"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)


wednesday bleg

Well, students are trickling onto campus and the marching band is back to practicing outside of my window, which means it's just about that time of year. I'm looking forward to being a second-year assistant professor, and especially to not having any new courses to prepare this semester. One of my goals for this year is to develop a strong career development program for our international studies majors. I especially want to give the guys a sense of what it takes to succeed in international development, diplomacy, advocacy, and other industries. We're going to have sessions on grad school, writing personal statements, business etiquette, and internships, all with the aim of helping our students prepare for the realities of the job market.

That last one is where you come in. Those of you in the real world have enjoyed (we hope) having students from all over the place in your offices as interns this summer, so I figured this was a good time to hit you up for some feedback while your memories are still fresh. If you were giving advice to a potential intern, what would it be? What makes a good intern? What makes an internship succeed or fail? What qualities does your organization or agency look for when selecting interns? What would make you send an intern home?

I'd love to read your answers to these questions in the comments. Please include anything you think might be relevant -the good, the bad, and/or the ugly. Thanks, everyone!


Blogger Andrew said...

David Abernathy (http://www.stanford.edu/group/polisci/faculty/abernethy.html)
was a political science professor at Stanford who took a similar interest in his students' professional development. He ran lunch time discussion sessions and nurtured the Africanist community within the university. He has since retired but still may have advice.


Wednesday, August 11, 2010 6:58:00 AM

Blogger Lil said...

Hmm--lots of things to say from the think tank world: when I hire interns, I want someone who will pitch in with whatever is needed (you're an intern, not senior staff, seriously, don't sit there watching someone emptying the dishwasher, help them), someone who is diligent in research, someone who writes well (that's very important).

Reasons I've wanted to send people home (but didn't because they got a warning and got better): I had one intern who when I gave her/him an assignment sighed loudly and rolled her/his eyes at me. I had another who plagiarized something that was going to be on our website (they rewrote it from scratch but I told them I would have fired them), I had one who lied about what he/she had done with the company credit card after going to an office supply store (turned out they'd given it to another intern and asked them to go to the store for them). In that case, the intern had only a week to go so I told them if it had been earlier they would have been fired, instead, I gave them boring/admin work for the remaining week.

Things that made me keep people for a second round (or in some cases hire them, some were awesome, we hired them): taking it an extra step in research, demonstrating initiative and really good analysis skills, writing well and quickly, helping with whatever needed to be done.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010 8:03:00 AM

Anonymous D said...

I work for Washington headquartered NGO and have supervised interns in both DC and in West Africa.

Some things are simple:
-show up on time. Sounds simple, but it's my #1 intern complaint. Most of our critical work is done between 8 am and 11 am because that is when our field offices are open. If you show up late you miss out on these phone calls and meetings and will miss opportunities to take on interesting work that is assigned at that time.

-dress professionally We don't have a dress code, but err on the side of the formal. ESPECIALLY in the field. If your African colleagues are wearing pressed shirts and ties why are you wearing wrinkled tank tops and tevas?? Appropriate attire shows respect for your colleagues and (if you are in contact with them) program beneficiaries.

-show an interest and willingness in doing the work assigned to you, even when it is administrative and boring (surprise a lot of NGO work is administrative and boring even for middle management!)

-understand your strengths and weaknesses. If you're fluent in french let me know, I will have tons of interesting stuff for you to do. But don't expect that just because you spent a semester in Ghana that I am going to let you design a program for a $40 million proposal. I want you to work on projects that you are interested in, and I want you to develop specialized knowledge and competencies, but you will be expected to defer to those with more knowledge and experience--just as I am!

Finally, something that would cause me to send someone home (hasn't happened yet) would be improper use of social media. It's fine to say on facebook where you're working, or keep a blog about your internship experience, or have a twitter account. But remember that the internet is public and anything that you say there can not only damage your career prospects but also the reputation of your employer. Keep business sensitive information confidential.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010 10:21:00 AM

Anonymous Lauren said...

I'm going to be obnoxious and only contribute one thing: ask questions if you're confused! It's why I always ask if you have them. I won't think less of you and it will save us all time in the long run.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010 12:52:00 PM

Blogger texasinafrica said...

Thanks so much, guys - this is very helpful!

Wednesday, August 11, 2010 2:25:00 PM

Blogger Global Peace Exchange said...

As a former intern, the most solid piece of advice I can offer future interns is to have a pretty clear idea of what you want to do early on. Just because you're interning for a UN agency or big INGO doesn't mean they're going to know what the hell to do with you.

Feel around, ask a lot of questions. Just don't be intrusive or try to assert yourself too much in the process. Finding your place as an intern shouldn't mean trying to mould policy or operations to the vast amounts of experience you have accumulated through your intro to Intl Relations course.

On a more practical note, I find that the best way to find internships is just by emailing someone in the office you want to work in. This is faster and easier than any formal application process. Especially if you want to work in a UN Agency.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010 4:12:00 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not sure I'm adding to the conversation by saying this, but I agree wholeheartedly that successful interns are interns that know how to write. More importantly, my most successful interns have just been very thoughtful about what they do and how they do it, making sure to take the time to research something thoroughly, format it properly and give me as close-to-finished pieces as possible. That's much appreciated - I don't mind editing for content, but I really don't want to fix tiny details, typos or unreferenced statistics. That's why I have interns.

I've had an unusually great run of interns in the last year; across the board the best thing about them is that they're all game. I can throw any task at them - from necessary but boring proofing/copy-editing to substantive analysis - and they take it and do a great job. They ask questions and look for ways that they can help. My most successful interns say things like "I think I could handle taking a first stab at that, if you want" at our staff meetings. They also come into the interview process telling me what about our organization intrigues them most and have ideas for the kinds of projects they'd like to take on. They may not always get those projects, but I like the help in defining their interests.

Also, if you haven't read through our website, please don't come knocking on my door. That seems ridiculous to even have to say, but believe me I've had some unprepared folks in interviews and I don't give them a second glance. These positions are pretty competitive - come armed.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010 6:39:00 PM

Anonymous J. said...

I particularly agree with the suggestions by "D", above. I'd add/expand to say:

Focus on doing solid work, whatever that is. Aid work is a lot about sitting in an office doing office work. Make peace with that reality.

Find ways to be humble without being needy, assertive without being obnoxious, anxious to learn without being high-maintenance.

Thursday, August 12, 2010 11:33:00 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I will be a 43 year old newly minted Morehouse man after returning to complete my degree after 22 years. I have worked for the CDC, Northrop Grumman and was an International Vessel Traffic Cord. for Goldkist Poultry and I worked on the road for the rap Group OutKast. I would like to intern in this field, any feedback or suggestions would be helpful.

Friday, August 13, 2010 10:08:00 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

While there's definetely plenty of work around, it's not always easy to keep an intern occupied with useful (for us) yet instructive (for them) tasks 24/7. So I like interns who - besides cheerfully accepting the more tedious work - shape their own experience by being vocal about their interests and goals, by being proactive and taking initiative.

Also, I do take the training aspect seriously. It's not fair to make them work for free on things that won't actually help them develop the professional skills needed to soon become one of us. Try to keep the balance win-win at all times.

Friday, August 20, 2010 5:55:00 AM


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