By Anisha Singh | May 9, 2019
Doctoral Student, University of Tennessee, Knoxville and 2018 ETR Kirby Intern
Here is an essential truth about internships: they go by really fast. Another essential truth: any intern can get more out of their experience by being as prepared as possible ahead of time.
Here are three tips I put to work for my internship. Whether you’re doing an internship yourself or offering guidance to others, these steps can make a difference both in what an intern gives an organization and what they learn for themselves.
When you are writing your application to get into an internship, you go to the organization’s website. You look around. You get a sense of the people and the mission.
But once you are accepted into the internship, things are a little different. You need to go deeper and spend more time exploring. Look at what your preceptor is doing. What kind of research are they conducting? Who are their collaborators? What are the ongoing projects in the organization?
Then look at the profiles of others in the organization, so you can connect with them and ask questions. Write to people in the organization and ask about projects that interest you. At what stage are these projects? Which teams might you realistically be able to join?
Ask people to share information about projects not posted on the website. What’s coming up? What projects are exciting to staff? Is there a new project coming along that you might be able to join?
Ask staff to share relevant documents that would help you understand the research better. As you do this preparation, you are strengthening your position if you want to go to your preceptor and say, “Yes, this project is exciting to me, and I want to work on it.”
We deal with a lot of human-related data in our field, which brings along a host of ethical concerns. Every intern working on data needs to undergo training in responsible research. These are web-based trainings. Depending on what’s required, the training might take a few hours to a few days. If you know what's needed beforehand, you can complete the training before you start your internship. That will save you time.
Organizations love this kind of preparedness and positive attitude from interns who are going to join their team.
My aims were guided through the S-M-A-R-T objectives approach. This is a great way to develop specific and defined aims for your internship. Everyone knows these, right?
What is your role in the forthcoming projects? Be very specific. The more you’ve worked through these ideas before you start, the more quickly you’ll get into real substance in your internship.
You're going to do specific tasks in the project. How are you going to measure these? You need to consider your activities, your tasks, and your time. This helps you monitor whether you're going in the right direction. It enables you to organize your work efficiently.
Most of us are high achievers. We want to do so much! It's crucial to choose aims that are attainable over the time of your internship. If they’re not, choose something that is. (See “Realistic,” below.)
Question yourself. Will you really be able to do this? If you think you’ll be able to analyze three phases of a data set—well, you’re wrong, everything takes more time than you think! That’s not realistic. You won't do a good job, and you won't learn. It will be much more realistic to take a portion of the baseline, or perhaps a segment of the first or second phase. Do that much only. Be real to yourself.
Trust me. An internship goes by faster than you can imagine. I designed my aims using this S-M-A-R-T model, and every day, I went into the office with a clear sense of the task that would start my morning. I usually had a list of two or three other tasks as goals for the day. I was always moving forward and staying efficient.
During your internship, look around at your officemates and colleagues. Move out of your cubicle. Connect with people.
Learn about their work and their journey. This human connection helps build you as a person, and it uplifts your confidence. You might discover that, “Okay, this person went through this journey and had some phases that were challenging. They were indecisive about what they were doing in their life. They didn’t start out knowing everything about their future.”
This kind of sharing helps you see, “Okay, I’m not the only one!”
In my own life, I’ve often been indecisive about what I’m doing. I’m not always sure I’ve chosen the best direction. So when I hear from someone else that they were indecisive as well, I see, “Okay, I’m on a similar track.” This has boosted my confidence and helped me move ahead.
Another important way of treating yourself as a human is to take time off and travel. Explore the place where you are. Take the opportunity to get to know the broader area. Plan each of your weekends.
I didn't have a car, and I still found ways to do this. I rented a car, and I caught rides with my co-workers. I went to Yosemite National Park and headed home just before the terrible fires of 2018 struck. I was stuck in traffic for four hours on my way back to Santa Cruz because of the fires.
I went to different cities—San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley, Santa Cruz. I washed in their ocean air. I had this experience of being in these places that were quite new to me—completely different from Tennessee and like nowhere I’ve been in India.
The other best thing was whale watching. This was my first experience seeing humpback whales in their natural habitat. Sea lions, sea otters. Oh, that was breathtaking! What a spectacle! Monterey is one of the most beautiful places I have visited.
I think summer is the best time to be in California. I am so lucky to have been able to get to know some of the unique places in the state.
A lot of what made my internship special was the chance to work with the people at ETR. The research skills I learned have been essential and relevant. I’ve learned a lot from the people around me—both technical things and stories about what they’ve faced in their own lives and careers.
I was able to attend an ETR training in Oakland and be trained on the About Us curriculum. That was good, but even more than that, I learned so much about how to conduct training.
The trainers made us do a lot of different activities. The training was dynamic and fun. One of the best things I've learned from ETR is to make learning fun. I'll be teaching courses back at the University of Tennessee, and I see myself as an academician and instructor in the future. I want to make my classes fun—not just a lecture, but a great learning experience.
It takes more effort to prepare and carry out an internship in this way. It’s completely worth it. The returns are immeasurable and valuable for your life and career.
Anisha Singh is a doctoral student at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Department of Public Health. Before her work at the University of Tennessee, she worked as a public health professional with the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare in India. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.