Internships are an important part of a student’s college experience, enabling them to apply what they learn in the classroom to a real-world setting. They also help students develop important skills, understand the professional world and make critical connections for future career success. Part of what makes internship programs so successful are the internship hosts. A successful internship experience starts with a well-organized, intentional program. The best practices below draw from our federal internship programs but can be used by agencies across government to help interns make the most of their experience and consider careers in public service. These tips apply to both virtual and in-person internships, however they are particularly relevant for those interns who are not physically in the office.
Best Practices Tips
1. Clear Objectives
- Whether your intern is in person, fully remote or hybrid, it is important to clearly define the primary objectives of the internship for yourself, your team and your intern.
- Interns received guidance in their workbook about the importance of setting up a work plan for their internship experience. Align the job responsibilities with their goals, to the greatest extent possible.
- List and explain the intern’s primary tasks and duties. Define what success looks like for each of them and clearly communicate what resources and tools the intern needs to work effectively.
- Build professional development opportunities into the internship. They are great learning experiences!
2. Well-Planned Onboarding and Training Plan
- A highly organized and comprehensive onboarding process can lay the foundation for a successful internship—whether it is virtual, in person or hybrid.
- Consider the following:
- Spread the onboarding process out over a few days to a week. Be sure to build training—with clear deadlines for completion—into the onboarding schedule.
- Schedule meetings with HR and other appropriate contacts.
- Discuss HR paperwork and policies.
- Discuss IT privileges and access (e.g., laptops, hotspots, IT resources, SharePoint, Teams, etc.).
- Tip: Be sure to discuss these issues with your HR or IT departments before the first day, and schedule meetings with the appropriate parties to ensure the intern fills out necessary paperwork and has access to the right technology.
- Set up accounts for the platform(s) your organization uses to communicate and meet and include instructions and expectations for usage. If you have an etiquette guide, be sure to provide that to the intern as well.
- Send any pre-work (recommended readings, social media, websites, etc.) for interns to review to help them acclimate to the organization before starting.
- Introduce your intern to your colleagues and teams. Encourage meetings, coffee chats and connections with other staff and interns. Remember: Interns are often unsure how to schedule meetings with their new colleagues, so it can be helpful if you help set them up and explain why they should meet with a given co-worker.
3. Define Supervisory Structure
- Make the supervisory structure clear. Interns should have a direct supervisor that manages their day-to-day work and possibly be given a designated HR contact.
- Plan to schedule an introductory work plan meeting to clarify expectations and outline the performance management structure. How will the intern’s performance be tracked? If you do midpoint and final reviews, discuss the process for each.
- Have a touch point built into every day that your intern works, as well as at least one designated meeting weekly to check in, go over tasks and expectations, and provide any necessary feedback. It’s important to make the communication structure clear at the beginning, including what form of communication you prefer in the workplace.
- Consider using a structured weekly agenda template to keep the intern (and you!) organized. You might add reflective prompts such as, “What was difficult this week?” or “What are you most proud of?” These questions allow the intern an opportunity to reflect and communicate, while providing you with greater insight into the internship experience.
- Within the first two weeks, develop a clear work plan for the intern. Review expectations, your feedback process, the skills to be gained, questions, methods of communication and more.
- Etiquette: Clarify expectations for workplace communication using different platforms, such as emailing, texting, calling, etc.
- Consider holding office hours or scheduling times for the intern to reach out to you.
- Context: Instead of simply assigning tasks, take a moment to explain how they fit into the organization’s bigger picture or mission.
- Most supervisors appreciate interns who take initiative and are proactive. While you should encourage this approach, be sure to help the intern understand what this would look like on your team and in a virtual environment.
5. Community Building
- Consider scheduling a virtual welcome coffee or lunch with your intern during the first two weeks. If appropriate, arrange an office happy hour.
- Find ways for interns to collaborate and develop an interactive community while online. Consider an intern trivia night or instituting an intern book club.
- Consider setting up lunches or coffees with other units in your organization. Debrief with the intern afterward and help them follow up if they want to network further.
- Find collaborative projects for your intern that will help them feel more connected to your organization and colleagues.
- When appropriate, invite your intern to meetings. Provide context beforehand and follow up afterward. Each week, supervisors should ask interns what they are curious about and then try to provide them opportunities to learn more. If your intern wants to learn about a specific policy topic, take them to a related briefing. If your intern wants to learn more about social media, connect them with relevant folks in your office. Intentional questions help interns connect with your organization and co-workers.
6. Professional Development and Mentorship
- Consider assigning a mentor or “buddy” within your organization who can answer questions, provide support and meet the intern with some frequency. This person should be someone who does not supervise the intern’s work but can provide an added layer of support and mentorship.
- Ask your interns about—and help them meet—their short- and long-term goals. Interns have received goal-setting guidance in their workbook. Align the job responsibilities with their goals, to the greatest extent possible.
- If your organization offers relevant and appropriate training, enroll your intern.
- Set up coffees with others in the organization and support your intern through the networking process.
- Set up a panel discussion or meeting with your organization’s leadership for all the interns in your office or at your agency to attend.
- Offer to review the intern’s resume, conduct mock interviews and provide other professional guidance near the end of the internship.
- Ensure that interns understand how federal hiring works. If they wish to apply for permanent work at your agency or in government, how should they do so? Are there direct-hire authorities in your office? Special opportunities for students and recent graduates, or via the Pathways Program? Educate your interns. They may have some experience navigating USAJOBS and writing a federal resume, but your knowledge and experience working at an agency is invaluable as they consider their next move.