Internships: Not Just for Students in the Sciences
When I started graduate school, I knew I wanted to remain active in my community and perhaps even pursue a job beyond the academy after graduation. So, I set out in search of an internship after I became A.B.D and in fall 2013, I served as a policy intern for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice (SCSJ) in Durham, North Carolina. As I had hoped, my internship taught me practical new skills, and it enabled me to network with non-profit professionals in the Triangle Area. But, surprisingly, it also strengthened my dissertation and made me an overall better scholar.
Finding my internship was relatively easy. First, I approached a staff lawyer at SCSJ and told him I wanted to help. Before submitting a formal application, we met for an informational interview where we discussed both the skills I had to offer and the skills I wanted to learn. Like most internships in the non-profit sector, my internship was unpaid. But unpaid internships often lead to paid work. In 2014, I drew on my experiences with SCSJ to become a paid copywriter for the ACLU of North Carolina’s 50th anniversary museum exhibit.
The SCSJ staff was particularly excited to draw on my skills as a writer, something all Humanities Ph.D.s have to offer employers beyond the academy. As an intern, I wrote grants, position papers, and policy summaries. It was great to practice new genres of writing that I can perhaps put to use in future positions. Moreover, I learned a wide-range of other useful skills while perfecting my pieces, including how to cultivate donors, create budgets, and navigate grant databases.
I felt “in my element” while writing for SCSJ. But my internship also allowed me to develop skills previously far outside my comfort zone. During my time as a policy intern, I attended coalition meetings regarding criminal justices issues, and I even gave a presentation on “Ban the Box” initiatives to a local city council. Such opportunities pushed me to hone my skills as a public speaker and to practice developing arguments with varied audiences in mind.
Ultimately, the most valuable aspect of my internship extended beyond the acquisition of practical new skills. My internship allowed me to witness firsthand the dynamics I write about in my dissertation, which examines how civil liberties lawyers reshaped criminal justice policy in the wake of the prisoners’ rights movement of the 1970s. While at SCSJ, I had the privilege of watching the organization’s lawyers in action as they strategized about their legal tactics and negotiated with their clients and coalition partners. Witnessing SCSJ lawyers work helped me to better envision the challenges my historical actors faced as they set out to reform the criminal justice system during the last third of the twentieth century. After my internship, I integrated the lessons I learned at SCSJ into my dissertation—and, so far, the changes have paid off. In September 2015, I begin a two-year dissertation fellowship at the American Bar Foundation in Chicago, Illinois.
Amanda Hughett is a rising 6th-year Ph.D. Candidate in History. She is a founding member of the History Department Professional Development Committee.