This is the first post in a three-part series by PhD students Justin Beauchamp, Queenie Sukhadia, and Maya Godbole about their experiences interning at Ithaka S+R, a higher education research and consulting organization, in summer 2020.
Post 2: “The Continuities Between the University and Workplaces Outside of It: A Summer Internship at Ithaka S+R” by Queenie Sukhadia
Post 3: “Reframing my PhD Training: Lessons from a Summer Internship” by Maya Godbole
Graduate school inundates you with information, questions, and decisions:
Read these three multi-hundred-page books and write a response paper by next week.
Do you consider yourself a qualitative or quantitative researcher?
Figure out who you want to have on your dissertation committee.
While I certainly felt bombarded with all of these notions in my first year as a sociology PhD student, I rarely, if ever, heard faculty mention the word “internship.” When and whether to even do an internship was not one of the decisions that faculty advisors prompted me to make.
The word almost even seems juvenile at first, one that would be better targeted towards undergraduate students. Graduate training often boasts of itself as rigorous, robust, and advanced, offering insights into the research, writing, and publication process, metaphorically scoffing at any part-time job opportunity that is not listed on an HR website as “research assistant” or the like. The typical assumption is that if you are not actively working on a faculty member’s research project or occupied with coursework, you should be catching up on the literature in your field/subfield and conducting your own research. While as a scholar I believe all of these things to be vitally important, the faint whispers about summer internships from staff and administrative offices piqued my interest for several reasons.
At the start of my graduate program, I had identified my intended research interest as “examining the role of higher education in the public good” based on my prior professional experiences. This interest not only guided my desire to attend graduate school at CUNY and my excitement to apply for a job with the PublicsLab, but also led to my application to an internship at Ithaka S+R, a research and consulting organization dedicated to higher education access and student success. The following are reasons that I chose to apply for, and subsequently accept, an internship position at this organization.
1) Most importantly, I needed the $$$.
As a “tuition-only” student at The Graduate Center, I don’t receive any financial support for my cost-of-living in New York. Most other students receive a Graduate Center Fellowship (GCF), which comes with a stipend, health insurance, and union representation. While I was lucky to have secured a part-time position with the PublicsLab and continued a prior adjuncting role at New York Institute of Technology, I knew that some additional income would make me feel more comfortable given my situation.
With all of the discourse on internships as skill-building enterprises and networking opportunities, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the desire for some extra coins as a primary motivator for seeking one out. To support ourselves financially, we graduate students often find ourselves in very precarious situations, all not to mention the COVID-19 pandemic that looms over us. While I could have easily—and happily—spent my summer months reading, writing, and sharpening my research skills on my own time, I valued my financial needs as superior to these.
2) I wanted experience outside of the academy.
Prior to my graduate program, I worked at a handful of institutions in various student affairs roles, and taught as an adjunct instructor on occasion. I had overseen new student orientation programs, student government, identity and cultural-based initiatives, and civic engagement programs; taught courses on critical thinking, leadership, and research methods; and essentially spent a lot of time thinking about the academy from within the academy.
Knowing my interest in higher education as a research area, I thought it would be suitable to gain experience from an organization that studied and worked with institutions from the outside. This would (and did) help round out some of my foundational understandings about the role and function of higher education. It also allowed me to see how nonprofit organizations function, explore a different workplace culture (which is totally possible with remote work!), and experience how research and writing can vary greatly depending on context.
3) I was (and still am) undecided about my career path.
Some days a tenure-track faculty position is calling my name. Other days it’s a think tank or policy organization. And still others it’s a state or federal government agency. (And there are days I just want to crawl under a rock, but we won’t go there in this blog post.) It is likely that I will make up my mind on the matter several times over during the course of my graduate program, but I do believe that a variety of experiences will help me gain some clarity. I think my time at Ithaka S+R helped me visualize life outside of the academy while also still focusing on it, and provided a unique lens into similar work. Though I enjoyed my experience immensely, it also helped me decide that I want to “close the chapter” of my career that focuses on student success. Even if I do maintain a primary research interest and dissertation topic on higher education, it will be in something different.
4) There were reasons for doing the internship unbeknownst to me at the time.
While not technically a reason of mine for deciding to do the internship, I realized that the experience still had lessons in the reading, writing, and research processes. I got to see what literature guides their work, wrote a blog post, and published a practice brief on building community and student belonging virtually. I was able to contribute to very timely and important racial equity work. I was the only member on my team with prior experience as a campus-based professional, a perspective that proved useful. I witnessed an organizational transparency that I was not used to. I was able to refine and expand my knowledge base about the bigger picture of higher education and all of its stakeholders and publics.
Deciding to apply for a summer internship is a complicated, multi-faceted, and very personal decision. While I cannot tell someone else that they definitely should or definitely should not seek out an internship, I hope that my insights into my own decision-making process and what worked for me can be useful in some way for others. Though it might have been slightly unconventional to call myself an “intern” at age 30, I am grateful to have had such an opportunity.
Justin Beauchamp is a PhD student in the Sociology program, with research interests in both politics and higher education. Justin also serves as the College Assistant for the PublicsLab, supporting its programming, administration, website, and social media. Prior to The Graduate Center, Justin served in various roles in student life/student affairs at multiple institutions, and has taught undergraduate courses in leadership development, inquiry and critical thinking, and interdisciplinary studies. Justin holds a master’s degree in College Student Personnel from Bowling Green State University and a bachelor’s degree in Social Identity Development from the University of Connecticut.