Department of History

“What Makes for an “Exceptionally Good Internship?”

Claudia Ocello, Director for Programs and Exhibitions
The New Jersey Historical Society

Presented at the
Public History Internship Symposium
Monmouth County Library
April 12, 2006

How many people who supervise interns here were interns once yourselves?

How many of you had a good internship experience?

I was one of those people. I had a great internship experience when I was a graduate student at Bank Street College of Education getting my Masters in Museum Education. I was lucky to get to work in Central Park NYC in one of their historic structures, The Dairy.

When I became an internship supervisor, I thought, wait, can I really do this? Am I ready to take this on? But all I really needed to do was think about what made my internship so worthwhile and enjoyable and such a good learning experience, that helped me that first year to supervise an intern, and it helps me every year.

Here are a few of my suggestions –based on my internship supervisor and my internship experience - on what makes for an “exceptionally good internship:”

  • First–don’t commit to having an intern unless you know you can spend time supervising them. Think about what your upcoming schedule is and how often you are on site –will you be able to be there to teach someone–more so in the beginning of the semester– the ropes? Be honest about that.
  • Second–don’t commit to having an intern unless you have a concrete project for them to work on. Photocopying is part of a project but not a whole project. Searching the internet for information is part of a project but not a whole project. Does your project have a beginning and end? So much the better if it does, but if it does not, that’s OK, as long as you let the person know ahead of time that their work will continue or they are laying a foundation or they are jumpstarting something, etc.
  • Third - meet with the person ahead of time. This is as much an interview for you as it is for the potential intern. Do they like what they see in your organization? Is it what they thought it would be? Do you feel comfortable that this potential intern could accomplish the tasks you have for them? Would you feel OK working with them?

    During an interview with an intern I try to ask them what they are interested in–what topics in history, what time periods, what classes they’ve taken to date, etc. Before the interview I have thought about what projects I would want the person to work on, but sometimes during the interview I have changed my mind and put them on something that they know more about or are more interested in. We all have to do tasks we don’t want to, but the learning is much deeper and the investment greater if you can give them at least part of their internship doing something they have studied or have an interest in.
  • Fourth–on your intern’s first day, you have two tasks and they have one: Have your intern write up what they are hoping to get out of their internship here and review it with them. Keep a copy for yourself and periodically look at it to make sure you are doing as much as you can to help them achieve their goal.

    Your tasks? Introduce them to as many people as possible/tour them through the facitily–show them the bathrooms, the lunchroom, the fire escapes…and….Take them to lunch. Get to know them. Ask about their classes, their study abroad, their summer plans, whatever. It creates more of a bond.
  • Fifth–give them authentic work to do. Show them how to do it, and then let them do it. If you want them to process manuscripts, don’t have them just type up the list of ones you did. Let them do one themselves so they can see the work involved and the thinking needed. If they can walk away from the internship with an example of something they might do in their career–write a lesson plan, develop a finding aid, etc–they have something they can put in their portfolio for prospective employers. Think about it–wouldn’t you rather hire someone who has a tangible record or experience doing what you want them to do at your organization over a person who didn’t? At NJHS–everyone photocopies, including senior staff. But that’s not all we do, nor should it be all that your intern does. Some of our intern’s projects (on the graduate level, we take both graduate and undergraduate interns) have actually turned into thesis topics. Talk about killing two birds with one stone!
  • Sixth–touch base with them everyday, checking progress on a task, finding out how their paper for that class they dislike turned out, etc. Spend time with them each day lets them know they are valued both as a person and a worker. This is also a way for you to review their work, for quality control. I’ve had interns both in the education department who observe programs for a few weeks and then take on teaching one. Since they may not know what to look for when observing another person teach, I ask them to look for something specific each time–for example, one time content: one time class management; one time transitions between activities, etc. And after each time they observe, I meet with them to debrief. This is really important–help them make connections between theory and practical. If you have someone processing papers in an archive related to the civil war, help them see how something signed by Philip Kearny is indeed the person the town is named after–or how the date on one paper is significant to the Battle of Manassas, etc.
  • Seventh–when talking to them about their work, always find something positive in what they did. They might research thoroughly (Even if it was the wrong topic) or they organized things well, or they responded well to the students in the school group - before you show them how to correct it or improve it.
  • Eighth–involve them in as much as you can in your organization. Let them shadow you at staff meetings or participate in them if possible. At The New Jersey Historical Society, we consider interns and volunteers as part of our staff, and as such they get selections from the staff handbook to read and sign off on. These include the mission, values, goals, and some other general information about the organization. By including them in more of the day –to-day activities of the organization, they should see how their work fits in to the larger picture, and that “it takes a village.”
  • Ninth–Be flexible. Remember exams? Remember Finals week? Remember mid-semester when everything was due at once? If they have to switch days, be accommodating.
  • Tenth - Remember that the experience you provide influences these interns–whether they decide to pursue your same career or not. The year I did my internship in Grad school, over half of the group had such poor experiences that they decided not to go into the museum field. What would that mean for the future of all our organizations if that were true of every internship program we are a part of? Don’t forget that these interns are also possible hires in the future–so if you need to fill a job in your department, you know where this person interned and what they did! When we have the opportunity–and the funds–NJHS hires interns in the Education Dept on a part-time basis for the summer. When we had an opening in the department for a full-time educator, we hired our intern–she applied for the job and was clearly the leading candidate because of her experience. We also knew she could handle the workload and the workplace personalities.

How many of you still keep in touch with your intern supervisor? Actually I do! We became colleagues–and good friends–and although we both work in other places now, we BOTH fondly remember the time we worked together at The Dairy and what we accomplished together. Think about the difference you are making in your intern’s life–and make it a positive one.



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