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Recommendations for Intern Supervisors

Before the Project

  • On at least an annual basis, review the project description on the Rutgers History Department’s website and inform the Internship Program Coordinator if changes are necessary.
  • Design the project(s) and include enough detail to make the work appealing to students. Offering several alternative projects will make it more likely that you will get an intern.

Starting the Project

  • At initial interview, establish rapport and assess the student’s maturity, reliability, interests, strengths, weaknesses, goals, subject knowledge, and skills in oral communication, writing, and computer applications. Develop a set of questions so that you will obtain the information you need. If the probable project involves writing, ask the student to bring a writing sample to the interview.
  • College students usually can learn quickly and often they can be trained to do tasks they have never done before. But if, at the initial interview, you have serious doubts that the intern can perform a project, it would be better for both of you if the student interned at another site where the work would be more suitable to their stage of development. Give students an opportunity to back out before starting the internship.
  • Tailor the project to match the student’s interests and abilities. (Note: older students often are found capable of assuming more responsibility than younger students.) Ask the intern to read relevant material before beginning the internship, e.g. procedures manual, grant proposal, or organizational history. This may help them get started on their project more quickly.
  • Develop internship options and customize internships to fit particular students. Don’t invent projects just to obtain an intern. All projects should fulfill real needs at your institution and most of the intern’s work should be “academically responsible,” i.e. not routine photocopying and envelope stuffing. If possible, design projects so that they have an end product by the end of the semester; this adds significantly to the intern’s sense of satisfaction about the experience. Break up large projects into parts so that the student can finish a component by the end of the internship.
  • Assign projects that the student has the ability to complete and that will enhance the student’s knowledge, skills, and abilities. Projects ideally should combine teamwork and independent work. Although the student should have a clearly defined, intellectually stimulating long-term project, explain at the outset that you may need assistance on a short-term basis to help staff with clerical or other work to meet deadlines.
  • Prepare a written work plan for the student that includes goals, procedures, schedule, and expected results. Ask students to write a goals statement at the beginning of the internship and keep a journal to keep track of their progress (supervisors may also find it useful to keep a journal on the intern’s progress). Use the time sheet provided by the Coordinator to keep track of hours.
  • Expect that undergraduates usually have very little, if any, experience doing research with primary source materials and may need considerable guidance and training in using them to obtain useful information.
  • If the student will be handling original artifacts, manuscripts, or art, ensure that they have had or are given instruction on the appropriate handling of these materials.
  • Provide a brochure about the organization to the student and introduce the student to the staff. Advise the student about appropriate dress in in the workplace, how to address staff members (e.g. first name or Ms.), and to call if going to be absent or late.

During the Project

  • Supervision and training of the intern is the key to success. The more time you can spend with the intern, the better the result is likely to be. Exercise strong supervision including regular meetings, progress reports, and deadlines along the way.
  • Dedicate a space that the student can use to perform work with a minimum of distractions. If staff have mailboxes, having a mailbox for the intern makes them feel respected and part of the team. Put the student on the staff mailing or routing list.
  • Meet with the student at the beginning of each day to go over what the day’s objective will be and meet again before the student leaves to assess the results and provide feedback and encouragement. Be pleased if the student asks questions and be concerned if they don’t. Students may be reticent about asking for more or different work to do. If you cannot be there on the day the student works, assign supervisory responsibility to someone else and make sure that person understands the project. Students who work off-site should check in regularly via phone or e-mail and provide a written report.
  • If your institution is a repository for archives, library materials, or artifacts, inform the student of security issues. Your student will be another set of eyes and ears to prevent thefts. It is very unlikely that the intern will be a security threat to you. If you have a disaster response plan, tell the students where they should go in case the building needs to be evacuated.
  • Compliment the student to reinforce appropriate behavior, appearance, or performance, and be clear about what is inappropriate. For example, if you don’t want the student to be talking on a cell phone in the workplace or going outside to smoke, don’t hesitate to explain the restriction.  Be clear about what you expect for the student to earn an A, since you will be giving the grade recommendation to the Internship Coordinator. Give credit if due in exhibits, publications, etc. At the end of the semester, show your appreciation, e.g. a certificate, small gift, or lunch.
  • Be prepared to modify the internship during the semester, depending on the student’s ability. If the intern is exceptionally capable, assign more complex responsibilities. The intern may also request a change if the work assigned is too hard, too easy, or repetitive.
  • It often is helpful to have the intern keep documentation during the project, in addition to the hourly log sheet provided, so that you can write the narrative summary report for the Coordinator. At the end of the semester, ask the intern for a copy of the report that the intern provides to the Coordinator.

Broader Issues

  • Involve the student in the work place, including exposure to “real world” issues such as funding, and meeting all members of the organization. Similarly, learn from your intern about the current issues and concerns of college students. Get to know the intern by inviting the student to lunch.
  • Interns seek knowledge helpful in career planning. Ask them about their job fantasies and try to help them explore career options. Expose the student to the work that professionals do at the work site and, if feasible, take or send the student on a field trip to another site where the student can meet other professionals. Invite the intern to attend staff meetings or go with staff to educational meetings. Emphasize to the student that the internship is a professional development opportunity and not just a grade.
  • Supervisors should try to assist the student in gaining useful knowledge to formulate career plans. If feasible, take the intern to an off-site professional meeting once during the semester. Give the student time to read professional literature available at the site, as well as publications about the organization. When discussing job opportunities in the field of public history, don’t paint an overly rosy picture. Be frank and realistic about the current problems of funding in the historical community.
  • Enlist the student in your efforts to obtain public support for your organization. Have students talk to patrons even if not part of their normal job responsibilities, so that they understand the needs of the users of the organization’s services.
  • Although the student is not paid, the internships are not really free. Keep in mind that the student has actually paid, through tuition, for the opportunity to work with you. Consider paying the student for extra hours beyond the 112 hour requirement for credit or reimbursing travel expenses. Be aware of the intern’s off-site responsibilities when making assignments. Also keep in mind that the time you spend supervising the student is also a cost to your employer.
  • Keep copies of intern evaluations, notes, and other records for use in writing future recommendations and referrals. If the intern was really great, provide a letter of recommendation without being asked!
  • Be alert for educational opportunities to learn more about working with interns.

A Note on Sources

The above recommendations were made either by speakers or by participants at the Rutgers Symposia on Public History Interns, April 18, 1996, April 24, 1998, April 19, 2000, April 16, 2002, April 13, 2004; and April 12, 2006. The Program is conducted by the Department of History, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, with support from the New Jersey Historical Commission.

  • 1996 speakers: Joanne T. Catlett, formerly Curator, Historic Speedwell; Lois Densky-Wolff, Archivist, UMDNJ; and Gail Stern, Director, Historical Society of Princeton.
  • 1998 Speakers: Peggi Carlsen, Sr. Historic Preservation Specialist, Rockingham; Daniel Linke, Asst. Archivist for Technical Services, Mudd Library, Princeton University; and Barbara Rivolta, Director, Ocean County Historical Society.
  • 2000 Speakers: Sandra Holyoak, Director, Rutgers Oral History Archives; Angelica Santomauro, Director, American Labor Museum/Botto House; Maureen Smyth, Curator, Historical Society of Princeton.
  • 2002 Speakers: Sandra Holyoak (as above); Susan Morgan, Curator, Shippen Manor; and Marisa Morigi, Registrar, Historical Society of Princeton.
  • 2004 Speakers: Shaun Illingworth, Assistant Director, Rutgers Oral History Archives; and George Tselos, Supervisory Archivist, Head of Reference Services, Statue of Liberty National Monumentand Ellis Island Immigration Museum.
  • 2006 Speakers: Jacqueline Haun, Archivist, The Bunn Library, The Lawrenceville School; and Claudia Ocello, Director of Programs and Exhibitions, New Jersey Historical Society.

Compiled by Gary D. Saretzky, Coordinator, Public History Internship Program.

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