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Exploring Potential Career Paths through the NSF INTERN Program

January 26, 2022

Many graduate students begin their Ph.D.s with the goal of becoming a tenured professor, seeing careers outside of academia as the “alternative” to this path. However, as these faculty positions become increasingly difficult to secure, most job-seekers come to find that the tenure-track career is the real alternative. I decided to help facilitate my own transition out of academia while still a student by pursuing a four-month internship at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York through the National Science Foundation’s INTERN program. Although taking the plunge was nerve-wracking, developing and applying new skills outside of academia has made me feel much more prepared and excited for the future.

I realized I did not want an academic career early on in graduate school, yet I often felt directionless—unaware of careers outside of my field that would allow me to use the knowledge and skills that I had developed in Duke’s Evolutionary Anthropology department. However, after taking a science communication class through Duke’s Initiative for Science and Society, I discovered an entirely new field that combined my scientific background with my passions for writing and outreach. After freelancing and participating in a few unpaid part-time internships, I sought out opportunities for a paid, full-time science communication experience.

NSF INTERN

The NSF INTERN program is a relatively new opportunity that gives NSF-funded graduate students extra funding to design their own non-academic internships. Unlike the similar NSF GRIP program for GRFP recipients, INTERN is open to any graduate student with NSF funding, whether through a GRFP, DDRIG, or through a PI with active research funding. It also supports experiences in a variety of environments, such as in industry laboratories, start-ups, governmental agencies, museums, or non-profits. Internships can last for up to six months with the possibility of renewal for another six months.

However, it’s important to note that the newness of the INTERN program can also slow down the application process because the relevant parties may not be familiar with it. As an example, it took months for the AMNH to agree to host me because they had to get approval from various administrators, from their legal department to the vice president for communications and marketing. I recommend having conversations with your NSF program officer, PI and dissertation committee, grants and contracts manager at Duke, and potential internship host several months in advance of the submission deadline to allow enough time to develop and submit the application.

Gaining and Developing Skills

Dinosaur skeleton at the American Natural History Museum

I worked as part of the Editorial and Media Relations teams within the Communications Department at the AMNH. My primary role was writing and managing the publication of blog posts, press releases, and social media content highlighting Museum research, which ranged from astrophysics to marine biology. Though I had some writing experience from freelancing and my previous internships, in those situations I had written about topics in fields adjacent to mine. Writing press releases about exoplanets as a human evolution researcher was intimidating when I first started—not only did I have to understand the research well enough to explain it to a lay audience, but I also had to craft it into a compelling story.

I soon found that my scientific training was a huge asset that allowed me to quickly understand new information from fields I was unfamiliar with—something I can now demonstrate to future employers. I also learned how to use new content management systems, diversified my writing portfolio, and made important professional connections, all of which will help smooth my transition out of academia when the time comes. However, the most valuable part of the internship was experiencing what it was like to work as a member of a communications team at a large institution and reflecting on what I value in my professional life moving forward. For example, I learned that I cherish a healthy work-life balance and thrive in a friendly work environment with little supervision. Sharpening my writing and communication skills will also help me achieve the broader impacts of my NSF research grant, which is grounded in informal public education and outreach.

It’s Never Too Early

For many graduate students, diverting attention away from research and potentially delaying the completion of their Ph.D.s can be an anxiety-inducing prospect. However, given the realities of the academic job market, I encourage students to be open to new experiences while still enrolled in their programs, whether through external channels like NSF or through Duke’s many resources, including the Graduate Student Training Enhancement Grants (GSTEG). Gaining paid, non-academic experience while still in graduate school can save a lot of stress, time, and money during the job search. There are countless opportunities outside of academia—why wait to discover them?

Author

Amanda Rossillo

Amanda Rossillo

Ph.D. candidate, Evolutionary Anthropology

Amanda Rossillo is a Ph.D. candidate and NSF DDRIG recipient in the Department of Evolutionary Anthropology. She studies the link between genetic relationships and skeletal anatomy in humans, chimpanzees, and extinct human species. In addition to her internship at the American Museum of Natural History, she has interned at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences and Science Communicators of North Carolina and is a contract writer for several science YouTube channels.

Professional Development Tag

  • Careers Beyond Academia
  • Communication
  • Internships
  • Professional Adaptability
  • Self-Awareness
  • Writing Support