Over the years, I’ve managed and mentored numerous interns and PhD thesis students. These have been some of the most rewarding experiences of my career thus far, as they have resulted in lasting relationships and many incredible work products. But these experiences have also made it clear that intern management is a skill. Working through people is quite different from doing the work yourself. It requires listening, understanding others’ context and motivators, clear communication, coaching abilities, and a bunch of other skills that are not required to be an exceptional researcher.
So, my friend, if you are new to managing students or interns, or if you are refining your technique, you’ve come to the right place!
Here, I share practical tips for setting up a productive internship or thesis project along with insights that reflect my philosophy of intern and research management. (I’ll use “intern” throughout the remainder of this essay, but these notes apply to undergraduate and master’s theses in academia as well). These recommendations are the aggregated wisdom of incredible mentors and colleagues, as well as the authors of my go-to management books. I have been the lucky recipient of numerous hours of thoughtful wisdom-sharing, so please consider this a collaboration between myself and my giants and their supportive shoulders.
A ground rule
Alright, let’s get into it! Starting with a ground rule. You probably know this (hopefully, hopefully…), but this is a person; not a workhorse. Rather than focusing solely on the project outcomes, your goals as a manager should also include understanding this person’s goals, providing the environment and culture for an engaging internship, and setting up a project that will bring out their best work.
I’ll share some tips on bringing out their best work in the next sections, but for now keep in mind that your job involves fostering a healthy working relationship with this person. You are their mentor. The way you operate will have a significant effect on their experience. And even with your best management efforts, sometimes projects do not turn out as imagined. Perhaps this person takes a risk that fails, doesn’t make timelines due to unexpected challenges, or fails to engage with the project for another reason. It is your job to be a constant even through undesirable outcomes.
One of my core principles (as a manager and as a human) is to treat everyone with respect, irrespective of performance. This doesn’t mean I won’t discuss failures to meet expectations, but it does mean that I strive to do so with respect and openness. The main reason for this approach is because it’s the right thing to do. But beyond that, even if you’re motivated entirely by self-interest, you should treat everyone with respect because no single relationship exists in isolation. Whatever comes of the project, this person will go back out into the world and share their impression of your company, program, and lab, which could either help or hurt your ability to recruit top-notch talent in the future. The world is small, especially our niche research domains.
So be a human about it! Be a human at the start, be a human in the middle, and be a human at the end.
Do your prework
Ok, you’re convinced that Step One is to be a human. Great! Moving right along then… Your work begins before the intern starts.
Prior to their start date, I’ll spend some time reading their papers, reviewing their resume, checking out their GitHub, and so on. My aim is to ensure that I have a good understanding of their expertise and skills. I might also have a casual pre-start chat or two with them to learn more about their goals for the internship.
From here, I then use this knowledge to identify a couple of potential project spaces. Generally, when settling on a project space, I aim to meet the following criteria:
- It is matched to their core skill set and expertise
- It involves collaboration with other members of the team
- It has the potential for impact within the team and organization
- It requires them to do some definition but is not wildly ambiguous
- It is feasible within the internship timeframe
- It provides the opportunity to develop new skills
Once I’ve identified one, ideally two or three potential projects that meet these criteria, I ensure that I have access to everything that they will need to set them up for success. Will they have enough time to run a study? If working with existing data, is the dataset sufficient for the project needs? Do they have the skills needed to do their own software engineering or will they need support? Are potential collaborators on board to devote time to the internship project?
And finally, have I blocked off enough time to properly onboard this person when they start?
If the answer is no, back to the drawing board.
I spend a significant amount of time and energy onboarding, because it sets the tone for the internship. Onboarding is an opportunity to communicate pace, expectations, and working style. And if you get it right, the rest of the internship will run much more smoothly.
Perform an entry interview
Ok, it’s Day 1. Where to start? I often start with the underappreciated underutilized entry interview. This is a great tool to kick off the working relationship. I won’t detail a full entry interview (you can craft one with some Googling), but the primary goal is to understand their strengths (things that they do well and enjoy) and their goals for the internship. This will help you design the internship to be maximally productive, fun, and fulfilling. Also, it’s a nice way to set the tone that this internship is also about the relationship, fostering open communication about more than just the project work.
For example, I’ll ask questions such as: What are you looking forward to in this internship? What would you most like to learn or experience during the internship? Where would you like your career to go in the next 5 years and how might this internship help with that progression? How do you like to give and receive recognition and feedback? How do you best collaborate (asynchronously, frequent meetings, in writing, etc.)?
I usually ask these types of questions in our first meeting (if I hadn’t already in the interview process or one of our pre-start discussions).
Set clear expectations
Within the first day or two of onboarding, you should also set clear expectations about outcomes and timelines. Internships move quickly. You want them to internalize that prioiritization, focus, and pace are important (and probably a bit different from academia).
If you’re new to management, it can sometimes feel strange to set expectations, but I’ve found that highly competent and motivated people then respond well to high expectations (so long as they aren’t too directive) – it signals that you believe they are capable.
During onboarding, I aim to answer these questions during our discussion to set clear expectations:
- What would it look like to be successful in this internship? Concretely, what do I expect outcomes to look like? Are there any nongoals?
- What is unique or different about our lab compared to an academic lab? How do I expect them to operate in this new environment?
- When stuck, how should they unblock themselves? How much time should they spent on a challenge before requesting help? Who should they go to for help with which problems?
- What is the workplace communication etiquette (e.g., chat, desk interruptions, booking meetings)?
- How much time do I expect them to spend onboarding and defining the project? What types of things should they spend their time doing early on?
- What is their first deliverable and when is it due? (more on that in a minute…)
Share organizational context
Very early on, I also share the organizational context with them. Which research problems are we working on? Why? What are the current projects? How do they fit into the larger space?
It’s easy to forget how different the organizational context is from an academic lab. If possible, I provide the intern with documents to read on their own time – roadmaps, higher-level vision documents, recent team papers – which gives them time to think and digest, and then bring questions to our next meeting.
Make the time investment early on
Depending on the duration of the internship, I typically use the first 2 weeks to onboard, define the project, and create of a project plan and timeline (discussed in the next section), with daily meetings. In my experience, this front-end investment ensures that the internship starts with strong momentum and it prevents thrash. And it sets the expectation of daily progress and prioritization.
Kick off the project
Define a project collaboratively (if possible)
Once you’ve completed basic onboarding and general expectations have been set, it’s time to kick-off project definition. Let the fun begin!
Some organizations have pre-defined projects, while others allow for project co-development with their interns. To the degree that you’re able, provide the intern with some ownership over the definition of the project. This intern is likely a very smart and capable person (isn’t that why you hired them?), and in my experience, smart and capable interns will be wildly successful when they are given structure at a high level (e.g., core research question and project goals) and autonomy at a lower level (e.g., methods, design, approach).
Typically, in the first week, I set the overarching project goal and then give the intern some autonomy to provide definition and direction on the project. I’ll then check in regularly, share feedback, and provide increasing structure on the space if they seem to be spinning their wheels or heading in the wrong direction. In other words, I tend to move into a more directive mode whenever they seem a bit stuck, but only as needed. I find that that this approach communicates that I believe that this person is capable and in fact that I expect them to engage deeply with difficult problems, while giving them confidence that I won’t leave them stuck for more than a day or two.
Write a concrete plan
During the first week of the internship, I’ll set the goal of a completed project plan at the end of the second week. I have a template for intern project plans, which requires them to provide a high-level description of the project (an “abstract”), justification for the general method, a breakdown of the project steps, and a timeline, which identifies concrete project milestone every 2 to 4 weeks throughout the course of the internship.
As we collaborate on the project plan, I take the job of providing feedback, asking good questions, and ensuring that the project is feasible, while allowing them to generate the majority of the content (i.e., methods, approach). The process of creating this written plan is valuable for two reasons. First, it sets an outcome-focused tone for the rest of the internship; it communicates that concrete milestones and progress steps are important (and gives the intern ownership over these). Second, it allows you both to “unpack” the project over the internship timeframe, which ensures that your project plan is feasible.
As you probably well know, plans change and unexpected challenges arise, especially with research. Research always takes longer than you think it will, and this person is less experienced than you are, has less organizational context, and will therefore be slower. To account for this, I’ll often have the intern include some “stretch goals” towards the latter half of the internship (otherwise they’ll fill the whole plan with required goals). These stretch goals are related to the core project, but they are ones we can drop out entirely if the project falls behind schedule. If the intern gets to them, then you all feel great because this person has exceeded expectations! And if they don’t, no biggie, because the core project can still be completed without them.
Start the project work
As you begin the project work, your role is to share domain knowledge, provide insight into organizational context, assist with decision making, and nudge the project in a productive direction. If you spend most of your time doing hands-on research work, it might be difficult to hand over the reins on this project. But be aware of micromanaging, which can be incredibly demotivating for a capable, competent, high-achieving person. You are much more likely to bring out the best in this person by enabling them to work to their strengths and coaching them through the project steps.
I’ve found questions and curiosity to be an incredibly powerful tool for guiding while enabling and promoting ownership. You might know the answer or best path, but you are more likely to inspire change and ownership by asking thought-provoking questions that will help the intern get there themselves.
And note that your intern probably won’t do things exactly the same way you would, but as long as they are heading down a productive path, provide them with some space to explore. They very well might end up discovering something novel and exciting because they will think about the problem differently from you.
After frequent meetings during the first two weeks, at some point, I’ll sense that their questions are decreasing in frequency and that our meetings are less productively spent. At this point, I’ll ease off on frequent check-ins and work towards an optimal communication cadence.
Meeting frequency will vary by intern and by project, but typically, after about a month, I hold one 30 min 1:1 check-in per week and one 60-minute project meeting each week. The latter is in the form of biweekly project-team discussions and biweekly presentations at our team-wide lab meeting, each on alternating weeks. Beyond that, the rest of the project meetings are on-demand or over chat as issues arise and as projects require more attention.
Your job is unblocking and answering questions
Early on, I also make it known that the work style is a bit different in industry compared to academia and that there is more emphasize on collaboration and unblocking. That is, in academia, students are trained to do everything themselves; they are typically responsible for all of the project tasks from start to finish. But that is not true of industry and is in fact quite inefficient.
Early on, I emphasize that they can reach out to collaborators and me over chat any time (especially in remote team settings), and I make an effort to respond quickly and thoughtfully so that people know that I will help unstick them as needed. Sometimes, 15 minutes of my time ensures that the intern doesn’t spend the next n hours or days stuck. That is one of the best returns I can get for my time.
Provide actionable feedback and recognition
True recognition is unfortunately quite rare in our research world, but let’s be frank: We researchers are driving forward progress and defining an unknown future for the world! So, if your intern is doing things well, acknowledge it!
Early on, acknowledge small things, and as they progress, be sure to acknowledge larger outcomes along the way, especially one that are excellent or required substantial effort.
Similarly, if there are areas where the intern could be more effective, then tell them, and don’t wait too long to do so. If you are not familiar with how to give good feedback, then spend a bit of time with Google because it’s a very important skill as a manager. For me, I think two things are crucial: (1) My primary aim for corrective feedback is my desire to see this person grow and improve, so I’ll start by making this aim very clear and treat the conversation as a collaboration, and (2) I make the feedback actionable. Should they communicate more? Ask for more help as needed? Share the framing of their research whenever they present an update? Tailor their talks to the audience? Be more rigorous in their methodology? Provide better documentation?
The more concrete and clear you can be, the better.
These steps should set you up for a successful internship, but it’s worth mentioning one important frame of mind to take with you throughout the internship: you are a mentor.
Your intern is probably here for more than just the completion of an exciting project. And those reasons will vary wildly across interns. It is of course not your duty to help your intern meet additional professional development goals, but if you do it will likely make the difference between them having a good internship versus them forever remembering you as someone who left a big mark on their career.
As the intern finds their stride in the project, during one of our 1:1s, I’ll spend time trying to understand the intern’s career goals and anything else they’d like to experience or learn during their internship beyond completing their project. Where do they want to grow, and are there any doors that I could open for them? For example, if they are excelling at their project work, I might offer them additional responsibilities and opportunities, such as a contribution to another team members’ projects or a presentation at a cross-functional meeting. If they’re interested in a job at the company, I’ll put them in touch with others with the job title that they’re targeting, so that they can learn more about working at the company.
Beyond the warm-fuzzies you’ll get from being a kickass intern manager, these above-and-beyond mentorship actions can also improve the reputation of your internship program and increase the motivation and engagement of this person throughout the remainder of their internship. They show that you care about this person for more than a single project outcome.
Many of the relationships that we develop throughout our careers will be long-term, even if only through the occasional interaction at a conference, on LinkedIn, or indirectly through one’s network (e.g., someone providing a referral during a hiring). So, end strong! And do so irrespective of performance.
As the internship wraps up, do a retrospective. Zoom out from the project and ask them about their future directions. Ask them what went well, what was most memorable, and what they wish went differently. And request genuine, unfiltered growth feedback for yourself as their manager. This conversation can help you improve as a manager, and it will also allow you to wrap up strong.
Who knows, someday roles might be reversed, and this person will offer you a job.