So you’ve landed an internship in science journalism. Way to go! These positions are competitive, and standing out in a pool of talented applicants is an accomplishment in itself. When I found out I had been chosen for a six-month internship at Science—my first internship at a national publication—I was ecstatic. As my first day got closer, though, I put a lot of pressure on myself.
I, like many people, worry about failure. And it’s not surprising—journalism is a high-pressure and fast-paced career. And moving to a new city and making ends meet with the low pay that internships typically involve is challenging. Figuring out how to manage self-doubt and uncertainty and to mitigate stress are skills as crucial to a successful internship as staying organized, communicating with editors, and strengthening your reporting toolkit.
By the time my next internship rolled around, this one at Nature, I had a renewed sense of confidence and had learned how to find support when I needed it. To help set other interns and soon-to-be interns up for success, I’ve compiled advice from some of my former supervisors, as well as from other editors and writers who have been down this road before.
As a young writer, it’s hard not to look around a room of journalists and feel inadequate by comparison. We all experience this “impostor phenomenon” from time to time in our careers. (Perhaps tellingly, Sandeep Ravindran’s 2016 TON article on the topic is among the site’s most popular.) Maybe, like me, you feel like you don’t know the scientific community well enough to report on it. Or maybe you’re shifting into journalism from science and aren’t confident in your reporting skills yet.
“Remember that impostor syndrome is not necessarily based in reality,” says Anna Smith, assistant editor at High Country News. “It’s just your mind saying, ‘It’s time to doubt yourself now, because you’ve been doing such a good job for so long.’”
Feeling out of place can be especially challenging if you don’t see people like yourself represented in the newsroom. “Don’t be discouraged by the lack of diversity,” says New York Times science contributor Nicholas St. Fleur, who was often the only journalist of color at the outlets where he interned. “Remember all of the lived experiences that you bring to the table that this news organization most likely did not have before you were an intern there.”
Don’t put too much pressure on yourself, either: One slip-up won’t determine your success or failure, says Lauren Morello, Nature’s Americas bureau chief and my former internship advisor there. You were hired because the publication is interested in what you have to offer and wants to help you succeed, she says. This is a time in your career for you to ask basic questions and learn from people in the newsroom. “Try to keep that perspective,” says Morello. “Sometimes you might need to force yourself a little bit.” (Morello notes that she’s not immune to the worry that any mistake may be her downfall. That’s why she keeps a Post-it Note above her desk that says, “Play the long game.”)
Overwhelmingly, the feedback I got from editors while reporting this story boiled down to a simple directive: ask more questions.
Build a Network
An internship is your opportunity to learn from professionals who were once in your shoes. Yes, it takes time and effort outside your daily reporting responsibilities to establish mentoring relationships, but the network you build during an internship can pay off the rest of your career.
At Science, I noticed that my colleague Lindzi Wessel, whose internship overlapped with mine, would frequently ask senior reporters and editors in the office to grab coffee— something I hadn’t thought to do and didn’t have the confidence to try. “You can be at a place, especially with a slightly bigger staff, and never have the opportunity to talk to certain people in that six months,” says Wessel, now a reporter at Knowable Magazine. “But I don’t think I’ve had someone turn me down.”
In addition to mentors who are further along in their careers, it’s also good to connect with peers who are going through the same process—people you can call when you’re facing a crisis, says Kate Schimel, a deputy editor at High Country News. “Both those kinds of relationships are really important to making it,” Schimel says.
Ask for Help
Overwhelmingly, the feedback I got from editors while reporting this story boiled down to a simple directive: ask more questions. It can be tempting to conceal signs of struggle so you come off as an impressive wunderkind—but that’s not the point of an internship.
While some internship programs make it clear from the get-go that it is meant to be an educational experience, others may feel more like you’ve been thrown in “with the lions and the fire,” as St. Fleur puts it. Even then, it’s important to take a step back and remember that you’re there to learn and grow.
Morello says interns are often afraid to admit when they’re having trouble finding sources, struggling to come up with a lede, or aren’t sure of what’s expected of them. “My advice is to rip the Band-Aid off,” Morello says. “Really experienced journalists experience those problems as well and ask their editors for help.”
During my internship at Nature, my supervisor Jane Lee, a deputy news editor at the publication, initiated regular check-ins and let me know from day one that I should come to her whenever I had concerns or needed advice. If your supervisor doesn’t schedule one-on-one meetings, ask for five minutes a week to review your performance or go over a story to ask how you could have improved your writing and reporting.
Schimel calls the High Country News internship “journalism boot camp.” She says the magazine’s program is designed to be a safe space to learn “pressure proofing”—that is, how to remain calm while reporting breaking news and to persevere through tough stories in order to thrive in an intense industry.
“If interns could give themselves the breathing room to struggle a little bit and to engage with that process of learning, which is really uncomfortable and cannot be accelerated, then they would get more out of the experience,” Schimel says.
That struggle involves learning how to react to stressful situations that are part of a journalist’s day-to-day experience. This might mean owning up to an error in a published story, telling your editor as early as possible if you realize you need a deadline extension, or recognizing that you can’t manage your current workload. David Grimm, news editor at Science, who oversaw my internship there, says the first thing he tells interns on his team is to learn the word “no.” It can be tempting to always say “yes” so that you’ll be seen as a team player—someone who hustles. But as Grimm notes, part of succeeding is knowing when to tell a supervisor that your plate is full.
Lee recommends paying attention to both the mental and the physical effects of your internship work. Despite the stress and odd hours, try to figure out a workflow that is sustainable. “When I was an intern, my thinking was, ‘I can go full-on for six months and that’s fine,’” Lee recalls. “But one of the reporters pulled me aside and said, ‘You might be able to handle such an intense schedule for six months, but this is going to be your career, and if you want to do this for years, you need to learn to pace yourself.’”
Don’t feel like you have to be dedicated to your internship 24/7. Editors don’t expect that of you. They want you to make it in this field, and learning how to find a bit of work-life balance is critical to making that happen.
Before your internship starts, make a list of goals to share with your supervisor. If you know you want to get on your publication’s podcast, for example, make this known early on and follow up with reminders to make sure it happens. The same goes if you aim to edit your own video package, take a shot at feature writing, try your hand at editing, improve your pitching, or cover a conference. (Knowing your goals is also a good way to find the right internship for you, as Rodrigo Pérez Ortega wrote for TON in 2017.)
Achieving these goals will require initiative and persistence. Pencil in a few personal checkpoints over the course of your internship to make sure you’re staying on track. If you notice time might be running out on practicing a skill you wanted to gain before you leave, let your supervisor know so you can find the best way to make it happen. But keep your goals “stretchy,” Morello says, so they can be expanded or narrowed along the way.
Keeping track of key information such as deadlines, interviews and meetings, and plans for following up with sources is crucial. An internship is a good time to figure out which calendar app, to-do list method, file-organizing scheme, and other organizational strategies work best for you. During his internship at Nature, freelance writer Mark Zastrow tracked each of his stories in a spreadsheet with source contact information, forthcoming studies to follow-up on, and whether or not people were interesting interviewees. It’s also a smart idea to include demographic data related to each story, so you can keep track of whether you’re including diverse sources in your reporting.
Being a temporary employee means that you’ll likely lose access to your company email and files at the end of your internship. If a source mentions a cool study that won’t be complete for another year, save the source’s contact info and make a note in your personal calendar to follow up down the road. And if toward the end of your internship you’re working on a story that might spill over past your end date, remember to forward important conversations with sources to your personal email as you get them.
Likewise, consider storing drafts and notes in the cloud, if the publication you’re working for permits it, in case your computer crashes. (This happened to St. Fleur after he’d stayed up all night to finish a story on his laptop, which crashed just as he was finishing his draft. In the end, he typed up a short version of his story on his phone on the way to work in the morning.)
Internships tend to offer a lot of free rein to experiment, so take advantage of the opportunity, and know that finding what you’re good at will take some trial and error. If you have to pull an all-nighter to finish a story, that’s okay; over time you’ll get better at filing solid pieces on deadline.
Finally, advises Zastrow, now a freelance science writer based in Seoul: have a good time. Don’t feel like you have to be dedicated to your internship 24/7. Editors don’t expect that of you. They want you to make it in this field, and learning how to find a bit of work-life balance is critical to making that happen. Some cities host science trivia nights, for example, or have local science-writers’ chapters with monthly happy hours. “It’s a time of professional growth and personal growth,” Zastrow says. “I still look back at the time I was an intern, and it was some of the most fun I ever had.”
Rachael Lallensack is the assistant web editor for science and innovation at Smithsonian.com, where she edits the SmartNews Science section. She was previously a fact-checker for Knowable Magazine and Discover. Before that, she rocked her internships (she hopes) at Science and Nature. A Badger by birth and baccalaureate, she contributed reporting to the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism; interned for Isthmus, an alt-weekly in Madison, Wisconsin; wrote for UW–Madison’s Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies’ biannual magazine InCommon; and cut her teeth at her hometown newspaper, The Sheboygan Press. She was also the managing editor of The Badger Herald student newspaper. Lallensack loves to read and write weird-animal-behavior stories. Follow her on Twitter @rlallensack.