June 6, 2017
REU’s and internships* can be a great way to build your technical expertise. There is no substitute for the real thing, and many skills can only effectively be learned outside of the classroom. This list extends beyond the technical though. There are many essential skills that are non-technical in nature: project management, conflict resolution, communication, etc. While you may find yourself using these skills in a traditional classroom setting, they are often at the periphery, rarely called out in the syllabus, and yet remain a critical component of your future career.
Because we often weight technical expertise as the most critical part of a successful career in the sciences, REU’s and internships are typically structured to give more emphasis towards advancing our technical knowledge. Today, I’d like to discuss a slightly different model and how you can use it to enrich your experiences this summer.
My graduate studies required two separate internships to complete the program. While the first internship was pointedly concerned with building our technical skills, the second, much longer, capstone internship took a different angle. Though we were expected to perform the tasks set forth by our host institutions at a highly professional level, our grade was less contingent on the final results of our project and more upon our critical assessment of how we reached that outcome.
While there were many facets of this assessment, methodology for one, perhaps the most important aspect was our internship supervisor. Our internship project wasn’t just the one that we were tasked with, but more importantly, our primary objective was to shadow our supervisor. Each week we would submit journal entries reflecting on the week’s activities. The prompts would often revolve around interactions with our supervisor: How did our supervisor interact with us when giving assignments? Were the instructions clear or not and why? How did he or she conduct meetings? How did our supervisor interact with his or her supervisors?
This line of thinking leads to answers to questions that are all too often unspoken when we think about our careers. How many academic programs in the Earth and space sciences put project management and communication skills at the forefront? These skills will go a long way towards your career, but how often do they come up naturally? When you meet with your adviser during open office hours, are you going to discuss how to properly establish a meeting agenda or how to clearly relay instructions to the rest of your team? Likely not.
So, what I’m proposing you do this summer is keep a journal where instead of taking notes on your field work, you take notes on the non-technical aspects of your experience. Record your observations a few times a week, and once a week, type up your findings memo-style to reflect upon later. You’re not going to be sharing it with your supervisor, but preparing it in a professional manner will encourage you to think critically about the situation. It will help you to better understand where you are and where you want to be, providing direction for your relationship with your supervisor and insight into where you may have room for improvement.
Recognize opportunities when they present themselves. While REU’s and internships are a great opportunity to gain hands-on experience, they are an opportunity to develop your non-technical skills as well. Take full advantage!
Nathaniel Janick is the Career Services Coordinator at the American Geophysical Union.
*While this piece focuses on the internship concept, it can really apply to any entry level position. Define your own scope.