Why Internships Matter for PhD Students

In the middle of a PhD program? Even with a hectic schedule and heavy workload, considering an internship is a smart career move!

“So what are you going to do with your PhD in History? Teach?” This is a question that I have heard many, many times as a graduate student. Students pursuing a PhD are usually trained to become professors, especially in certain disciplines like the humanities and social sciences. PhD programs usually groom their students exclusively for an academic career, with the hopes that they will secure a tenure-track position after defending their dissertation. Sounds straightforward enough, right?

But here’s the catch: it’s no secret that today’s academic job market is tough. There are more PhDs than jobs, and the reality is that landing a tenure-track position may not be a realistic option for many PhD grads. Furthermore, academia is definitely not the only career option out there for someone with a PhD, a mentality that’s sometimes frowned upon in the academy. One solution? An internship, which is a fantastic way to improve a resume or CV, and to give grad students an edge in their future career.

Multiple Reasons for Getting an Internship While Pursuing a PhD

Take these scenarios: Part of the way through a PhD program, Student A decides that an academic career might not be the right track for her after all, or that there is some other profession out there that she would like to to combine with teaching. Student B’s lifelong dream is to go into academia, but he recognizes that the job market is difficult. Getting some practical, real-world experience along the way to a doctorate is a smart career move that will help both of them stand out from others applying for both academic and nonacademic jobs.

The key is to try something outside of the normal graduate student responsibilities, or something that builds on those existing responsibilities in a new way. For instance, let’s say that Student A has a teaching assistantship as a part of her funding package, and looks for an internship outside of teaching. This could be anything from working in the editorial department at a publishing house, to helping with event planning at a nonprofit organization, to working in a library or archive.

Student B wants to build on his existing teaching skills in a way that might give him an edge over other academic job candidates. An internship that builds on teaching or academic-related skills could be anything from museum education, to working for an educational organization’s administrative department, to a part-time gig as a staff member in a non-academic office at his school.

While being a grad student does build certain skills, such as research, critical thinking, and communication, it doesn’t hurt to have some concrete work experience that goes beyond university teaching. Why? In addition to the skills that the internship can build, a prospective employer will see that you are curious, versatile, practical, and open-minded.

Considering Negative Perspectives: What Others Might Say and Why Not to Get Discouraged About It

What do the internship-discouragers say? Some may argue that PhDs are delaying the “real world”, and should know for sure that they want an academic career when they go into the degree program, et cetera. But the fact is, many of the cool jobs PhD students want (whether it’s professor or not) require an advanced degree in the field.

Another argument could be that that there is “no time” for a PhD student to have an internship. But with appropriate time management, it is doable, especially if your program is funding you with a stipend and/or teaching assistantship. Take it from yours truly, who has juggled a PhD course load and an internship in the same semester. During the semester, if it looks as though your schedule will be free on a weekday or two, find somewhere you’re interested in that’s looking for volunteers, and pursue the opportunity! And summers are, as always, a great time for internships.

Others might argue that that there is “no point,” and that the student should focus entirely on research and teaching instead. Sure, research can be fascinating and it’s the main thing you’re supposed to do in grad school, but it can also contribute to a severe case of tunnel vision. But doing something semi-related to your field, in addition to your research, can actually help you appreciate it more… and maybe even see the real-world impact of your field beyond the ivory tower.

Finding Networking Opportunities

Number one: Fellow graduate students! Don’t be shy; if you’re lucky, the other grad students in your program are supportive and friendly. They may have knowledge of certain organizations, a friend who works somewhere interesting, or they may have even interned somewhere themselves.

Number two: Faculty. Caveat: Typically a trickier resource, so tread carefully. Why? The current culture of academia, for example that in the United States, is that of tenure-track tunnel vision. This idea of the PhD is increasingly becoming outdated in today’s job market and culture, as many graduate students are interested in a more open-minded approach to their future careers. They want to be scholars, experts in their field, but they want to use their education in multiple ways, of which university teaching may only be a small part, if at all. Not getting an academic job is not “failure.” It’s just a different kind of success, and will be a far more fulfilling career for someone who is unsure whether academia is for them.

Number Three: The Internet. Fantastic websites include Beyond Academe, Versatile PhD, and GradCafe. Also helpful are university career center websites and social networking sites like LinkedIn. Check out professional organizations related to your field, too. For example, for historians, the American Historical Association has some great resources on careers outside the academy.

Number Four: Don’t forget your family and friends. Chances are you know at least a few people who work in a profession that you have some interest in. Ask around!

An internship can serve as an experience and career builder, an opportunity to explore additional options and possibilities for PhD students, and a chance to discover a potential dream job outside of the university environment.

Editorial Staff

Noah is a PhD student in modern European history who loves to find time for travel, learning new languages, and exploring the food in her New York City neighborhood.

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