Overstory #79 - Creating an Internship
In this edition of The Overstory, we share our recommendations about ways to create a valuable internship experience. The authors have been both interns and mentors in sustainable agriculture. These tips for prospective interns may also be useful for those who would like to become a mentor or improve their internship process.
Practical, hands-on experience is a key part of learning to work with trees and forests. Many people of all ages and career paths are seeking ways to increase their practical skills through internships. Internships are short- or long-term practical experiences (usually between 1 - 12 months) supervised by a mentor. Frequently the mentor is not a school or university professor, but instead a farmer, agroforester, traditional plant gatherer, or other practitioner.
An internship represents a unique opportunity to work closely with an expert and gain untold knowledge that can't be had from any other source. There's just no substitute for hands-on, practical experience.
However, an internship position can be a big shift from being a high school or university student, surrounded by teachers and staff who are being paid to assist and educate students as their first priority. Even locating and making contact with the right mentor differs greatly from applying to a formal learning institution.
Keep in mind the mentor's position
Farmers, on-farm researchers, tree planters, or agroforesters can be excellent choices to supervise the internship. Very few practitioners have formal internship programs. Usually internships involve creating a one-on-one arrangement with a particular person.
There are many ways to locate prospective mentors, including:
- lists of expert practitioners (see Web Links);
- farmer organizations;
- recommendations from teachers;
- journal articles by or about expert practioners;
- finding someone in your own community whose work you admire.
Although almost all of these potential mentors would like to share what they know with an intern, they are usually fully engaged with professional responsibilities and family obligations. Often there's no time to answer internship inquiries, let alone take on an intern. Agroforestry experiences are often located in rural or remote areas, making it an even larger burden to reply to or host prospective interns. Farmers who have taken on interns or visitors may find that novices can require far more time and energy to supervise than expected.
Applying for an internship
While you can expect to be richly rewarded with new skills and knowledge, the path to a truly valuable internship is to focus not on your needs and wants, but on those of your mentor. Learning how to best serve their goals and projects will help you gain what you need to know later as you pursue your own projects. Furthermore, from the initial contact onward, find ways to make having you as an intern easy for the mentor. Here are some tips for finding an internship and making the most out of it.
Use these as guidelines to apply for an internship:
- Find out as much as you can about your prospective mentor's work, business, writings, and current projects. Do this as best you can without bothering them for information. The ideal way to get accepted is to cause your prospective mentor as little work as possible.
- Send a brief introductory letter and resume instead of calling. You can communicate better about yourself in a letter, you won't be interrupting your potential mentor's day, and you don't have to worry about bumbling it. They can look at your letter at their convenience, and answer when they get a chance. Make sure to enclose a self-addressed stamped envelope. Any requests just add to their workload. The kind of application that will get read is one that minimizes the work to respond. If you really want to impress, send a self-addressed postcard with a variety of responses for them to put a check mark next to.
- Type a brief and concise (1 page) introduction that clearly shows you are familiar with your prospective mentor's work. Get a book on writing cover letters to help you. Describe what you offer as an intern, rather than how great your ideals are. Most importantly, submit your presentation to at least one friend or teacher (not a parent) and ask them to give you corrections for clarity and conciseness, and correct spelling and grammar.
- Include a brief, professional resume. Study a book on writing resumes if you don't know how to write one that communicates your abilities. Highlight your relevant experience. If you don't have any directly related practical experience, highlight your ability to produce results, be in service, and do excellent work. Volunteer work with specific accomplishment can impress as much as or more than paid work. Some experience doing physical labor is also helpful. The foremost significance of your resume is that it demonstrates that you can do complete work.
- Follow up on your letter by telephone or e-mail about 7-10 days after your contact receives it. When you follow up, check first to make sure your first communication arrived. If you are very interested in the position, ask for an opportunity to talk with them by telephone or in person. Express your interest in an internship, while keeping the conversation as brief as possible so as demonstrate you value the person's time.
- If you are rebuffed or get rejected, you might find a way to pose the question, "What would it take to be able to work with you?" Listen carefully to their considerations. If you are still convinced you are a great match for the position, start over. If you were informed about your shortcomings when you were turned down, improve areas where you were weak before you reapply. It is amazing how easily most people give up. Persistence, an ability to improve, learn from mistakes, and follow through on stated intentions are all necessary characteristics of an intern. If the considerations involved other, practical barriers, you can find ways around these. For example, if the mentor did not want an intern because there was no place for you to live on their farm, offer to handle your own accommodations without their help.
Avoid these application pitfalls
- Do not attempt to use your internship as a tourist opportunity. The convenience of surfing, sunbathing, and drinking the local brew will not impress your mentor, but instead usually indicate a lack of seriousness about an internship. Instead, use the internship to get a unique inside look into a situation which tourists will never see.
- Do not launch into a lecture about how important it is that we all get to work saving the earth, or some such. The person you are writing to is already walking their talk, and will not appreciate a lecture from you.
- Do not waste you mentor's time inquiring about things you can learn about from other sources once you arrive such as where to surf or see a cricket match. Your prospective mentor certainly does not have time to be a travel guide to intern applicants.
- Do not call collect, or ask for return phone calls, especially long distance. Do not leave messages with your name and number--instead, call back until you reach a live person. When you call, originate the call yourself and always ask "Do you have a few minutes?" If they say yes, keep your call brief (it helps to have the points you want to cover written down in front of you). If they say it is not a good time, ask when is a good time to call them back. Call them back when you say you will, and again ask if it's a good time.
- Do not send a mass-produced letter, it's almost certain it won't be answered. Unless you know there is a formal internship program, do not write, "send me information about your program."
- Do not lie or exaggerate on your resume or application letter. Ultimately there will be a consequence. People who lie to get an internship usually continue to do so. An internship relationship is usually close enough to expose lies very quickly.
Launching the internship
Once you find a person willing to work with you as your mentor, you've gotten over a major hurdle and are on your way to a unique and exciting educational experience. To get the most out of this experience, clarify things about your internship up front.
- Set some clear, measurable, and realistic goals. Write them down, show them to your advisor, and get his or her support. Be specific. Examples of goals include: be able to plant trees with less than 10% attrition; make an entry in a journal each day about bird sightings; learn the names of five medicinal plants and their uses; etc.
- Ask your mentor if he or she likes to have sit down meetings each week or if you are supposed to catch him or her on the fly each day.
- Be honest with your prospective mentor about what you want out of the internship experience, and what you are willing to do. Are you willing to pay for the internship experience, or not? How many hours of field work are you willing to agree to per week? How many days do you need free for study and project work per month? Do you need a place to stay during the internship? Are you willing to live in a tent with rudimentary facilities, or are you dreaming of a fully furnished studio with ocean view? Do you need an income during your internship, or will you have saved enough money to carry you through? Are you willing to commit to a certain time period, or do you want the option of leaving on a few weeks' notice?
- Get a clear agreement with your mentor about the terms of the internship. Put it in writing, sign it, and get your mentor's signature. Although this sounds formal and uncomfortable, it will help avoid many miscommunications during the internship. Set starting and ending dates. Specify what expenses you are responsible for, what they are responsible for, how many days a month you have off, etc. Keep your agreements. If you blow it at some point, acknowledge it, and fix it. For example say, "I said I would bathe the cat this morning, and I forgot to do it."
- Ask about how to borrow books, care for tools (what happens if a tool breaks while you are using it?) etc. Remember, you want your mentor to feel as if you are an asset, not a liability. It's best to be willing to pay for any physical damage to tools or books that you cause to relieve your mentor from any worry about possible damage. Let your mentor know your consideration if you can't afford to repair or replace something.
- Stay away from alcohol and drugs (by no means ever conduct illegal activities such as drug use during the internship).
- Get clear up front about who is responsible for healthcare, injuries, etc. Offer to sign any liability waiver required.
- Decide to devote yourself 100% to the subject for the duration of the internship. This is not a time to be on the lookout for a new romantic partner, surfing or training for a marathon. You are there to serve and learn from your mentor, and distractions have no place. Keep in mind much of what you learn will be absorbed through osmosis, merely being in the presence of an expert.
- Even if you were a star academic student or are a master in your current profession, bear in mind you will most likely be a novice in many of the activities during your internship. There is really no such thing as "unskilled labor"--most agricultural activities that look simple require experience and practice to do with speed and proficiency. Be patient with yourself.
- You will probably be given (or want to take on) tasks around the farm or business to help out (feeding the animals, watering the nursery, etc.). Start small with this. If you will not be supervised, only take on tasks you are comfortable with. When you complete it, have your mentor check that you did it right. Then, you will be able to perform this task whenever needed. Expand your task areas as you become more proficient. But do not take on, or let your mentor put on you, a task that could damage your mentor's livelihood if you did it wrong.
- When you are being helpful around the farm, be willing to take on some chores that at first might not interest you. You might think, "I don't need to know how to pull weeds from the garden. I don't want to do this job--I'm not learning anything." If your mentor needs it done, just do it, and do it at the level of excellence. They are watching to see the level of responsibility you operate at. You may find one day that the experience you thought was worthless drudgery was an important step. Remember also that the more of an asset you are, the more time your mentor can devote to you.
- Find out if there is a communication process to handle upsets. It is a great relief to know there is a way to deal with problems, resentments, etc. rather than to try to avoid problems at all cost. One excellent way to begin such a conversation is, "I'm having an upset..." Upsets are an essential part of learning and growing.
- Keep a journal. Make daily entries. If you are not comfortable communicating your upsets to your mentor, write them in your journal. This helps clear your mind in preparation for your next day's activities. Write down your goals, your questions, your realizations each day. Experiential learning seems slow, and outside of formal academics there is rarely the chance to be tested and graded. By keeping a journal you will be amazed at how much you've learned in a short amount of time!