Covid-19 has laid bare an unavoidable truth for doctoral programs: The academic-job market — dismal in many fields before the virus — will not be improving anytime soon. That fact has many implications for individual departments and for academe as a whole. But for graduate students, it means many of them will need to widen their career horizons.
One of the best ways to do that is through an internship. Common for undergraduates, internships have never been a routine part of doctoral study. But they should be — both to give our Ph.D.s more career options and to help departments build connections with the world around us. The graduate version of internships, however, shouldn’t merely copy the undergraduate template. Internships for doctoral students need to harness their advanced training and point toward career outcomes related to their already-developed skills and interests.
Campus administrators know that internship programs are detail-intensive operations. If you want to start one for your doctoral students — and I hope you do because they need it — I have a model in mind to help you move smoothly from intention to reality. It’s the “Humanities for the Public Good” internship program at the University of Iowa.
Beginning in 2019, the university’s Obermann Center for Advanced Studies began offering internships to doctoral students in the humanities and humanistic social sciences, as part of a program jointly funded by Iowa’s graduate school and a four-year grant from the Mellon Foundation.
Each year, the program appoints nine interns to work at nonprofit organizations such as the Englert Theatre in Iowa City, the African American Museum of Iowa, and Iowa Valley Resource Conservation and Development. The internships last two months and pay $5,000. Most of the recipients schedule their internships for the summer, when graduate-student funding can be hard to get.
So far, both interns and their employers — “site partners” as the program calls them — have described rich and rewarding experiences. Most important, the graduate students have reported a broadening of their professional horizons.
For institutions and departments looking to adapt this approach, I see four main components to Iowa’s success:
Thoughtful advance work. Graduate internships require a lot of advance planning that a university or a department usually cannot do by itself. It’s essential to work “closely with partners to design and carry out meaningful, collaborative internships,” said Teresa Mangum, director of the Obermann Center, in an email interview.
Internships have to be “mutually beneficial” to both the intern and the employer, writes Katina Rogers in Putting the Humanities Ph.D. to Work: Thriving in and Beyond the Classroom, a new book out this month. The organization hiring an intern is giving as well as receiving something, she writes: “Taking on new staff with limited experience can be a drain on the organization.” Those costs and the necessary advance planning are why Iowa’s program pays $3,000 to each organization that takes on an intern.
Mangum and the Obermann Center’s associate director, Jennifer New, decided to maintain a local focus for its internship program. All of the employers lie within a 30-mile radius of the university. In identifying potential partners, New looked for companies and organizations related to the arts, equity and inclusion, education, and sustainability.
A successful graduate-internship program at Duke University takes a different approach and loops students into the process of choosing where they will intern, rather than presenting them with a list of internship sites, as Iowa does. For students to be involved in finding their own internship host is good experience, too, said Maria LaMonaca Wisdom, who coordinates Duke’s program and is director of graduate-student advising in the humanities there.
At Iowa, New met with each employer to outline the center’s expectations for the internship and for what the site partner would provide and receive. Each employer drafted a description of what they wanted an intern to do. “It took a bit of back and forth,” said Mangum, “to create experiences that would steep our interns in the culture, workflow, and habits of mind required to succeed in each workplace.”
Regular check-ins with the interns. It’s important to build esprit de corps among each cohort of interns. In the summer of 2019, pre-Covid-19, the intern cohort met several times to discuss their experiences. They also maintained online conversations, sometimes prompted by Mangum and New and sometimes among themselves. “This process of ongoing reflection was critical,” Mangum said, “as students moved through excitement, frustration, panic (as time grew short and projects expanded), insight, and, ultimately, immense gratitude and pride in their work.”
That cohesion was both more important and harder to achieve this summer, thanks to Covid-19. The isolation of working from home is familiar now to anyone who used to work in an office building. To counter the loss of workplace camaraderie, New scheduled more-frequent meetings with interns (via Zoom). “I wanted to be sure that everyone was having some form of connection every week and not getting lost,” she said in an email interview.
New also used the additional meetings “to cover work-related skills” such as elevator pitches and informational interviewing. She and the interns also had “a much-needed and very honest conversation about the university’s response to local protests and Covid-19, which felt like a release valve for everyone as much as anything.”
Outreach. Interns wrote blog posts about their work experience. Their final assignments were forms of public outreach: short video accounts of their work and brief written reports on what they learned. “We’ve also asked them to speak for us as ambassadors for the program at various public events,” Mangum said.
Experience with that kind of public outreach matters more than ever in these pandemic times. This summer’s group of interns wrote eloquently about how they not only pivoted online but also redesigned their projects to meet the needs of the changed world in which they found themselves. Laura Hayes, a doctoral student in English who interned at the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library, followed its post-Covid-19 shift from planning a robotics exhibit to emphasizing K-12 curriculum development. She, too, changed her work plan, and has been creating “virtual lessons” as part of “the museum’s continued commitment to reach schools, even in the midst of a pandemic.”
If all of these skills sound like the makings of a good graduate course, there should be one just like it in every doctoral program. Which brings me to the final important ingredient of the Iowa program’s success.
A strong educational focus. “We understand internships to be an educational experience,” Mangum said. As such, they demand “the same kind of careful design and attention to learning outcomes we would expect from a course.”
That priority came into play early on: In looking for potential partners, the center sought workplaces “where we knew staff members who would be gifted mentors,” Mangum said. Once a cohort of interns was in place, she and New conducted an orientation “to help students clarify what they wanted to learn and the questions they would be exploring to connect their graduate work and their experience as interns.”
The directors also invited employers “to think of themselves as co-teachers” — and wrote a handbook to help them fill that role. That kind of pointedly educational partnership not only nourishes the relation between the university and the community organizations that take on interns, but also gives unity to the students’ experience.
Mangum and New plan to stress the educational focus going forward. “Students are already clamoring for yearlong internships that could carry course credit rather than funding,” Mangum said. The future aim is for internships that take the place of graduate-student teaching: “yearlong professional assistantships that carry the same funding and benefits as a teaching or research assistantship.”
Many of the program’s interns have endorsed that move. Andrew Boge, a graduate student in communication studies, interned last year at the African American Museum of Iowa, where he worked on its educational programs. “The museum has a longstanding Underground Railroad program aimed at elementary-school students,” said New, and wanted one for high-school students, too. Boge did the research and wrote a report for the museum staff members on “the ethics of racial education.” He also came up with ideas for specific educational programs. His favorite was a role-playing scenario, based on primary sources, in which students imagine they are members of the American Anti-Slavery Society.
Boge said he learned a lot from the internship, including about himself and his own goals. The internship showed, he said, “that I have value outside of the academy.” Just as important, Boge learned that communities need his skills. He realized that he could make his own “connections between the academy and the community,” and that he should make them “a part of my scholarly and professional practice.”
What more could teachers wish for from their students than that kind of forward-looking creativity?
The economic fallout from Covid-19 makes it difficult for everyone in academe to look forward. “It’s very hard to plan into the future,” Mangum said. “I find myself thinking in dollars rather than sense.” Her caution is understandable, but as we plan what graduate education will look like in the post-pandemic era, we should think of internship programs as one of our most fundamental, necessary, and worthy investments.