Museums across the country, particularly those with small staffs and small budgets, rely on interns. In turn, students look for internships to test out potential career paths, gain hands-on experience, and expand their professional networks.

Our museum has had interns (myself included) on and off since the 1980s. In the past, we took a very hands-off approach to intern recruitment. If a motivated individual called to ask about opportunities, we found a project for them. This lead to internship experiences that didn’t always maximize the benefit for the organization or the intern.

Over the past two years, we’ve begun to take a proactive approach to finding and retaining interns. This has included creating numerous internship projects, consistently advertising the opportunities, and making connections with local universities. Our new, formal Internship Program has consistently attracted fantastic interns who have made genuine contributions to all aspects of our museum.

Here are the top four things I’ve learned from building our Internship Program.

1. Professionalize your program. Treat interns as part of your team. Their roles should come with advertisements, official titles, project descriptions, and regular evaluations. Take the time to conduct interviews, just as you would for job applicants. Don’t be afraid to say no if someone isn’t the right fit.

2. Invest in your interns. Due to budgetary constraints, this might not always include monetary compensation. However, all institutions can:

Give interns real projects. Offer them opportunities to make genuine contributions to your institution. This should include the chance to gain sought after project management experience.

Support your interns. Your internship program should include career mentorship, resume help, recommendation letters, and access to professional networks.

Be flexible. Acknowledge that your interns might be working other jobs to support themselves financially. Give them the time and space to do that.

3. Think outside the history department. Many of us, particularly in small museums, have jobs that encompass a variety of roles. When recruiting interns, think about how students in other fields can make contributions to your organization. Consider offering opportunities in Marketing, Communications, Graphic Design, and more. Interns from these fields have brought skills and new perspectives that have improved our museum in surprising ways.

4. Recruit outside the university. Partnering with local colleges or universities is a fantastic way to build your internship program. However, many internship advertisements require applicants to be currently enrolled in undergraduate or graduate programs. This fails to acknowledge the realities of today’s economy. If your internship program isn’t built to accommodate applicants who aren’t in school, you are missing out on qualified candidates. In fact, many of my most hardworking, dedicated, and dependable interns have come to us between degree programs.

Building an internship program requires an investment of time. You have to be willing to write job descriptions, interview candidates, mentor interns, and provide recommendations and references. This can seem nearly impossible to an already busy museum professional.

But, quality interns can have an immeasurable effect on your museum. Outside of their individual projects, interns can become your greatest spokespeople, idea generators, and supporters. In short, creating an Internship Program is a worthwhile investment in your team and your institution.

How are you building your internship programs? What are your tips for recruiting and retaining the most qualified candidates?