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Internship Tips

I wrote these tips in the mid-1990s for students in Southern Methodist University’s Arts Administration program. They’re posted here for historical reference.

1. Research the organization and city in which you will be working. Request a complete press packet, copy of the bylaws, organizational chart and long-range plan from your internship organization. Start buying the Sunday paper from the city in which you will be living. Read a few travel books about the city and its history. This will help you learn who has power (and/or money), how they obtained it, and what the current items of concern are for the area. Subscribe to the local paper when you arrive.

2. When you start work, be prepared to make copies, file and open mail. You are not a consultant. Your job is to help where needed, observe, listen and learn. Plan to get to work early and stay late for the first three weeks. After that, you will have proven your commitment to getting the job done and you can use your judgement on working hours.

3. Find a need and fill it. Spend many hours in the first three weeks attempting to identify a need that the organization has that you are uniquely qualified to meet. Ask questions to make sure that you are on target before proposing any major changes. Make sure that the project you create is manageable in your day-to-day workload, and can be completed during your stay.

4. Request one-on-one meetings with organization leaders. As an intern, you are there to learn. This means you can easily avoid most of the internal politics of the organization and community. By meeting with people for even an hour you will be able to learn a great deal about who they are, their background (possible connections), and what their vision is both for the organization and the arts in their city.

5. Actively participate in community events. Attend as many performances and shows as possible. Go to public lectures, luncheons, political and social events. This will help you familiarize yourself with the arts organizations in the city and give you a broader community perspective.

6. Network. Stay in touch with your mentors in Dallas and across the country. Let them know that you will be looking for a job soon, and tell them what you would like to do. Also, make a point of meeting the heads of the arts organizations and funding organizations in the city ask your supervisor to prepare the way for your phone call, then make the appointment.

7. Be flexible both in your internship and job search. Be willing to open envelopes, update databases, make phone calls and write letters. Don’t worry if you aren’t doing exactly what you would like to do as a career. Diversity of experience can be very good, particularly if you can then show how what you learned helps you bring a new outlook to your chosen field. If you only want to work for one organization, or in one field be prepared to sacrifice many other desirable job requirements (salary, location, position, etc.).

8. Thank people. Write thank you notes after meeting with people. Write notes to your mentors. “Thank yous” are a way to get your name in front of people one more time.

9. Listen. Stop talking and listen to the people you interact with. Ask questions: find out about their interests and concerns. Most people love to talk about their experiences. Letting them do so is often enlightening and sometimes amusing. Listen for subtext: what is being said that is expected, and, more importantly, what is not being said that could/should be said? This requires paying careful attention to details, voice inflection and the entire community.

10. Read. Read the daily paper, the Chronicle of Philanthropy, the special journals in your field (theater, music, dance, museums, etc.) Read history to learn how people shaped their society. Read biographies to learn how people shaped careers. Read novels and poetry to discover new ways of articulating ideas and emotions.

11. Ask “WHY?” Refuse to make quick judgements about individuals. Most people have a definite reason for their behavior, but often do not express the reason. Ask yourself why the individual said what they did and acted or reacted to your comments in they manner that they did. I have often found that the reason for behavior emerges at a later date, after more information is available. This does not mean liking everyone, it merely means making every possible attempt to understand what motivates a person’s present behavior.

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