Last updated June 16, 2017 at 10:46 am
Want to get inside knowledge on an industry and pick up some great skills? Interning, volunteering or both could be the trick writes Ivy Shih.
The map of New South Wales is so big it spills over my desk like an immense tablecloth. I check for mistakes, travelling from the outback to the coast, making red pen marks on towns with strange names like Gol Gol and Nyah as well as familiar territory such as Newcastle. The map is a final stage draft of an insert for the next issue of Australian Geographic (AG), a magazine about Australian nature, culture and people. Afterwards I’ll be preparing questions for an interview with a researcher.
That was one of my earliest days on a one-month editorial internship at AG. My intention as an intern was to fill a gap as I transitioned from being a researcher into a professional science writer. Students are sometimes required to undertake internships as part of university degrees. And there are also internships available for recent graduates. Either way, most are unpaid but they can be viewed as intensive work experience opportunities and a way for a person to gain a foothold in an industry.
My responsibilities at AG included fact-checking article drafts, research and conducting interviews as well as writing stories and excerpts that could be used either in future issues of the magazine or on its website. As an intern there I got to see the inner workings of a magazine, observing the decision-making processes made by staff for every issue, including critical stages such as choosing the perfect balance of stories or the best photos to make a story shine.
How Did I Get Here?
My entry into the media and publishing industry hasn’t been straightforward. After completing a Bachelor of Science with Honours at the University of Sydney, I spent nearly six years as a researcher at a virus laboratory. Most of my days were spent infecting cells with glowing green viruses and taking photographs and movies of what happened next under a highresolution microscope.
When it comes to charting my career so far, I’m reminded of an episode of a podcast called Wilosophy. In it documentary maker, TV presenter and advertising guru Todd Sampson tells comedian and podcast host Wil Anderson that during a person’s life there are ‘nodes’. These, he says, are pivotal moments that influence a person’s career or existence, either positively or negatively. They might be in the form of a teacher, a relative or a decision to choose a university subject.
For me, there were many nodes and they seemed to be random as my career shift into science writing began to look as if it was taking place in a pinball machine! Each science communication experience propelled me into a different direction that’s eventually led me to where I am now. When I made the decision to be a professional writer, I mentally laid everything out. What did I have to offer? What was missing that would keep me back from being a contender in the field?
Years of being a researcher had given me a familiarity with the scientific process and an awareness of what made good versus not-so-good research. I was fluent in the academic language used in research papers. I had some experience in science communication from public science talks and volunteering at the Museum of Human Disease. But I lacked a writing portfolio that proved my ability to communicate science to a wider audience. I also needed first-hand experience of the publishing industry. I was made well aware of both shortcomings when I first applied to be an editorial intern at the on-line publication The Conversation. The editors told me to build my journalistic portfolio to showcase my writing and reporting skills and try again in three months.
I set out feverishly pitching and writing stories with the aim of learning as much as possible about the craft of writing while still working as a full-time researcher. I became a volunteer blogger at Australia’s Science Channel, the publisher of this magazine, and started pitching and writing stories for other websites. The result was a portfolio strong enough to finally get my foot in the door at The Conversation and then AG.
The Intern Juggle
You soon learn as you begin your career that although ambition is a great fuel to propel you forward, you also need a healthy dose of realism. There are after all still bills to be paid! You need a plan in place to be able to support yourself.
During upaid internships at both The Conversation and AG I had a side-job as an English and science tutor. Tutoring is popular with many students anyway but it was also a deliberate decision on my part because teaching is another form of storytelling and a great exercise in communication. It’s a wonderful feeling when you see that ‘ah-hah’ moment in a student’s eyes.
Portioning my time between internship, tutoring work and freelance writing became a real act of mental gymnastics as I switched through different work modes.
Volunteer or intern? Spot the difference
Volunteering is another way to get frontline experience to help you decide the right career path.
Interning and volunteering are often confused with each other. If you’re a volunteer, you willingly give your time and skills for free to help out a company or organisation. An internship, however, is similar to work experience with the goal that you benefit most from the experience by gaining skills in an industry or job you are interested in. Internships can be paid but are usually unpaid. During an unpaid internship, your role is mainly to observe and gain experience. In a paid internship, you do work that would otherwise be done by a paid employee. For more info: www.fairwork.gov.au/pay/unpaid-work/work-experience-and-internships.
Flinders University history professor Melanie Oppenheimer, who has written extensively about volunteering, explains that you can gain skills that might be relevant for a future job through volunteering while also giving back to a community. A history of volunteering also gives employers a preview of an applicant’s character.
“I think it shows that you are a person who can self-start; someone who has initiative and independence,” Prof Oppenheimer says. “Volunteering shows that you can actually do things to benefit the community, not just yourself. It shows a certain sense of selflessness. Depending on whether it is dealing with the elderly or the environment… it shows that you have an interest further than your own individual needs.”
I spent a year as a volunteer at Sydney’s Museum of Human Disease, which operates a strong program of volunteers, including many who are science or medicine undergrads. The museum has 3000 human tissue and medical specimens in its collection and visitor tours are often led by volunteers. Museum director, Derek Williamson, says volunteering offers a valuable chance for students to practise their science communication skills.
“Any opportunity to practise what you are learning is valuable,” he says. “For the volunteers it’s about developing confidence in talking to the public. No matter what your career is going to be, all those things are incredibly important skills that help people go from one step to the next in their career.” The museum often receives positive feedback from visitors on how much they enjoyed talking with the volunteers.
“We know volunteers are busy people with study lives but when they are there the experience for our visitors is dramatically improved,” Derek says. “Most people do not have the medical knowledge or experience to understand what our specimens are really about. Our visitors say that engaging with a volunteer gave them that one-on-one kind of experience and we know that is invaluable.”
Justin Yang – Volunteer at Vision Australia
Justin is a recent Bachelor of Medical Science graduate, who while still a student began volunteering at Vision Australia, a not-for-profit organisation that provides support for people with low vision and blindness.
Whenever he has time, Justin and the volunteer team help with in-house projects, such as creating doctor and physiologist databases. Other volunteers do one-on-one care with vision impaired people in the community. To Justin, volunteering is a crucial part of gaining hands-on experience towards his career goals in medicine.
“It all relates back to healthcare and taking care of people,” Justin says. “Volunteer work and work experience is quite important, not just grades. No matter what you want to do in the future, experience is a big factor in what people are looking for.”
Where to start
A volunteer workforce forms the bedrock of many organisations, such as The Red Cross, and they will always welcome another helping hand. Here are some places to help get you started as a volunteer.
- Young Scientists of Australia
A youth-run organisation with chapters in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Adelaide that brings together people interested in STEM and often advertises volunteering places.
- Museum of Human Disease
Located at the University of NSW, in Sydney, volunteers help run the museum and lead tours.
- Australia’s Science Channel
As a not-for-profit dedicated online science channel, volunteer bloggers play an important role at Australia’s Science Channel and are always welcome.
Just as I was completing my intern stint with AG, I successfully secured a paid position with international scientific publisher Nature Publishing Group (NPG), in Sydney!
I’m now in a fulfilling and challenging environment that makes full use of every ounce of the skills I’ve learnt from all my jobs – unpaid and paid.
And I’ve got no doubt my range of interning, freelance and volunteering experience helped get me here.
NPG’s human resources manager, Sue Hamilton, agrees, explaining that an internship on a CV is a powerful indicator of an individual’s commitment to entering an industry.
“It demonstrates to the employer that you are proactive in pursuing work in an area and that you have the relevant work experience,” Sue says. “When people do internships, when asked about their motivations, they gave more focused answers, because they have had exposure to the industry.”
Candidates that had completed internships showed a genuine awareness of the workplace, which studying a subject isn’t able to provide.
“When [we] are looking for [employee] candidates, we view their past performance as an indicator for future success,” Sue says. “In many cases graduates who haven’t completed an internship have a ‘dewy eyed’ view of editing and publishing. An internship illustrates a real-life understanding of what the job entails.”
Images credit: Tracy Tan
Originally published in Ultimate Careers magazine. Read the magazine and find your Ultimate Careers here.
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