Rat Race: How to make your internship work for YOU and YOUR studies

As Michael pointed out in his post Rate Race: To intern or not to intern, that is REALLY the question, finding the time to juggle internship experiences and study can be difficult. Key to this issue, is finding an internship that works for you, and not just for the institution or company your interning in. Having been on both sides of the table, working as both a volunteer/intern and in volunteer recruitment, I am only too aware of how difficult it is to find a balance between what works for the institution and what works for the student. In this post, I will talk about my experiences from both sides, and try to give some tips and pointers about how to make these experiences worthwhile for you and your research.

Myself mounting garments for the Revolutionary Fashion exhibition at Fairfax House in York, Summer 2011. Photo: Serena Dyer.


Ironically for someone who has never spent a year out of the education system, going straight from BA to MA to PhD, I have always wanted to work and find jobs. Yet finding the balance between academic research and practical experience is difficult. There are times of the year when we need to focus on exams, dissertations and coursework, and others when we have a bit of time to explore other avenues and opportunities. Unfortunately, these times often do not coincide with when internships and volunteering are available.  While I was working as a volunteer recruitment officer for the National Trust here in the UK, I was inundated with applications from students who would be unavailable over significant periods of our open season.

These problems aren’t just time-related, but experience related too. When I started volunteering, it was to work front of house in museums. In retrospect, this has been useful to my understanding of how museums run, but when looking for experience now, these kinds of opportunity would no longer be relevant. Working front of house does not utilise the specialist knowledge of grad/postgrad students, and neither does it provide an opportunity to develop professionally or academically. Yet, for many of my peers, there are few other options. If it is museum-based experience you are looking for, then curatorial or education experience is hard to come by, whilst reception and front of house is relatively abundant.

Underlying these issues are problems in the structure of the museum voluntary sector, which it is out of the hands of most students to change (unless, of course, you decide to go into volunteer management!). However there are ways to make the system work for you. From my experience, I would give the following advice:


1) Start volunteering early: Getting some experience, even if it is front of house in a museum or working in clothing store, is really important. However, do it early, ideally during your first years of undergrad/college. You don’t want to be at this first stage when you’ve just finished a grad programme. This will also help you decide whether grad school or the working world would be the right next step for you. This may even lead to some paid work, which will help you fund your way through grad school (I funded most of my MA by working front of house in a museum and in retail).


2) Don’t accept opportunities that don’t work for you: When offered a job, internship, or voluntary position, it can be very easy to simply accept it without thinking about how it will work for you. The last thing that employers want is for staff to have to back out months or weeks into a position because they don’t have time or it isn’t what they thought it would be. Of course, circumstances can change, but be careful about making commitments if you can’t see them through. Think about what you want out of it, if you have the time to spare, and most importantly, ask all your questions before you accept the post.


3) Look for opportunities that will broaden your horizons: Unless you’re certain where you want your career to take you, try not to keep doing the same thing. Having wide-ranging experience will be valued by most employers. University teaching and research experience can be valuable in museums, curatorial and exhibitions experience can be valuable in the fashion world, and front line fashion experience can be valuable in academia.


4) Don’t keep doing the same thing: If you are certain what career path you want to take, don’t keep volunteering or interning doing the same element of it. If you have cataloguing experience, then think about looking for exhibitions, mounting, outreach or research experience. A long string of only one type of experience will narrow the jobs you can apply for, and in most cases it is a mixture of all these skills that are required.


5) Look for experiences that fit with your academic research: If you’re struggling to fit your research in with your work in industry, then think about looking for or creating opportunities that fit with what you’re researching. For example, I have just accepted a new position at the V&A in Prints and Drawings, where I will be working with the fashion plates and fashion satires from the 1770s to 1920s. This will directly correspond to the PhD chapter that I will be working on this year, meaning that both my research and my professional experience will work together.


6) Don’t just wait for opportunities to come to you: I got some of my best jobs through networking and asking around. For example, when I organised my conference, Desiring Fashion, I was offered two jobs and a publication off the back of it. Similarly, when I was offered work as the Exhibitions Assistant at Fairfax House in York on the Revolutionary Fashion exhibit, it was because I had been recommended through my supervisor. I have also gained lots of lecturing experience by working freelance with Dressing History. This is the best way to get the jobs that will fit with your research and your time.


So, in summary, DO intern/volunteer (as our previous rat race posts say), but DON’Tdo things that don’t work for you and your research, or the company/institution. Ideally, find opportunities that directly help your research, be that with relevant garments, objects, designers or museums. If this isn’t possible, then try to make it as close as possible through networking or through simply creating your own experiences. As your career progresses you will continue to volunteer in some for or other, through societies, through university committees, at conferences. Volunteering isn’t about working for free, it’s about developing personally and professionally. So why not start now!

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