Six Steps to Get a GIS Internship During Undergrad

Finding an internship in college can be very daunting and time consuming. It took me 7 months of active searching to get my GIS internship during my undergrad. Depending on your location, university, and personal network this search time could vary significantly. Below, I’ll give you clear and actionable steps that you can utilize during your search for an internship. It’s important to note that these steps build on each other. As you move on to later steps, I suggest you keep following the preceding ones as well.

1. Talk with your professor

Visit your professor during office hours and let them know you’re looking for a GIS internship. Your professor is probably the single most important person when it comes to getting a GIS internship for the following reasons:

  • They have a good grasp of your skills and abilities.
  • They are a part of a larger GIS network in your community. They may have even taught some of them!
  • They have an understanding of what GIS opportunities are (or are not) available in the area.

Your professor may connect you with local partners, other colleagues at your university, or offer you a position within their own department. Your professor can also let you know what your strengths and weaknesses are.

2. Check with your careers office

Depending on the size of your GIS department, your careers office might be able to help. My university had a smaller GIS program which my career counselor wasn’t familiar with. This can be challenging, but this is also a growth opportunity for both you and the careers office! For you, it’s important to practice articulating what GIS does and what the industry looks like. For your careers office, it’s important that they expand their expertise and network to better reflect the interests of students. This can be daunting, but it will pay off big time as you grow older. The careers office can also introduce you to job boards, critique your resume, and prepare for interviews. It’s a great office to take advantage of.

3. Search online

These are the same sites that you will use later on to find GIS work, so it’s worthwhile to make accounts, sign up for newsletters and job alerts as well.

You may notice that there’s a high degree of overlap between these sites, but I recommend searching them all individually.  Internships are more rare than full time listing, but these sites are still the best way to get in the loop about what people are looking for. These sites get a lot of traffic, and thus competition. I would recommend applying for as many internships on these sites as you can, even if you aren’t perfectly qualified. These applications are probably very different from what you’re used to as a college student. It’s common for a GIS application to include a portfolio section and/or a technical aptitude test. Therefore, it’s best to get used to writing these applications now in a low stakes environment.

Don’t just stick to job boards, do a little creative research. Check geography newsletters, r/gis, and anything else you can think. “city/county/state + gis internship” is always something to try. There are all kinds of awesome opportunities that don’t make it to the face of Indeed. Summer of Maps is an awesome program I stumbled upon through r/gis.

4. Create your own internship

This may be later on the list, but I considered its location carefully. By now, you’ve spoken with your professor, seen plenty of internship postings online, and talked with your career office about your internship search. You are familiar with what people in your area are looking for in an intern and what you bring to the table. I would say it takes about one to three months of online searching and applications, depending on your comfort level and your time table, you’re ready to make your own internship.

Make a list of all the organizations in your area that could possibly use a GIS intern. This can be overwhelming if you’ve never done it before, so I’ve included some examples below:

  • Nonprofits: environmental, housing, health
  • Local government: parks, transportation, planning, health, commerce, emergency services
  • Businesses: engineering, surveying, real estate, architecture, consulting
  • Education: admissions, research

Find out who works with GIS in those organizations and try to find their phone number or email address. Contact them and explain who you are, what you want, and what you can do for them. If possible, take the time to call someone rather than send an email. People get hundreds of emails everyday and it’s all too easy to disappear amongst them. An added bonus of a phone call is getting someone’s undivided attention. While pitching, tt’s important to keep in mind your relative skill level, coursework completed, and any other experience you can bring to the table. The sweet spot for an intern is routine but low level tasks. Keep it simple, reasonable, and relevant to the person you’re contacting.

Have your resume and portfolio ready and be prepared to discuss your completed coursework, career goals, whether or not your university will be involved if you’re looking for college credit, and anything else you can think of. The goal is not to deliver all of that information to this person all at the same time, but to have as much information on hand as possible to keep the conversation going. For instance, if someone wants to take a look at your work first, having the portfolio ready before the conversation is far better than scrambling to get one together after the fact.

5. Revise, strengthen, and repeat

If you are still having trouble finding an internship after following the above steps, it’s important to take time and reflect on why that may be. You may be doing all the right things and getting lost in everything else people have going on in their lives. If your process is good, eventually you will get results. The critical thing here is to do everything you can to make sure your process remains effective.

Here are some potential problems, along with suggested steps:

Getting interviews, but not internships –  This applies to applications you sent out and discussions you had pitching yourself as an intern. Contact the person you spoke with and politely ask them for feedback. Was there someone more qualified than you? Were they looking for someone with a different set of skills? Did you throw a red flag? Or, maybe they just didn’t need an intern. It’s important to be respectful and to show a desire for improvement. They may not answer these questions, for a variety of reasons, but humbly asking for feedback makes you stand out in an incredibly positive way.

Getting rejections, but not interviews – This applies mostly to applications, but also if you someone didn’t even want to hear your pitch. This signals that you didn’t make it through a screening. It’s a good opportunity to ask for feedback, but be aware that there’s far less of it to give. Take a look at your resume, cover letters, portfolio, etc. and find ways to improve it. Does your resume include relevant coursework? Is your portfolio up to date and free of errors?

Getting nothing back at all – In this situation, it’s important to start with the fundamentals and work your way up. Schedule an appointment with your career office and check that your resumes, cover letters, email etiquette, etc. are all adequate. Once that’s in order, look for opportunities to improve and expand your skills. It could be taking a free course from ESRI, creating a personal GIS project, learning to code, or doing whatever else you can to improve in GIS.

6. Volunteer

While you’re working on the above steps, there is one thing you can do right now to push the needle. Find opportunities to volunteer in a GIS or mapping capacity. You can contribute to OpenStreetMaps, its humanitarian counterpart, or finding something local, it’s a great way to get started in GIS outside of school. This is also something you can mention in applications and interviews, so it’s a nice win.

Conclusion

While writing this post, I wanted to focus on two things. First, I wanted to give people a simple but effective way to structure their internship search. Second, I wanted that structure to factor in how difficult it can be to find an internship sometimes. There are a lot of factors and not all of them are within our control. I encourage you all to find value in all steps of this process, not just the end result of an internship. Get the rookie mistakes out of the way now while the stakes are small. Learn to speak about yourself, and what you do, sooner rather than later.

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