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Roundtable: Intern Insight

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Compiled by Alexa Schlosser, Managing Editor, IBPA Independent magazine —

Roy Carlisle has managed a number of interns over the years. Hear his perspective as well as the perspectives of four of his former interns.

Questions for the Publisher

Roy Carlisle, Acquisitions Director, The Independent Institute

What is the advantage of using interns over hiring an entry-level employee?

Roy Carlisle: There is no advantage or disadvantage because they are completely different categories. Interns are hired to learn your business and to be mentored, and most states (especially California) have very strict guidelines about what interns can and can’t do. Employees are hired to do specific tasks. It is helpful to think of an intern as a student in a class, and your business is the class. If you find yourself thinking of an intern as someone to help with normal business tasks, then you should rethink what you are doing. Ultimately, the hiring of an intern is a way for the employer to give back to the industry and prepare students for an opportunity to investigate whether they would want to work in that industry.

How do you choose your interns? What skill sets or personality traits do you look for? What do you like seeing on resumes?

Carlisle: Resumes can tell you what someone has done, but a resume can’t tell you what someone wants to do. So, I interview interns to find out what they really want to learn and then compare that to what I know they can and will learn if I accept them into my intern program. I also pay attention to their academic history because it is often a window into how disciplined they are about learning, which is critical for having a positive intern experience. In addition, I find out what they like to read in both their academic work and for their personal pleasure reading. That information gives me a sense of where my intern program might fit into what they really want to do and learn. For example, I only publish nonfiction books, but if all their academic work is in literature and their pleasure reading is fiction, then they will probably not be a good fit for an intern program with my press. I also look at their assessment of their writing skills. As a publisher, I have interns read certain texts and write reports. This gives them a chance to evaluate a project, and it allows them to exercise their analytic skills. Additionally, I look at abilities to work collaboratively with others. In some situations, I would be mentoring four to five interns, and I would want them to be able to work together on a project, as well as work collaboratively and cooperatively with me.

What kind responsibilities have your interns had over the years?

Carlisle: The responsibilities or tasks are always outlined in an internship program. And since I have been doing this work in publishing for 40+ years, those responsibilities and tasks have not changed dramatically. I have them read manuscripts and give me a report on what they think are the strengths and weaknesses of that manuscript. My program may include some reading about the industry in which the business was operating. That way, they can get a bit more information about whether they want to be in this industry or keep pursuing this area of academic interest. In some instances, we also investigated or researched options for marketing opportunities related to a specific industry, and even for job opportunities.

How do you get the most out of interns without taking advantage of them?

Carlisle: This question is somewhat backward. The real question is how do you help the intern get the most of what they want in an internship program and still accomplish what your organization also needs? If you are going to do this intern gig at all, then you always need to be putting the intern’s needs first. If you can’t, then my opinion would be that you should not hire an intern. Students or young people who apply for an internship are doing it for a well-stated goal: to learn about your company and industry. How best to accomplish that goal depends on listening clearly and deeply to the intern and discussing how to match up internship goals and their needs and wants. If interns are encouraged and supported in honestly speaking their minds, then you will know quickly whether the arrangement is working.

How is your intern program structured?

Carlisle: I have managed very structured programs and very unstructured programs. Structured programs are usually more helpful if you are managing more than one intern. Usually, in my think tank years, I was managing two or more. The structure in one instance included a daily reading plan, a log of reading accomplished, a writing project (like a blog post once during the program, or more depending on what might be desired by the intern), written evaluations of manuscripts with a deadline, weekly discussions of what is being accomplished, what more should be or needs to be done, and updates on what each intern is discovering about their own needs and wants.

Do you have advice for publishers looking to hire an intern? How would one get started?

Carlisle: First, understand that managing an intern takes as much time as managing an employee. Second, prepare a program that will guide both of you through the program. Third, really understand what your state’s requirements are for having interns. Fourth, talk to someone you know who is already doing this and find out the pros and cons of running an intern program. Fifth, make sure there is time for regular feedback about what is transpiring in the program and make adjustments as needed. Sixth, remember that this is a career-building exercise, so make sure each intern is as clear as they can be about whether this experience is contributing positively to their career path. And finally, make sure an intern has some exposure to the five major departments of any publishing house: editorial, production, marketing/sales, administration, and finance.

Do you have a mentorship philosophy? What are you looking to impart to the interns you work with other than providing them with job experience and future opportunities?

Carlisle: The first principle has to be that you only consider doing this if you have a sincere interest in the lives and well-being of young people. Or find someone in your organization who does have that interest and have that person work with the interns. Keep in mind that intern programs are primarily set up to help and educate interns, not to help the company accomplish tasks. Make sure you find out from each intern what is working or not working for them. Provide advice or counseling as needed during the program whenever it is asked for, and make sure each intern knows they can come to ask for that help. Consider following up after the program is over to honor the relationships forged within the program and to help further the personal goals of each intern.

Questions for the Interns

When, where and with whom did you intern? How did you find the opportunity?

Alexis Nester: I’ve had a few opportunities over the years, beginning with The Independent Institute during the summer of 2017. Then I was an editorial intern at The Toledo Blade in the summer of 2018. I interned at the Justice Department, speechwriting for Barr and Rosenstein in the spring of 2019, followed by an internship at the Detroit News that summer. I cannot stress enough how important it is to make friends and good work connections, as all these opportunities were a result of somebody I know saying “you should apply for this.”

George Tibbitts: I’ve been in several internships, starting as a freshman in my BA program practicing engineering with the US Army Corp of Engineers. The most valuable thing I got from that internship was the realization I did not want to be an engineer (and I really do consider this to be valuable, as it prompted me to change majors). I participated in two more internships after completing my MA program in philosophy. Both of these programs were possible directly and indirectly by the Charles Koch Institute, which first sponsored my internship with the Ayn Rand Institute. For many reasons, this was an incredible opportunity for me and clarified the sorts of career tracks I was interested in pursuing. The Charles Koch Institute provided additional support by connecting me with an entire network of organizations that were compatible with my career ambitions. Through this network, I became aware of The Independent Institute’s internship program. While I did not have funding for the internship, the opportunity to create a dual internship program based on my interests in publishing and research respectively was sufficiently compensating.

Lauren Abuali: I interned with The Independent Institute’s media department in the summer of 2015, right after graduating from the University of San Francisco. I met the intern manager at a job fair at my university and was able to learn more about the organization and pass along my resume.

Rebecca Sklar: I interned with Roy Carlisle at the The Independent Institute in the summer of 2018. I found a job listing on Shelf Awareness, was entirely unqualified (as a third year college student) but noticed their internship program and applied.

How many internships did you apply for, and what was the interview process like?

Nester: Each time I applied, I focused on four to five places that I actually wanted to work/places that would work for me and made those few applications and tried to make them the best I could. Interviews varied vastly—some were a simple phone call, or series of phone calls, while others used video chats, and some just hired me based off of my resume.

Tibbitts: The Charles Koch Institute (CKI) had a multistep application process. To apply, I first had to submit my academic transcript and answer a series of short essay questions related to my career aspirations and my philosophical framework about freedom. I also was asked to submit a short video recording expressing why I wanted to participate in the program. I was selected to move forward after a couple of video interviews. The steps above were preliminary—my acceptance into CKI’s program still required acceptance at one of their partner organizations. For many, if not most, this process is the normal route—first acceptance into CKI, then searching for a suitable partner organization to do the actual internship. My path was reversed—I knew in advance I wanted to intern at the Ayn Rand Institute (ARI) and discovered I had to first apply through the CKI program. Every partner organization has their own distinct criteria, but they all must interview potential candidates to see how well they fit within the organization’s mission and department needs.

Abuali: After graduating from USF, I didn’t quite know what I wanted my next step to be. I applied to work at The Independent Institute because I liked being exposed to policy and also enjoyed video production. I thought that staying in the Bay Area and working in the media department of a think tank would be ideal. I applied for a good handful of programs, jobs, and internships upon graduation and decided that The Independent was the best fit for me at that time. The interview process wasn’t bad! First, I did a phone interview with the intern manager, who was very kind. Next, I did an in-person interview with the organization’s CFO and the head of the media department. After that, I was offered the summer internship.

Sklar: I’ve only ever applied for one internship, which is the one I got. I hadn’t ever interviewed for a job before, as previous jobs seemed to happen rather by chance (my first job was at a bookstore; I used to hang out there when I was 11 years old and then one day I was recommending books). I was completely unprepared for the interview at The Independent Institute and sounded like an absolute idiot in my first phone call with their internship coordinator. I told a political think tank that I “don’t really read the newspaper,” which was both embarrassing and untrue. When I got a call from Roy, I was pretty shocked. It turns out that he knew the owner of the bookstore I worked at in middle and high school, so we bonded over that. To be honest, I don’t remember much of the conversation. I was shivering in the rain the entire time because I had no cell reception in my apartment, and Roy could hardly hear me! At the end of the conversation, he asked if I had any questions for him, and I could not for the life of me think of an intelligent question, so I asked what the snack situation was. He said it wasn’t amazing, so of course I offered to bring morning pastries if provided a snack budget. I think that’s what sealed the deal.

What did you enjoy about your internship experience?

Nester: So, so much. But I’d say meeting new friends and mentors was the coolest thing. I’ve stayed connected with many of them. I moved to Oakland, California, for my first internship, and it was so fun exploring a new city on my own at 19 years old.

Tibbitts: Starting as an intern removed so much stress that I was experiencing searching for a comparable entry-level position given my lack of experience in the fields I was interested in. Having a clear program outlining my objectives made it simple to determine my working routine and find other ways to build on to my internship.

Abuali: I felt like this was a great transition into the workforce for me. It was my first time working a Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. type of job, and the internship provided me a lot of space to learn and grow. On top of having our own projects, we also partook in staff meetings and had weekly professional development meetings. The organization also put on fun events, like a Fourth of July team BBQ and a 5K run at the end of the internship.

Sklar: I liked that I had the freedom to argue. I was lucky enough to work with two people who really valued dissent and debate, and I grew to be a well-rounded thinker because they respected what I had to say enough to have honest conversations with me. When I left my internship, I could honestly say that I was smarter than when I arrived. They didn’t tell me what to think; they taught me how to think. Maybe not all the lessons were intentional (I did fight with one of the researchers often), but they were well learned.

What are the important qualities of a mentor?

Nester: Geez, this is tough because there are so many. I think they’ve got to lead by example in their work, as well as their life. They’ve got to care about you and your future enough that they’ll take you as you are (really, you aren’t very smart or helpful at ages 18-20) and help you become the person you want to be. This means that they need to be tough on you, when the time calls for it, but also care about you and your development as a human being—not just a worker.

Tibbitts: A good mentor is a patient teacher. They establish in advance what the expectations and objectives of the internship program are while also considering the intern’s education, interests, and experience, and adjusting the program in accordance. A good mentor offers a balance of autonomy and accountability. Autonomy is important for the intern to gain confidence in their abilities, while accountability is regularly needed to make sure the intern is not going astray or feeling overwhelmed by their assignments. The fulcrum is different for each intern. I was comfortable with more autonomy than most, for instance. A good mentor must make time available for the intern and anticipate needing to step in on occasion. An intern needs constructive feedback, and the delivery of feedback should be respectful, whether it is negative or positive.

Abuali: I’ve had some great mentors and some not-so-great mentors in my life. I find that the important qualities of a mentor include making time for your mentee and showing genuine interest in their growth; being patient with your mentee and understanding how they learn best; and encouraging your mentee, as well as offering them valuable feedback for their improvement.

Sklar: The number one most important quality in a mentor is caring. They have to be invested in the quality of an intern’s work and take the time to give feedback. Flexibility is also important because a mentor really doesn’t know much about an intern until they work together, and they might have different interests and needs than originally anticipated.

What is your current title and company? Did your role and responsibilities as an intern set you up for your current job? What transferrable skills did you learn?

Nester: I am a fellow at the Washington Free Beacon. In journalism, the skills obviously transfer over easily—you get better at writing with every story. I’d say my internships taught me a lot of soft skills that became helpful down the road. I learned how to take criticism and direction, how to adapt to varying professional environments (“professional” looks different in different companies), how to work with different leadership styles (some bosses are more hands on than others). I could go on …

My internship at The Independent Institute transformed into a full-time position. I am now the publication project manager, and the work I did as an intern made me a logical choice for an open position. In this sense, my role as an intern directly transferred to my current role, but it’s not too common for internships to become employment. Occasionally, an intern performs over and above all expectations and becomes an obvious choice for an open position in the relevant department. This is not the primary function of an internship program, but it can have the secondary consequence of acting as a direct pipeline from internship to employment.

Abuali: I am currently a nursing student at the University of Nevada Las Vegas and work as a nurse apprentice in the ER of a local hospital. In 2018, I left the field of media to return to school to pursue a degree in nursing. I realized at some point that, while I had an appreciation for the type of work I was doing, it was not what I envisioned myself doing long-term. Despite changing fields, I think that my time as an intern at The Independent was still very valuable and taught me about the importance of hard work, teamwork, and collaboration, and having an open mind when it comes to learning new things.

Sklar: I’m currently the senior editorial research assistant at Public Library of Science (PLOS), which has very little to do with my work as an intern. As an intern, I assessed manuscripts and wrote opinion papers. At PLOS, I help manage editorial boards and facilitate peer review. I’ll tell you what though: I’m never afraid to argue, and it serves me well. I can push difficult projects through to completion because I know how to deal with dissent. The words “no” and “you’re wrong” used to scare me. They don’t anymore, and maybe I have my internship at The Independent Institute to thank for that.

What advice would you give college students looking to become interns in the publishing industry?

Nester: When looking for an internship, don’t sacrifice a good work environment—good mentors and co-workers—for a “cool” internship. Obviously you won’t be able to know what that environment is like entirely until you’re there, but be sure to ask in your interviews, and maybe find people on LinkedIn who work there and ask them what they think about it. I’d also say to be humble. Of course you’re smart, but you’re new. While you should have your own opinions/ideas and present them to your bosses, be sure to do so with humility. Listen to others. Be mature enough to take instruction and criticism to your work without taking it personally. And this is cheesy but, most importantly, have fun. Especially if you’re an unpaid intern, make sure you’re having a good time with what you do and try to gain something from it.

Tibbitts: Write, write, write. This is the basic skill that opens up doors in the publishing industry. In practice, this means actively looking for opportunities to publish your writing, and college offers many avenues to do just that. There is no single major that best prepares you for publishing; there is demand for highly technical writing in the STEM fields, for example. So, finding your niche is important; it should be a subject that you are passionate about. Take some of your best writing examples (five pages or so) to support your applications.

Abuali: I haven’t worked specifically in the publishing industry, but I would say that for any internship, it’s important to make the most of your time there. I’ve had plenty of internships that have led to full-time job opportunities. In addition, by me making the most of the internship, I made amazing contacts and friendships everywhere that I’ve gone. Even though you’re “just an intern,” your ideas are valuable, and you do have the power to make an impact. Take the internship as seriously as you would a full-time staff position.

Sklar: I can’t say I have a particular strategy for getting an internship in publishing, unfortunately.

As I mentioned, I stumbled on my internship by chance. I have no idea why I was selected. But, in general, I suggest that when you want something badly, be sure to show lots of enthusiasm, honesty, and compassion. Remember, you’re not being hired by a computer. You’ve got to be able to connect with someone quickly, so appeal to their heart well as their mind. But none of this matters if you don’t have luck, I suppose. Apply to 30 internships, because you only need to get lucky once.

What advice would you give publishing companies looking to hire an intern?

Nester: My biggest gripe with internships I’ve had is that my role/tasks/expectations weren’t always clear. (This excludes Roy. I always knew what we were up to at The Independent.) Was I supposed to come up with my own projects? Or wait until I was told what to do? In a word: guidance. Have an internship program. An actual program. Provide kids with opportunities to learn, meet employees from various departments, and guide them in thinking about/planning for their future. Build a sense of teamwork and trust with your interns so they know they can try new things and make minor mistakes, so they can learn from them. I think if employers gave more effort to their interns, they could develop even better future employees.

Tibbitts: Screen out candidates by developing ways to test an applicant’s writing and reading comprehension. For example, have applicants examine a short essay and critique it. Do they catch the errors? Do they understand the thesis and theme?

Abuali: I think it’s important to hire interns who have drive and truly want to learn and develop their skills. I have seen situations where interns get hired on, get compensated well, and don’t really care about the learning experience or trying to make any serious impact. I think that companies should really ensure that they hire those who want to be there and have the potential to be hired on full-time following the internship. I also think it’s important to hire interns only when you can truly invest the time and energy in them. When you hire on interns and don’t really have good learning opportunities for them, this may look good on their resume but is ultimately a waste of their time if you cannot help them to develop meaningful skills.

Sklar: I’m really not qualified enough to give advice in this topic. Was I a good intern? I really don’t know. Having never had an intern myself, I don’t know what makes one good, or how to hire one. I guess my advice is similar to the above: look for someone who is enthusiastic, honest, and compassionate. Try to avoid the ones who just want the internship for the sake of having an internship, because maybe they’ll get bored of the work. Find someone who enjoys the process of learning and growing, because I think they’ll get the most out of the opportunity. These curious, open-hearted people find purpose wherever they land and make the best of any situation. They’re likely to gain much more than what you explicitly offer, and perhaps offer you something in return.

Experts! Share your insights in an upcoming Roundtable! Are you interested in being featured as a thought leader in an upcoming roundtable for IBPA Independent? We’re looking for your thoughts on a variety of topics, including design and packaging, marketing and PR, and more. Contact IBPA Independent managing editor Alexa Schlosser at alexa@ibpa-online.org.

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