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Finding an Internship That’s Right for You

October 8, 2015

By Emily Wall, Arts Management

The internship component factored heavily in my choosing George Mason’s Arts Management program for my graduate studies. However, for someone, like me, who has been out in the workforce for a few years before deciding to go back to school for a master’s degree, finding the right internship can be a challenge. According to a 2015 study by Boston based Burning Glass Technologies, “For many college-educated Americans, an internship is the first step on the career ladder,” and “most internships are still aimed at undergraduates.” As many internships now serve as organizations’ entry level positions, those with work experience may be challenged to discover internships that are not introductory in the experiences they offer. In talking with my fellow students I know that this is an issue many of them have come up against as well. I sought specialized arts management experience, rather than general knowledge on how to succeed in an office environment.

With all of this in mind, I sat down for a meeting with the Artistic/Managing Director of 1st Stage Theater in Tysons Corner back in February. My background is in theater and I worked as a stage manager in Chicago before coming to Virginia to pursue my graduate education. Alex is actually connected to a group of colleagues from Chicago (never underestimate the power and geographic scope of the connections you make in your career). Alex was hired as the Artistic Director of the seven-year-old theater company in September and moved to the area just after I did in 2014. After about an hour of conversation with Alex about the theater, its mission, and his aspirations for the company, I was on board and accepted an Arts Administration Fellowship with 1st Stage.

My fellowship with 1st Stage spanned six months, and I can honestly say it was one of the most valuable experiences I have had as a developing arts manager. There are several reasons that the 1st Stage fellowship worked for me. First, Alex received his master’s degree after taking time to work professionally in the field. He understood what I would be looking for in a graduate level internship. Secondly, the company is relatively young, and they have been growing rapidly over the past seven years. I happened to become involved at a moment in the company’s development when my efforts could be fully utilized. Finally, 1st Stage needed someone who had professional experience, and this experience was essential to my success as a fellow.

In my six-months at 1st Stage, I was able to lead projects and take on tasks that would not likely be available in an introductory internship. Some of the responsibilities I assumed were: patron services management, facilities management, connectivity development, social media engagement, and email marketing advancement. Alex has been an incredible mentor, offering equal parts guidance and freedom as we crafted this fellowship together. He listened to what I wanted to get out of the experience and worked to ensure that my goals were met. He gave me individual time and energy that is essential to such a learning process. I have been honored to dedicate my time to 1st Stage, and I know that my work has been valued and necessary to the organization.

There are many opportunities to gain internship experience today, some more valuable than others, and organizations need interns as much as interns need the experience. My recommendation to incoming students would be to use your skills as guidelines to shape the internship that you want. Be clear about the goals you want for yourself when interviewing for an internship. Once in a position, don’t be afraid to ask questions or request to sit in on a meeting. Don’t hesitate because “you are just an intern.” If you feel that way, that internship probably isn’t the right fit for you.

10 Suggestions for Crafting Your Internship

1. Work your network! Never underestimate the power and geographic scope of the connections you make in your career.

2. Interview your supervisor and ASK QUESTIONS to determine: Will the internship be a good fit? Does the organization understand what you want to do? Will you benefit equally from the intern relationship?

3. Define your learning goals explicitly. Make sure you are on the same page with your supervisor and other key players in the organization about what you want to get out of your time as an intern.
4. Be confident. As an intern, it can be difficult to feel confident enough to share opinions. However, as a mid-career professional you have plenty to offer, so speak up!

5. Take initiative (related to #4). Once you and your supervisor have established that your work experience can contribute, don’t be afraid to speak up, offer your thoughts, or take the reigns on a project, as it feels appropriate in your situation.

6. Demonstrate your prowess. You’ve talked yourself up as someone who knows how to function and excel in a professional environment, now make sure you show them you’re telling the truth!

7. Ask for help. You are still learning, that’s why you’re an intern, so make sure you ask questions when you need insight or want clarification.

8. Ask about employment. If you are looking to turn your internship into a full-time job, inquire about the organization’s history of hiring interns during your initial conversations.

9. Get to know other people in the organization. As an intern, your tasks (or even your location in the office) may be such that you don’t interact much with other people in the office. Take time to get to know others. Expand your network and contribute to the positive office culture.

10. Have fun! You might not be making much (or any) money for your time as an intern and this can be kind of a drag, but stay positive, rely on your love for your craft, and take joy from your work. It matters.

Emily Wall earned her B.A. in Theatre Directing and Management from the Johnny Carson School of Theatre and Film at the University of Nebraska—Lincoln. She will graduate from George Mason University’s Arts Management program in spring 2016.

Editor’s Note: Mason offices such as University Career Services and the Center for Global Education offer Mason students help finding internships. Check out their websites to find out more!

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