Bridging the Leadership Gap: Internships As Catalysts for Post-graduate Success

Gennifer Meldrum, BRITE intern placed at Bioversity International in Rome

“My experience as a BRITE intern at Bioversity International was a pivotal moment in my career.” — Gennifer Meldrum

In my last post I wrote about a major gap in graduate education: the lack of training to equip PhD graduates in the sciences for success in careers outside academia. This is a major failing, since only about 20% of graduates land tenure-track positions at universities.

A partial solution is to provide graduate students with short internships in corporations, government agencies, and non-governmental organizations. This is what we have been doing through UBC’s Biodiversity Internship program, or BRITE. Such internships provide students with real-world experience solving problems in “partner” organizations, offering them an invaluable leadership opportunity. Here’s a short reflection on my experience creating and running BRITE.

How We Did It

Great experiences don’t just happen, of course. They must be carefully crafted. This dawned on me when our funding came in, and I suddenly had the responsibility of delivering on my promise. Where to start? What procedures to put in place?

I started by consulting an existing internship program at UBC (the Bridge program), and thinking through how our process ought to differ from that, given our context. Then we set forth, with procedures to continually revisit guidance and policies. After the first year, we identified four essential criteria for picking successful pairings (none of which will come as a surprise), and we still use them now:

  1. Anticipated contribution of the opportunity to the student’s career
  2. (Our perceived) importance of the project, to the partners and in general
  3. Fit of student with project; ability of the student to do as hoped
  4. Expected quality of internship experience based on the arrangement (e.g., work from office vs. telecommute) and partner agency/supervisor (here drawing upon past intern reports to judge partners)
  5. Financial considerations (including matching funds from partners, but high scores also if a project depends critically on BRITE funding; low scores if no matching funds or if BRITE funding is only helpful and not necessary).

To find good matches, we ask the students and internship hosts to prepare an application that speaks explicitly to all these criteria, and we engage them in a back-and-forth to help them through the process.

What We Learned

Was it working? Reports from both interns and host organizations documented that it was (see quotes below), buoying our commitment to the program. Sally Otto, director of the Biodiversity Research Centre and PI of the NSERC training grant, was a key champion. Key additions and revisions included a clear explanation of the selection process, and a list of past interns, their host organizations and projects.

Future Directions

Alas, all good things come to an end. The grant was a one-time opportunity, and the end is nigh. Would the internship program dry up, with all our learning and social capital seeping away?

No. Sally Otto won the MacArthur “Genius Grant”, and in a huge vote of confidence and inspiring generosity, she contributed $100,000 to jump-start a $1 million endowment effort to keep BRITE running in perpetuity. We need a lot more help to make this dream a reality, but at least we’re on our way. If you want to contribute to this effort, please visit ‘Biodiversity Internship Fund: Help our students help the Earth’.

Sally Otto, director of the Biodiversity Research Centre at UBC and champion of the BRITE internship program
Sally Otto, director of the Biodiversity Research Centre at UBC and champion of the BRITE internship program

So, how do you simultaneously train young scientists for a diverse set of non-academic careers, and insert much-needed science into policy and practice? We don’t have all the answers, but we feel like now we have one. Here are a few reflections shared by interns and partner organizations:

  • “The BRITE internship was extremely successful for me…I got a job with the organization I interned with! For many non-profits, especially in a poor economy, they don’t have the money to hire interns. And as a student I certainly couldn’t afford to work there for free. This internship showed them the value of having an academic work with them (I was the only person with a PhD working there), and supported me while doing that.” — Kerrie O’Donnell, placed at Ecotrust Canada.
  • “The interns that CPAWS-BC had the opportunity to work with through the BRITE program added immeasurable capacity and insights to our conservation work. Having access to innovative thinkers who could tackle complex policy and research issues is invaluable to a non-profit conservation organization and we look forward to working with BRITE scholars in the years to come.” – Nicola Hill, Executive Director, Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, BC Chapter
  • “My BRITE internships have been a wonderful bridge between where I am as a student and where I want to be as a professional.” — Manon Picard, placed at CPAWS-BC and the Secretariat of the CBD.
  • “We were extremely happy with the way this internship turned out…. Having Jenn be part of our team for 6 weeks was a huge benefit to our organization, in the work she did, in the connections she helped us forge with scientists and other organizations and in the support she provided other staff. It was also a real pleasure to work with her. Our only regret is that she wasn’t with us longer.”– Georgia Strait Alliance

Kai Chan, a 2013 Leopold Leadership Fellow, is a Canada Research Chair (tier 2) and associate professor in the Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability at University of British Columbia. Read more at his lab’s blogs and follow him on Twitter.


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About kaimachan

Kai Chan is an associate professor and Canada Research Chair (tier 2) at the Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability at the University of British Columbia. Kai received his PhD from Princeton University in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and a concurrent certificate in Science, Technology and Environmental Policy. He subsequently did a postdoctoral fellowship at Stanford University in Conservation Biology. Kai’s research is interdisciplinary and policy-relevant, in four primary areas: (1) biodiversity and ecosystem services (the processes by which ecosystems benefit people, directly and indirectly), with a particular focus on cultural/intangible values; (2) sustainability science, connecting ecosystems to human producers and consumers; (3) models of social-ecological systems for ecosystem-based management; and (4) applied environmental ethics. In all, he strives to understand the workings of and values associated with social-ecological systems, in order to facilitate decision-making that promotes human well-being and social and ecological justice. Kai leads CHAN’S lab (, Connecting Human and Natural Systems; he is a director on the board of the BC chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS), a Leopold Leadership Fellow (2013), a member of the Global Young Academy, and a senior fellow of the Environmental Leadership Program. In 2012, Kai was the Fulbright Canada Visiting Research Chair at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

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