How to make the most of your pre-program internship webinar: follow-up questions

On September 24, 2013, the Emerging Conservation Professionals Network (ECPN) hosted an hour-long webinar titled “How to make the most of your pre-program internship.”
The program featured two supervisors, Tom Edmondson, Paper & Photograph Conservator in private practice in Kansas City, Missouri, and Emily Williams, Conservator of Archaeological Materials at The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, and two former pre-program interns, Ayesha Fuentes, Conservation Intern in the Division for Cultural Properties at the Department of Culture in Thimphu, Bhutan, and LeeAnn Barnes Gordon, Manager of Programs and Events for the American Schools of Oriental Research. During the program, the speakers shared their experiences as supervisors and pre-program interns, respectively; contributed to guided questions; and answered audience questions.
Included below are the questions that could not be addressed during the program with responses from the speakers.
To view the webinar, visit:
For speaker biographies, visit:
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When searching for a pre-program internship, do you recommend that students seek recommendations for institutions or names of private conservators from the graduate programs in conservation?
Tom Edmondson: Yes, because they will refer you to those whose pre-program interns they have accepted on a regular basis because of the quality of the training experience. Other options are to contact the closest major museum and inquire there of internship options either there or with the nearest private practitioner that they recommend.
Ayesha Fuentes: It would probably be more efficient and informative to contact the students or ECPN about their experiences. They were successful as applicants and have many different types of backgrounds.
LeeAnn Barnes Gordon: I suppose that would be one way to find them. Other ideas that come to mind are the ECPN mentoring program or using the AIC Find a Conservator tool to find individuals and labs in your area.
How can pre-program interns gain experience in a specific specialty in an institution or with a private conservator?
Tom Edmondson: Well, you have to know what specialty you want and then seek that out.  I don’t recommend that myself. The whole point of the programs is to expose you to everything and then you pick your specialty. I recommend just finding an internship. That will get you started and let you know whether or not conservation is for you. Not everyone who likes conservation can be or even should be a conservator. Be open to any opportunity because it will open doors, even if it isn’t the specialty you think you want to do in the end.
Ayesha Fuentes: Ask them if they’ll take you as an intern? I think it’s more important to be open and flexible when you’re just starting out. You’ll have plenty of opportunities to track down that special person when you’re in school or after, if they have a skill or practice you’d really like to learn eventually.
LeeAnn Barnes Gordon: If a pre-program intern wants a specific type of training or instruction, then it’s my opinion that they should be as forward about their interests as possible. Although, it seemed to me that being flexible and open to a wide range of opportunities offered me the most internship possibilities and gave me a broad knowledge of conservation.
What skills are the graduate programs in conservation looking for in pre-program experience?
Tom Edmondson: Others who have been through the programs can better answer this (since I didn’t benefit from that aspect), but my sense is, EXPERIENCE. Demonstrated commitment, follow-through, understanding of what the field is about meaning a true intellectual grasp of the principles and philosophy. But, I also sense that it can matter with whom or which institution you did your internship. Short version: hand-skills, problem solving, awareness of the difference between what needs to be done and what would be nice to do, sensitivity. I’m sure there is more that others can add.
Ayesha Fuentes: I’m not on an admissions committee but whenever I meet applicants or pre-program people, I always look for self-presentation, people skills, and curiosity. Learn how to shake hands properly. Otherwise, I really enjoy and encourage a wide variety of skills, experience levels, and areas of knowledge in applicants.
LeeAnn Barnes Gordon: I’m not exactly sure, but it seems to me like one of the most important aspects of the pre-program experience is to help individuals to better understand what a career in conservation entails and whether that is a good fit. Therefore, it follows that the graduate programs would want to see someone whose experiences demonstrate their persistence, determination, and passion for conservation.
If one finds their personality is incompatible with their supervisors, what is the best to navigate that situation?
Tom Edmondson: Well, if the supervisor is any good she/he will be aware that there is an inherent problem and will address it immediately. If not, then the intern needs to have the self-confidence to bring it up in a non-confrontational manner and request a referral to another situation. If the situation is toxic enough that a decent referral is not likely then simply exit and start over. A bad internship is not the end of the world. There are bad supervisors out there, but many more good and nurturing ones. This is an excellent and important question.
Emily Williams: Talk with the supervisor about your goals and those of the lab. Sometimes people who aren’t otherwise terribly friendly can work well together to realize shared goals. If you know anyone who has worked with the supervisor before, talk to them about their experience. Keep the conversation positive—what did they learn, were there particular approaches that really worked for them? If nothing else works and you feel that you are in an environment where the personality clash keeps you from learning explore other internships.
Ayesha Fuentes: If it is worth it to you to continue learning in that situation, suck it up and remember that this is a small field. You will meet that person again. Or give yourself a deadline: If the internship is too challenging, person-to-person, after another month or so, and you feel that you aren’t learning as much as you’d like, you could look around for another opportunity. My only other comment is that I have learned a great deal from people whose personalities I don’t enjoy. Indeed, those were some of my most valuable lessons.
LeeAnn Barnes Gordon: If it is causing a problem (for example, the intern feels that the supervisor won’t provide them with a positive recommendation for grad school), then it may be time to move on.
If an intern has to have an additional paying job to support herself, would you be willing to offer an unpaid internship for only a few hours a week?
Tom Edmondson: Here at Heugh-Edmondson Conservation Services we prefer a minimum of a single 8 hr. day, but we have worked out up to 3-4 hr. days because the intern was coming from KC Art Institute. Usually it has been an 8 hr. day. How it gets worked out is very subjective, and we deal with it on an individual basis. So, short answer is yes.
Emily Williams: Because many of our internships are unpaid we frequently work with the interns to figure out a schedule that works for them. Generally I ask interns to try to schedule time in the lab in at least 4 hour blocks (because less time than this makes it hard to teach a skill and actually start to execute it). I also prefer that the intern generally come on the same day (i.e. Mondays) rather than whenever they can because it makes it easier for me to plan activities.
Ayesha Fuentes: I’m not an employer or mentor but I worked full-time as a pre-program intern and was lucky enough to find a few positions that worked with my schedule. Sometimes it seemed best to just call or email my (private practice) mentors periodically and check if they had projects that needed extra hands. It means the hours are irregular but can also work well for both the intern and the mentor. And once they know you are reliable, patient, and flexible, they might start calling you when they have extra work or recommend you to other colleagues.
LeeAnn Barnes Gordon: In my personal experience, I had several internships that were only a few hours/week; especially when I was just starting out.
Do you think it’s advantageous to stay with one internship for a lengthy period or vary your experience in different internships?
Tom Edmondson: In my opinion this depends entirely on the individual. One who knows from the get-go that she/he wants and is totally committed to a particular specialty should have at least the majority of experience in that area. But I don’t encourage people to pre-commit because experience can lead to a change of direction. Get as many experiences as is reasonably possible.  The important thing is to learn as much as possible. But, variety helps, and having a mix of private and institutional experiences will be helpful.
Emily Williams: I think that there are advantages to both approaches. Pre-program internships are your opportunity to experiment and try new things. Just because you think that paper conservation is where your interest lies doesn’t mean that you won’t find tips in another lab or discover a passion for architectural materials you never thought you possessed. Getting a diversity of preprogram experiences helps you to see the big picture in conservation, to see the ways that different supervisors approach similar problems and to appreciate different aspects of the field. On the other hand, interning in one area for a longer time is likely to offer other valuable experiences. As supervisors get to know an intern and develop comfort with their skill level, it is likely that the intern will be exposed to more complex treatments or given greater responsibility within the lab. This cannot only look impressive on an application but it can also be a valuable test for the intern. If they find that they feel stressed by the level at which they are asked to work they may want to reconsider a career in the field or look at other areas of conservation. Above all (to me, at least) pre-program internships are about self-discovery—do you want to work in this field? Do you like the work? What aspect appeals to you most?
Ayesha Fuentes: I’ve seen and heard of both. It’s an advantage to stay with one place for a while because you gain trust and start to develop a consistent working method, which is great. On the other hand, you gain a lot from working in different environments, around different types of people and that kind of flexibility can be really useful to both you and future colleagues/employers.
LeeAnn Barnes Gordon: I think it’s important to have more than one pre-program internship, but I don’t know if it’s necessarily a “requirement”.
Any tips on effectively and concisely articulating internship experiences for CVs, application materials, etc.?
Tom Edmondson: Don’t exaggerate. Good grammar (which may be lost on many, sometimes even on me). Good organization. Mostly, though, clear and accurate.
Ayesha Fuentes: All I can say to this is that I never want to read a sloppy CV. Keep it tidy and literate.
LeeAnn Barnes Gordon: Good organization. Follow the standard conventions.
How do supervisors generally divide time between direct supervision and giving students projects to complete on their own? What do the students prefer?
Tom Edmondson: We start with the matting project, once it has been introduced and explained the intern should be able to proceed on her/his own with occasional questions and need of guidance using the mat cutter. We then move on to dry surface cleaning techniques as a preliminary treatment procedure. We encourage the development of self-confidence but not the right to decision making until much later in the internship. It evolves naturally here.
Emily Williams: The amount of direct supervision I give a student depends in part on the project.  Some projects require very close collaboration and significant oversight. Others may build on skills that the intern already has. I have to acknowledge that my schedule (as the sole conservator in the lab) also plays a role in the amount of supervision an intern gets in a week. If it is a particularly busy/meeting heavy week for me I will try to check in in the morning and early afternoon and see if there are any issues that need resolving but may need to defer extended hands on supervision to the next week. Each intern has a tray of small objects (simple copper alloy buttons, robust iron objects) in the lab that they can always return to if they reach a stopping point on a more complex object or run out of other things to do. These objects are beneficial in several ways but primarily as reminders of skills that the interns have mastered so that if they are feeling frustrated with more complicated objects they can take a (small) step back and rebuild their confidence.
Ayesha Fuentes: I think that’s up to the student. In my cohort, there were those of us who wanted each step to be a conversation with an instructor and there were those of us who really preferred to be left alone to experiment. A student should always ask if they have a concern, even if it seems stupid, obvious, or they already told you and you forgot. Make sure you’re clear on the instructions beforehand, whatever that takes for you.
LeeAnn Barnes Gordon: I preferred having a supervisor who walked me through a task that I was going to perform, and then was on hand for me to ask questions as they arose. I’ve never liked having a supervisor stand over my shoulder, but I certainly got used to it in grad school.
If an intern feels overwhelmed, how can the intern convey that sentiment without sounding as if they no longer want additional opportunities?
Tom Edmondson: The sense of being overwhelmed with what is involved with the conservation of historic and artistic works will probably never go away. It is a huge responsibility, and the best way to address it is to just say so and ask for advice. A good supervisor will be sympathetic and will provide guidance. If not, voluntarily move on to a new situation.
Emily Williams: The best approach is to talk candidly with your supervisor about what you are feeling. To be honest, if an intern is feeling overwhelmed, it is usually apparent to the supervisor, before a conversation is initiated by either side. The supervisor may not have brought it up because they were waiting for the intern to articulate what they are feeling and why or they may have been trying to give the intern some time or space to re-center.
Before initiating a conversation, try to think about what is making you feel off-balance and what if any solutions you can picture. Is this a short-term issue that might be resolved in the near term (for example when a difficult class is completed)? Is it a problem that is external to the lab (such as, health issues, scheduling issues) or internal to it (for example, is the project pace too frenetic; do you feel that you haven’t learned enough to do what is expected to you)? Diagnosing the issue and offering solutions shows that you want to be an active partner in resolving the issue and getting to a point where you can accept additional challenges and opportunities.
Having initiated a conversation, listen carefully. Your supervisor may have additional suggestions or solutions. Agree on steps you might take and if possible a timetable.
Finally, make sure you implement the solutions. Check back in with your supervisor periodically (say in 2 to 4 weeks depending on how frequently you are in the lab) to let them know whether the solutions are helping and whether you are still feeling overwhelmed or the issue has been resolved.
Ayesha Fuentes: Tell them you need more time on whatever you’re working on that’s overwhelming you before moving on to the next thing. Tell them you want to make sure you’re doing a good, thorough job and absorbing everything since you’re there to learn.
LeeAnn Barnes Gordon: Honesty is the best policy. I don’t think that a good mentor would judge an intern too harshly for these types of feelings. I would speak up in regard to the workload – when you want more or less, etc.
What can a pre-program intern do to develop their skills in terms of discussing a treatment both verbally and in writing while creating their portfolio? What sort of research and resources are available to expand my knowledge?
Tom Edmondson: In my opinion this is one of the primary responsibilities of the supervisor.  A good supervisor will introduce you to a basic examination and development of a treatment protocol, and then let you do another similar one on your own, with a critique. And as time allows, an exposure to gradually more complicated projects. We allow our interns access to our database, which is FileMaker, so that they become familiar with how we do our examinations/condition reports/treatment proposals. We request that they follow our models, but we allow them to write in their own style. When appropriate we encourage online searches, where a great deal of information is now available. We also engage in a lot of open dialogue with our interns, with a lot of exchange and feedback in both directions encouraged.
Emily Williams: Talk to people about treatments. Listen to what they say about their treatments and how they word things. Attend local conservation guild meetings. Show samples of your writing to your supervisor and to other conservators you trust and listen to their suggestions. If you receive conflicting advice, ask both parties to explain why they made the suggestions they did (some conflicting advice may be inherent in the way that different specialties or programs approach documentation).
Ayesha Fuentes: Practice and watch other people do it. This is a large part of grad school, at least in my program. Reading articles on treatments helps a great deal as well, for vocabulary and presentation of info. However, I remember looking at the cover of the JAIC in despair before grad school because I couldn’t understand anything they were talking about. It’s just a matter of time and exposure and you should never feel embarrassed to ask what something is or means or does.
LeeAnn Barnes Gordon: I would ask your mentors to see examples of their reports.
How many pre-program internships should one plan to have before applying to graduate school?
Tom Edmondson: As many as it takes. Sometimes one long one is all that it takes, other times 2, 3, 4. I think it all depends on where and/or with whom you have interned. I recommend at least one year of “full-time”, i.e. 4 days a week, on top of any required preliminary time. We usually have an intern for a semester or two working 1-2 days a week, and then when they graduate we try to hire them as a pre-program technician, when we expand the training, and give them time to take the sciences that are required. The competition for admission into the programs is increasingly intense and the bar keeps getting raised. Study the programs and how each is designed, determine which is best suited to you, and plan your pre-program experiences accordingly. Get advice from the programs, normally they are helpful.
Emily Williams: I think it really depends on the intern and the other experiences that they bring to the application process, and the ways they can relate those experiences to conservation.
Ayesha Fuentes: I think it depends entirely on the applicant and experience. In my cohort there were some who only did one, full-time for a period and others who worked a number of different, shorter gigs.
LeeAnn Barnes Gordon: As many as it takes to get the required internships hours and then some.
What documentation of internship experience is required when applying to graduate programs? What kinds of experience count towards an internship? For example, could preparing posters for conferences, independent research, etc. be considered?
Tom Edmondson: Your application essay should stress your pre-program experience(s) as that is the foundation of your argument that you should be selected. A letter of support/recommendation from your pre-program supervisors is appropriate and necessary, unless your experience with one of your supervisors was less than successful. Your experiences should reflect your interests, including working with appropriate private conservators, working in institutional settings, etc.  And yes, preparing posters for conferences and independent research should be included in your supporting information. Just be sure that it is all pertinent and an accurate reflection of what you have done.
Ayesha Fuentes: I think it should all be considered as valuable but, of course, you have to be able to articulate clearly and concisely why or how that experience has prepared you for grad school and a future career as a conservator. What skills did you gain? What have you learned about the field or yourself from those experiences? Learning to document your work is a large part of training and pre-program work. Ask your supervisors, if you feel comfortable, to take a look at your portfolio or help to start one.
LeeAnn Barnes Gordon: Take as many photographs as possible. Always keep a log of your hours and possibly a journal of what you did when you went to your internship. It’s my understanding that the types of activities that count toward your internship hours are those that were directly supervised by a practicing conservator. The types of activities that count toward your internship experience could include may things like conference and independent research, but I would NOT count those toward your internship hours.

Thank you to everyone who submitted a question, and to the speakers for their thoughtful responses! We encourage you to continue the conversation below by submitting a comment.