Finding an Internship to change careers



Question: I came to graduate school right from my bachelor\’s, and am in the third year of a biomedical Ph.D. program that I\’m not sure is right for me. I\’m interested in getting some experience with other career options but with my lab schedule it\’s hard to find the time to apply for, and do, an internship. Do you have any suggestions?

Question: I want to get an internship but am not sure how to do it or if anyone would take me on since I\’m an older person changing careers.

Julie: It can be a challenge to get an internship when you don\’t fit the usual demographic. Internships are often associated with undergraduates, law students, or future M.B.A.\’s who spend their summers in internships in order to secure full-time positions after graduation. But an internship can be useful to anyone who is attempting to change careers—in particular to doctoral students or postdocs trying to shift out of the traditional academic path.

Jenny: We need to make one thing clear upfront: Many if not most internships are unpaid—that makes them difficult for anyone who needs paid full-time work, and most of us do. This practice is not without controversy. (See the January 9, 2013, article in The Wall Street Journal, \”Minimum Wage for Interns? It Misses the Point,\” and the many responses, such as a January 21 letter headlined, \”Unpaid Internships Can Help, but Mostly Aid Well-Off\”) .

As career counselors we feel uneasy about the ethics of unpaid work. But internships are an established practice in many fields, and have helped many candidates to change over to a satisfying new career.

Julie: What makes an internship different from volunteer work is its structure. Internships usually involve more commitment than a volunteer position. Volunteer work is certainly a useful addition to a résumé. However, having completed an internship in a given field is often an indicator of a more engaged interest in that career. It also shows that an employer felt it was worth the investment of time (and perhaps money) to take you on as an intern. Volunteer work can sometimes lead to an internship or a part-time job, whereas with an internship there is more likelihood that it will lead to a full-time job.

Jenny: You can find internships in many different ways and places. Some people apply to established (and often highly competitive) internship programs that hire more than one intern and often take place during the summer—such as the Boston Consulting Group\’s summer program or Google\’s User Experience Research Intern program. Note the minimum qualifications of Google\’s program: \”Currently enrolled in a B.S., M.S., or Ph.D. program in human computer interaction, cognitive psychology, information science or a related field.\” It\’s important that Ph.D. students understand that, for most internships, they will be competing with people from diverse academic backgrounds.

Julie: Besides such formal corporate programs, there are also community-based internships. A good example is the Fels Fund Internships which are awarded each spring and take place in Philadelphia. Again, Ph.D.\’s applying for that type of internship will need to make a strong case for their fit and interest in the position, as their background may be unexpected in a pool of master\’s and undergraduate candidates.

There are also one-off internship positions for which an organization is looking to hire only one person. is a great resource for that type of internship in the nonprofit world. A tool like can help you to see the range of what\’s out there (search for \”summer internship\” in your area, and you\’ll find a wide range of options). Your campus career office may also have an internship database you can access (even as a graduate in many cases).

Jenny: Doctoral students and older job candidates can do several things to overcome some of the biases that an organization might have about hiring them as interns.

  • First, be sure you are using all of the resources available to you through a campus career center or alumni office. Too often, people fail to realize that a great deal of help may be available on their own campuses.
  • Second, write a solid résumé tailored to the position and the organization, and a thoughtful cover letter explaining your interest and fit.
  • Then practice talking about your skills and the added value that your background might bring to the organization. That will help to prepare you for networking and interviews.
  • Be sure to do careful research on the culture and practices of the new field that interests you. Learn that profession\’s lingo.
  • Finally, work to create your own internship. That has been an effective strategy for many Ph.D.\’s and career changes.
  • Julie: What does creating your own internship mean? First, it means using networking and informational interviews (if you don\’t know what those are, click here ) to learn about organizations that interest you. This takes research and time. Then, either on your own or using your network on contacts, arrange to speak with people in those organizations. During your conversation, you might ask about the possibility of an internship. The second step is to develop a work proposal for a particular organization. It could be something as simple as a proposal to complete a given project at the organization.

    Jenny: That process may sound intimidating, or even impossible. If you feel that way, start by looking for opportunities at your institution. Large research universities are staffed by many different types of employees doing many different types of jobs, including government affairs, institutional advancement, public relations, or technology transfer. If there is a field in which you are interested, see if there is an office doing that work on your campus that might be willing to take you on as an intern. Working in those offices on the campus can lead to opportunities outside the university.

    Julie: The science Ph.D. who inspired this column by asking about internships has a few options. Talk to an adviser (possibly a scary proposition, but it has to be done) about taking time away from the lab. You could try creating an internship with flexible hours that could be done remotely, or see if it\’s possible to do work on the campus that would allow you to explore outside interests. At Penn, our first biomedical career fair, years ago, was organized by a neuroscience postdoc who wanted to get some experience outside the lab and did an unpaid internship—that she proposed—with the university career-services office. She later transitioned from scientific research to career advising at a major research institution.

    Jenny: And our reader who is changing careers might want to first do research on career fields of interest and informational interviews with people in those careers. Then identify relevant organizations and companies and start asking about your internship options. Let them know what you have to offer.

    Networking is a key component in this: A January 28 article in The New York Times noted the importance of referrals in full-time hiring. Developing and using your own contacts will improve your chances of getting a foot in the door for an internship as well as a full-time job.

    Julie: We focused here on what Ph.D. students can do for themselves, but we recognize that doctoral programs need to make changes to support the various career interests of their graduate students. Many years ago the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation had a program called Humanities at Work that gave doctoral students in the humanities the chance to work with companies and nonprofits—and a bit of money to support then. Many more such efforts are needed as academic departments, prompted by job-market woes, begin to re-envision doctoral education. Providing more support to graduate students interested in completing an internship is an important step in that process.

    Author Bios: Julie Miller Vick is senior associate director of career services at the University of Pennsylvania. Jennifer S. Furlong just stepped down as associate director of New York University\’s Office of Faculty Resources and will start a new position later this month as director of the office of career planning and professional development at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.