Urban Fold

Making the Most of an Internship

Ann Forsyth's picture

Recently I've had a number of undergraduate students ask how to make the most of internships-over the semester and in the breaks. The following represents some advice for current students.

Look early. If you start some months before you need the internship you can use slower strategies like informational interviewing to get a sense of opportunities in that location. People who you have interviewed may well pass along tips later. You can also look broadly beyond typical planning agencies to firms and nonprofits, as well as to alumni in related fields. This will help you get a good internship.

Focus on gaining important skills. As I noted in an earlier blog, surveys of employers come up with a basic planning skill set involving: "communicating with others, analyzing information, working with politics and power relations, and working responsibly and energetically in the planning team." That is the specific topic of your internship may be less important than these general skills. 

If you can't get a paid internship don't despair. You might be as well off with paid work in some other field and some flexible volunteering for a community group. As I have outlined before, paid work can demonstrate timeliness, focus, flexibility, judgment, team work, and honesty. Combined with your coursework this set of office skills may well be enough to get you a job later.

If you do land an internship in planning, help your supervisor. It is important to remember that even unpaid internships have costs to employers as they have to put time into supervision. They may be hesitant to have (unpaid) interns do the drudge work that needs to be done and that everyone else in the office is doing. The intern may be left with a project that hasn't been well thought out-which is why they are using an intern and not paying. You need to make the work of the supervisor as easy as possible. Try to figure out where you could help others or how to redefine the "make work" project you have been given. If this is at all time consuming for you run it past your supervisor to check that they see it as a wise use of your time.

the internship seems too boring, get advice. If you feel you are wasting your time you may be; or yiou may need to focus on what you are actually learning. Either way adivce from someone you trust can help put things in perspective--a faculty member, family friend, or even career services staff member. They can help you strategize about what to do--wrap up your work and leave, start a new project, or change your expectations. 

Overall, starting early and keeping your eye on outcomes in terms of skills will help you make the most of your experience.

This is my August blog, a little late.


Ann Forsyth is professor of Urban Planning at Harvard University.


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