of networking. Remember to keep the tone conversational, and tailor it a bit for your expected audience.

Don’t Limit the Areas in Which You Would Like To Network

You might find that individuals in your network come from a variety of groups: family, friends, alumni, research advisors, and more. Further, individuals in one’s network can play a variety of roles: advocates (those who know you on a personal level and act as a trusted sounding board or mentor), connectors (well-connected individuals who can make connections on your behalf), and subject matter experts (those who can offer superior insight on a specific industry). As you begin your internship, cast a wide net when networking and use the opportunity to connect with individuals in a variety of roles across the organization.

Maintain Connections

As mentioned above, you may meet a diverse group of individuals during your internship. Once you’ve connected, think about ways that you can maintain these connections. This might be through sending an email after your conversation, connecting over LinkedIn or Twitter, etc.

Conduct Informational Interviews

Informational interviews are usually 20 to 60 minute conversations that are used to gain information, knowledge, and understanding about a job or industry. Remember that during an informational interview, you are asking someone about their own professional trajectory and experiences in order to gain more insights into your own career options, NOT asking for a job. During an internship, try to conduct a number of informational interviews across the organization. For more information about informational interviews, including sample questions to ask, please refer to this resource developed by the Graduate Career Consortium.