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How to Start a Rotational Internship

Written by at Looksharp 2016

Rotational programs are gathering strength as an internship trend, and for good reason. The chance to cycle through different departments and roles is a huge selling point for students who prioritize professional experience over earning another bullet point on the resume. Not only does your internship become more competitive in comparison to traditional programs, but your company benefits from a higher conversion rate from interns to full-time hires as well. This follows from your intern understanding the inner workings of your business and building relationships in different departments—and from your managers having insight on the adaptability and skill of the intern.

Many companies run with these advantages of rotational internships and institute a sophomore program to build a pipeline of talent for full-time positions. Attracting students early on in their undergraduate careers and allowing them to work in varied capacities means that your company can invite them back for refocused junior year internships. This gradual integration of the student onto the team makes them a high-impact player upon graduation. While the returns on rotational internships are high, they also take considerable planning and management. Here’s a step-by-step guide to getting your program underway.

Coordinate With Your Management Team
Launch your rotational internship by coordinating a group huddle with your management team. In this initial meeting, gauge each department’s interest, need, and capacity for supporting a nontraditional internship. Identify the participating departments and a point person within each that will work most closely with the intern during the rotation. Facilitate talks between these managers to work out how skills learned in one project can support another. A collaborative meeting is also a good way to set an internship schedule that benefits everyone, is manageable, and can place the intern on exciting projects.

Design an Intradepartmental or Interdepartmental Rotation

There are two types of rotational internships: intradepartmental and interdepartmental. Intradepartmental internships rotate the intern through different sub-departments within one company division. Genentech’s Rotational Development Program in Pharma Technical Development, for example, offers new graduates the chance to work intensively in areas like culture and fermentation, analytical chemistry, and process engineering. Intradepartmental programs give your intern a chance to gain real expertise in one area and prime him or her for leadership positions within the department.

Interdepartmental internships take a different approach. Like the rotational internship at MRC, a Xerox company, these programs allow students to build skills in divergent fields like customer service, finance and operations, HR, sales and marketing, and IT. Because the shifting roles aren’t so granular, interdepartmental rotations exercise the intern’s ability to manage different projects and introduce him or her to a wider range of roles. This allows interns to understand where their strengths lie and pick a career path accordingly.

The third option is to institute a hybrid of the two beasts. The Drawing Center in New York curates departments into two different groups—contemporary curation and the Viewing Program in one, and historical curation, registration, publications, development, and marketing in another—and cycles interns through the respective departments in their group. This creates a middle ground between a concentrated experience and a compartmentalized one.

Set a Rotational Internship Duration
The length of a rotational internship program varies widely and depends on who your target students are. Generally, the longer the program, the more in-depth it is, and consequently the older the students are. The NFL, for instance, holds a junior rotational program that places the intern in each department for six to 12 months; Morgan Stanley’s Institutional Securities Rotational Program recruits sophomores for a week-long sprint through different shadowing opportunities. We recommend a rotational internship that transitions the intern from department to department on a monthly basis, a timetable that caters to your company’s projects without weighing down your managers with the responsibility of overseeing interns for a full year.

Smaller companies may feel underprepared to launch a full-blown rotational internship, but they can introduce a system wherein interns work in another department for their last two weeks. Students will have been in the company long enough to know what managers they’d like to work with, and what other departments they want to explore.

Adapt the Model to Your Company’s Needs
With a model as innovative as a rotational internship, you have the freedom to be creative in shaping the program to your organization’s and interns’ mutual benefit. We admire the Humane Society’s rotational internship at the South Florida Wildlife Center for emphasizing their students’ learning goals. Rotational interns there consolidate what they’ve learned by educating the public about wildlife and culminate their experience in a short paper that relies on individual research. The aforementioned program at Morgan Stanley, meanwhile, incorporates lectures and activities to supplement the shadowing experience. These breakaways from the normal internship routine enrich the experience and prepare interns to be experts in their field.

The unique structure of the rotational internship flexes and extends what a program can offer students; by the same token, they can attract more talent to the company. Work with your management team to implement a program that can reinvigorate how interns contribute to the workforce.