Search icon Looking for something?

Internship Programs: Collaboration or Dictation?
2013, Q3 (September 30, 2013)
By Stephanie Mills, Greg Thompson, Ann-Marie Grissino, and Sheila Loring

Recently Greg Thompson, Sheila Loring, and Stephanie Mills had a discussion about interns and internships in technical communication. Greg and Sheila had experience directing interns, and Stephanie had experience working as an intern. The conversation explored these two perspectives on internships. We found ourselves wishing we had recorded the conversation, but even better, Sheila brought in Ann-Marie Grissino for a fourth perspective and the following conversation transpired...

What's an appropriate workload for an intern?

[Sheila] Be ready with a long list of projects, longer than you imagine one person can finish in a few months. Interns work very quickly because they have few distractions. And with summer interns, you'll want to take advantage of their energy and ambition during the short summer internship.

[Greg] We shouldn't over burden an intern with work, keeping in mind that but many of them are also undergraduate or graduate students, and may already have a challenging, academic workload. We want to have them paint a room but not paint the entire house.

[Stephanie] One challenge of interning for me was setting expectations about how much and what type of work I was supposed to do. In my part-time internship during the school year, I found it worked best for my supervisor and I to agree on a set number of hours per week. That way I was never overworked, but I also was able to use any leftover hours each week to seek out new tasks and find other opportunities to use my skills at the company.

[Ann-Marie] The internship workload should start off with small projects that build up skills and experiences. Each small project should result in success. Success builds upon success. It is helpful to have small projects that can be completed easily and somewhat independently along with a larger project that requires more thought, more research, more direction, and more collaboration.

Interns and "grunt work" - how much is too much?

[Sheila] Unfortunately, interns have to do grunt work that requires minimal training. For instance, one of my summer interns, Kerry, verified and updated screenshots in thousands of pages of documentation — and without complaining.

However, grunt work needs to be balanced with more challenging work to give the intern a better learning experience. This gives them a wider (and more realistic) picture of a day in the life of a technical writer. Kerry analyzed the content on our new wiki and assigned descriptive tags consistently. She can now include content analysis as a skill on her resume.
Mentors, be ready with a long list of projects, longer than you imagine one person can finish in a few months.

[Greg] Before you assign a project to interns, make sure you
understand what their skills and interests are. Yes, interns work for you, and you could adopt the attitude that "they should do whatever you ask them to do and be grateful for it!" However, if you can match a project to their passion, you should be able to get a more inspired performance from them.

[Stephanie] Pop culture had prepared me for an internship that consisted mostly of learning the best way to brew coffee and use a copy machine, but I was pleasantly surprised by the type of work I was expected to do. Yes, some tasks were more exciting than others, but I was only ever asked to do work that was part of a technical communicator's job description! I felt that this gave me a realistic picture of working in this profession, which, after all, is one of the goals of an internship.

[Ann-Marie] Yes, interns do need to do some menial work when they first get started. We all have had to do that. But, the menial tasks help interns learn the skills and tools to move on to other work. The internship should include both basic and more challenging tasks.

What kind of backgrounds do interns have?

[Sheila] Kerry had no technical writing experience. Typically, she wouldn't have been considered for the summer internship. However, she proved to be very curious and motivated, asked intelligent questions, and took on a small writing project. At the end of the summer, she'd decided to change her major to computer science and technical communication.

[Greg] Technical communicators use technology that is constantly changing. Employers should recognize that many potential interns are exposed in school to leading edge ideas, technologies, and practices that we don't always have time to learn. Find out what your interns know and mine their minds!

[Stephanie] While I began my internship relatively inexperienced, I was happy to find that my degree program had prepared me well for working as a technical communicator. One of the most important things I brought to the company was fresh knowledge about new communication tools, which I had learned in school as well as through other professional development opportunities.

[Ann-Marie] It is so important to listen to the intern's needs and interests and try to match some tasks to those interests. For example, one of our interns was interested in graphics in technical communication. We asked her to research infographics and prepare a short presentation to the staff. She was excited about the work and brought us valuable information.

What are the qualities of good intern?

[Sheila] Consider giving inexperienced interns a chance if they demonstrate initiative and curiosity. Course work or a degree in technical communication might result in an interview. Asking good questions can result in a job.

[Greg] The ability to follow directions is important for interns. However, it is more important for them to be willing to engage in a type of mutual, Socratic call-and-response, where they ask and are asked questions about assigned tasks.

[Stephanie] I have to echo Sheila and Greg. Asking questions has been the only way I could "find my feet" in an internship. I think it's the best way to figure out how to be useful as well as how to learn what you're there to learn.

[Ann-Marie] Interns must be able to ask questions. That's the key to success. They cannot be afraid to say that they don't understand or that they need more direction. They need to be passionate and determined. Those qualities help them get hired, too!

What makes a good internship program?

[Greg] It is also important to give the intern clear direction by setting expectations, modeling the optimal performance, and then providing feedback. To make sure this process is successful, the sponsoring company must outline an internship development plan for the manager and the intern.

[Stephanie] I was very fortunate that my internship program outlined a communication and expectations plan for me from the very beginning. My supervisor and I were provided with a worksheet, and we spent about 15 minutes outlining our goals for the program on the first day. We reviewed the worksheet at a scheduled meeting at the halfway and end point of the program, but I referenced it on my own even more frequently. This helped me stay on track throughout the semester and gave me a rubric for determining how my internship was progressing.

[Ann-Marie] The internship program is successful when you have clear expectations, responsibilities, due dates, and roles. For example, our internship program sets up the first few days and first week of work very explicitly, with the directions less exact the next week. However, the responsibilities and due dates are clearly spelled out. The intern is partnered with a buddy from the first hour of the first day through the entire internship. I've had some excellent experiences mentoring interns!

Sheila Loring is Carolina chapter president. She also manages the JMP documentation team at SAS Institute. Sheila can be reached at president at stc-carolina dot org.

Greg Thompson is a Carolina chapter member. He also the Principal Instructional Designer and Technical Writer at Renaissance Information Design. Greg can be reached at rencon at gmail dot com.

Stephanie Mills is a Carolina chapter member. She is also an M.S. student in Technical Communication at NCSU. Stephanie can be reached at Stephanie dot Mills3 at gmail dot com.

Ann-Marie Grissino is a Carolina chapter member and STC Fellow. She is an Information Engineer at NetApp and teaches information architecture at the Duke Technical Communication Certificate program. Ann-Marie can be reached at grissino at netapp dot com. End of article.

More articles like this...
Comments powered by Disqus.