Rat Race: To intern or not to intern, that is REALLY the question…..

As a graduate student it becomes clear early on in the process that the old adage of “there isn’t enough time in the day” is painfully true.  Schedules can immediately fill up with classes, assistantship responsibilities, part time jobs and family commitments.  Summer months for many of my current colleagues at Iowa State seem to be devoted to cramming in classes, pushing to finish a thesis or dissertation, or prepping (and in some cases taking) preliminary exams.  All that being said, it seems at times impossible to imagine finding the time for an internship.

As an undergraduate student,  I struggled with seeing the personal value in this quintessential summer activity.  Being someone that had worked in retail from the ripe old age of 14 (yes my mother willingly signed the minor permit), it seemed redundant to complete a required stint in a field that I was already more experienced in than many of the professors and advisers that were guiding me along the intern path.  It never really made sense to me how you could be interested in this field of fashion & merchandising and never have had the pleasure of working a Black Friday!  I firmly believe every student of fashion must have the glorifying privilege of unloading a tractor trailer packed to the rim with 60lb boxes of denim at least once in their career.  After all, it’s these experiences that build character, right…?

Having recently returned to academia after a 15 year career as a visual merchandiser and stores director, I was determined to explore all possible avenues of enrichment while completing my PhD in Clothing & Textiles at Iowa State University .   After all, I am adding a layer of experience to my qualifications that is outside of the retailing/merchandising arena.  Being much (emphasis on much) older and wiser, I see how valuable a well thought out internship can be as we face an increasingly competitive job market .  These opportunities can enrich experience, industry understanding and ultimately, as an academic, the experience you provide to career aspiring students in and out of the classroom.  In fact, I would propose that some type of involvement in industry from time to time is a healthy activity for faculty as well.  Personally, I value the lessons taught from personal experience at times more than those regurgitated from a text.

As I set out on my mission to find an internship for the summer I was particularly inspired by my lovely friend Katharine Celia Greder.  Kate (to her friends), who is a Masters student in Textile Conservation at Iowa State University, is pictured above.  I asked Kate to describe what she was doing in this shot.

“I was re-painting a tapestry that was damaged while on display for the Folk Life Festival, during that massive storm in June where everyone lost power for 8 days.  We were fixing it so it could go on display for the World Aids Conference in DC that was held from July 22nd-27th.  The tapestry is by a South African collective of artists called the Keiskamma Art Project and it’s called the Keiskamma After Guernica Tapestry.”

She had the opportunity to complete this kind of work as she is interning this summer with the Smithsonian Museum’s Conservation Institute in Washington D.C.   I say that Kate had inspired me as she was busy applying for very competitive internship positions as early as January of this year.  Her approach paid off and she landed this amazing opportunity.

Knowing that I would be spending the summer in Bucks County, PA ,which is close to NYC, I sent off several internship applications in January and February to NYC museums.  Most ended up not working out as during the summer I was taking three classes on line, teaching one and had limited time to devote to any other endeavors.  Then, out of the blue (and four months later), I heard from the American Folk Art Museum.  They were working on a new exhibit planned to open in the fall entitled FOILED:  Tinsel Painting in America and the curators needed some immediate help.  Having recently acquired a large donation the museum is now the largest repository of this art form in the world.

Even though I only had a few weeks of available time for the experience I had the opportunity to work with a senior curator, an accomplished author, visited the museum’s storage facility, worked with the collection, dated tinsel paintings through costume identification, filled in missing data for label copy and even sat in on an acquisition meeting where a key piece under review was a portrait by Ammi Phillips  that had been in the same family since it was painted in the 19th century!  To say that my learning experience was tremendous is an understatement.  I was able to a make valuable connections and there was even talk of assisting next summer with a joint venture exhibit between the Fashion Institute of Technology and the museum.

Curator Lee Kogan and tinsel paintings from the collection of the American Folk Art Museum.

So what is the moral of the story?  Do an internship, FIND the time!  The right experience can be an invaluable career builder and networking opportunity.  Also, don’t just rely on the suggestions of your advisers and professors, there are so many opportunities out there!  Use the Internet and explore early.  The best positions are competitive and require applications as early as December of the proceeding year.  There are opportunities that fit all requirements, those that go for several months like Kate’s experience and mine that only lasts for a few weeks.  Whether you are unloading the truck (I hope never again), painting the tapestry or dating artwork these experiences add up to an undeniable recipe for success!  If you are an undergrad get working, interning and basically off your duff (I say that with nothing but love in my heart!) and if you are a grad student step out of the ivory tower……..there’s a whole world out there!  I am so grateful to the American Folk Art Museum for taking me on for a brief but wonderful opportunity and am already thinking about what I will be doing next summer, are you??

Photo Credits:

Katharine Celia Greder working on the restoration of a tapestry.  Photo by Sofia DeBustamante.

Lee Kogan and Tinsel Paintings from the collection of the American Folk Art Museum.  Photo by Michael Mamp.



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