Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Spring Internship Opportunities - and Thoughts about Internships

It's November, and that means we start looking around nervously at our fabulous fall semester interns and worrying about all the light that will go out of the world when they head back to school, home countries, etc. If you're interested in interning with me and my crew at the MAH in the coming months, please check out our offerings. We're seeking great folks for public programs, participatory exhibit design, online marketing, 3D design, and whatever else you might have to offer.

And while we're advertising positions, we've also learned to advertise something else: the experience of what it's like to be an intern at the MAH. And that's what this post is about--how we advertise the culture at our organizations (or not) when we offer new positions.

I had a bit of a wakeup call about internships last month at an "emerging leaders" lunch event at the Mid-Atlantic Association of Museums conference. The topic of the lunch was internships, and the tables paired students with established professionals to talk about opportunities, issues, and possibilities. I was dismayed to discover that by the standards of many of these grad students, I'm a lousy intern manager. At our museum, we don't provide a lot of structured mentorship for interns. We don't have job-like feedback systems or crystal clear criteria for success. What we have is a lot of opportunities to contribute substantively, and a community of energetic colleagues (mostly other interns) to support the work.

Talking with the students at MAAM, I realized I tend to run internships in accordance with my personal values and a recollection of what I wanted as a newbie in the field. I wanted freedom and responsibility. I wanted the ability to do projects that would end up on the floor. I wanted to be able to work out my own ideas with smart mentors and then produce them--despite my inexperience--for visitors.

I often feel like I spend every day relearning that people think differently from each other. Not everyone wants a super-unstructured internship. What looks like opportunity to me looks like chaos to others. And if I think honestly about the interns we've had over the past six months, their success or failure had a lot more to do with personality and expectation fit than their projects or work areas.

At this time, we're not ready to offer people highly structured internships. We might never get there. But we are ready to be much more upfront about what the internship experience is like at our museum. Our Jobs and Internships page now explicitly says that our internships are good for self-directed, energetic folks who revel in ambiguity. We need interns who work onsite so they can get into the swing of things. And we're best for people who crave unfettered opportunity to make and do.

When you advertise jobs or internships, do you focus on the activities to be performed or the culture of the institution? My lunch experience at MAAM is leading me to focus a heck of a lot more on the second and less on the first. I'm curious to learn more about how other institutions are handling this. I think it's especially necessary in a time when we're focusing more and more on 21st century skills in the workplace--skills like collaboration and innovation--that suggest work formats and approaches that are increasingly different from formal education settings.
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