Tips for Duke Doctoral Students: Creating Your Own Internship

Many corporations, government agencies, and non-profit organizations have defined application mechanisms and structured processes for selecting interns, as well as established internship programs. Such formal internship programs often provide compensation. These programs may be a great fit for you, and if so, you should consider applying to them. For PhD students in the sciences, faculty members often have contacts in corporate labs that can yield paid positions.

To be eligible for the 2021 Graduate Student Training Enhancement Grants (GSTEG) competition, PhD students will need to arrange their own remote/virtual internship with a government agency or a non-profit organization, cultural institution, or foundation. We offer guidance about how to create your own internship opportunity below.

There is no singular tried-and-true, lockstep process in this regard. You will need to network and that endeavor requires being proactive, persistent, and resilient. Start by cultivating a positive mindset: you are a talented Duke graduate student with much to offer, and you can build productive partnerships to amplify your doctoral training through an internship with a well-matched host organization.

Know Yourself, Your Skills, and Your Goals

What are your analytical strengths? What experiences, skills, and perspectives do you have that would contribute to an organization and its work? What topical areas of knowledge do you possess? As a doctoral student you may excel at verbal and written communication, specific research methods (lab techniques, survey design, interviewing, ethnography, close reading of archival materials, coding, artificial intelligence), and/or synthesizing vast amounts of information. That, however, may just be the tip of the iceberg. Do you like to work with people? Are you a good organizer? Are you passionate about certain issues, causes, or scientific puzzles?

A recent Inside Higher Ed article discusses many of these issues.

Know the Landscape

Think about the kinds of organizations where you’d like to work. You may already have a few in mind, but spend some time online to locate others. If you are interested in pursuing research projects at a nonprofit, familiarize yourself with the organizations’ mission statements. Talk to other graduate students you may know who have had positive experiences with internships. In some cases, it may be helpful to consult with specific professors or a staff member at Duke’s Career Center. The Career Center also has information on internships and job search strategies amid the pandemic.

As you look around, keep in mind that internship hosts come in many sizes, from large, international organizations like the World Bank, to significant cultural organizations like the North Carolina Museum of Science, to very small non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Larger hosts may offer more institutional support to internship programs, but may have less flexibility and be less inclined to provide substantive research experiences. Smaller hosts may not be able to offer the same degree of institutional support, but may offer more flexibility and greater opportunity for higher-level analysis.

Keep in mind that PhD student applicants must be resident this summer and internship hosts must be based in either North Carolina or one of the other US jurisdictions available for Duke employment: the District of Columbia, California, Florida, Georgia, Maryland, New York, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia.

As you learn about organizations that might be worth approaching as hosts, consider how your substantive expertise and intellectual agenda connect to the work of those organizations. For humanists and interpretive social scientists, that assessment will most likely focus on some domain of society and culture in a given historical context, along with communication skills and the ability to synthesize information of different types. For quantitative social scientists, that evaluation will probably concentrate on specific conceptual models about some arena of human behavior, along with salient policy dilemmas and research techniques. For scientists, it will likely involve identifying the organizations that pursue research related to the most relevant fields of inquiry.

Consider in what ways might your extensive knowledge be relevant for a given organization. Explore how research projects undertaken for an employer (often as part of a team) give you fresh perspective relevant to your main areas of study, and even thesis research.

Find Your Contacts

Your chances of success are greatly increased if you can first make a personal connection with someone inside the organization. If you already know someone there, ask for an introduction to someone in the relevant area who might be able to hire you. If you don’t know anyone, you might be able to locate a mutual acquaintance through LinkedIn and request an introduction. For science doctoral students, faculty often have connections to organizations that undertake scientific analysis in their area of specialization. For everyone, the Duke Alumni Directory can identify alumni with connections to specific employers of interest. There is also the possibility of choosing an appropriate individual from an organization’s staff list.

Whether or not you can reference a personal connection, a polite, well-written, and concise email often yields a reply.1 The best first step usually is to request an informational interview to learn more about the organization and its work. In normal times, in-person meetings are best; in our current circumstances, phone conversations or online meetings via Zoom or Skype will be imperative.

Make Your Case

When meeting and connecting, dress professionally. Have a professional-looking resume prepared. If the conversation is going well and you still think you might like to work with the organization, ask about internship opportunities. Have a clear idea of the research skills you can offer the organization and the ways that they would benefit from working with you. Indicate when you would be available, how many hours a week you have in mind, and the kind of research projects you would be keen to handle. Although you won’t be setting organizational policy as an intern, you want a position that fits your skill level, that will challenge you, and that enhances your research training, whether through exposure to collaboration, the development of new research techniques, or the requirement of translating important knowledge to non-technical audiences. Nearly every professional position contains some element of mundane work, but any GSTEG application should clearly specify how the proposed activities will enhance capacities related to your doctoral training.

Negotiate the Scope of Activities

Once you locate an organization that is a good fit for you, identify a point person, and establish possible interest in developing some type of internship, the next step will be to develop a more formal proposal. That document should specify the sort of research projects on which you would be working, indicate to whom you would report, and describe how, if at all, you will get a chance to be immersed in aspects of the organization. (Keep in mind that to be eligible for 2021 GSTEG funding, the internship must be remote/virtual.) This statement of expectations will make a letter of support from your host much easier to write. And although circumstances often change within organizations, such a document can prove very helpful in ensuring a substantive internship experience.

Be Confident

If you’re still hesitant to jump in, remember that asking for an internship is an accepted (and increasingly commonplace) professional practice. No one will be affronted by your request. Also, be aware that staffing is an enormous expense for every organization, and capable interns are a desirable and extremely cost-efficient resource.

Still Have Questions?

For questions about whether to pursue a GSTEG application, or to talk through specific ideas for a proposal, such as identifying a potential summer research internship host and developing a proposed plan of summer internship activities, the following individuals can provide guidance:

  • Rachel Coleman, Associate Director, Duke Career Center, (all areas of knowledge)
  • Melissa Bostrom, Assistant Dean, Graduate Student Professional Development, Duke Graduate School, (all areas of knowledge)
  • Maria Wisdom, Director of Graduate Student Advising and Engagement for the Humanities, (humanities and interpretive social sciences)

Some Reflections from Previous Doctoral Interns

1 An example email might be:

Dear [Name],

Please forgive the intrusion – I am a [Year] PhD student at Duke University studying [Degree] and I am interested in learning more about your organization and what it is like to work there. Would you be willing to spare 20-30 minutes for an informational interview so I can understand more about what you do? It would greatly help me as I explore the different job paths I might pursue after I graduate in [Number] years.

If you are available, could you send me some dates and times that work with your schedule? Thank you so much for your consideration.

Best regards,

[Your Name]
[Your Degree]
Duke University