Seven Principles for Creating a Successful GIS Internship Program

January 21, 2013

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In an economy where job openings remain limited and new, unemployed college graduates are piling up, the prospect of bringing on qualified, low-to-no-cost intern labor has never been better. In 2011, I placed an ad to fill an unpaid GIS internship position for a prominent Bay Area county. I received upwards of 50 applications from eager candidates across the nation. The pool included everything from recently-graduated GIS newbies with zero work experience to professional land surveyors and academics with Masters degrees in GIS.

In the initial phase of creating the GIS internship program I noticed there were not many resources on the topic. So I gathered a handful of internet-based references from non-GIS intern programs and went to work on designing a program from the ground-up.  I kept two main goals in mind:
  1. Get quality work accomplished within my client’s budget constraints, and
  2. Provide a work experience that would truly benefit the intern.
A year and six interns into the program, I have condensed my experience into these Seven Key Principles which most contributed to the success of our program.  I hope that my experience will help guide other organizations to develop meaningful and successful programs, as I believe every internship is an opportunity to build tomorrow’s GIS professionals and leaders.
  1. Interview. Occasionally I’ve encountered a more lackadaisical approach toward hiring unpaid interns than salaried GIS professionals. The fact of the matter remains: whether working for a salary, hourly wage, or for free, a program manager is hiring staff that will require some time to train. So, even if you are offering an unpaid internship, there’s still an investment that will be going into this individual. Given this fact, you’ll want to hire an intern that best meets your needs and is the best match for your organization.
  2. Aim for the middle. Hire the least qualified candidate and you will likely to spend most of your time training and teaching them how to use the technical software tools they should already know. Hire the most qualified candidate and you may end up with someone who gets bored with the intern-level tasks they are assigned. The key is to strike a balance between experience and teachability. Find an intern who is technically strong enough to work with GIS software independently, but still malleable enough to learn and employ your business processes while staying engaged in the process.
  3. ROI x 2. This is the foremost principle by which I design an internship program. The concept is simple: 1) maximize the return on investment for the employer (i.e. accomplish as much as possible while getting quality work from your interns); and 2) maximize the return on investment for the intern.  Remember, interns are in effect making an investment in their future by working for no-to-low pay therefore it is incumbent upon the employer to make sure they are providing a worthwhile professional development experience that maximizes an intern’s time and effort.
  4. Plan for success. The worst thing to do is throw a project at an intern on the first day without any direction or guidelines. To avoid this, we do lots of preplanning: we complete a thorough data design process and build a geodatabase with coded value domains and other intuitive means by which to create or update GIS data while minimizing error. In addition, we create a project “cheat sheet” with bulleted to-do items, data locations, and other project specific information that can help guide the intern through the project while minimizing training time on the manager’s end.
  5. Ensure accountability. I ran the first couple rounds of internships on the fly with a focus on workflow and the myriad technical aspects of GIS project management. This worked pretty well, although I noticed that the interns were simply getting the work done, with little attention paid to their own professional development. As a result, we instituted a review process that identified goals and specific standards of performance. This provided direction for the intern, and a focus on what skills they should be refining or improving throughout the internship to make sure they get the most out of the experience. This simple step encourages the interns to be more mindful of his or her own stake in the process and to make the most out of his or her professional development.
  6. Expand the scope of learning experience. Most interns are often technically proficient using industry standard (i.e. ESRI) GIS software. So we design the internship experience to encourage the intern to expand and/or refine his or her technical skills while throwing other GIS skills and “teachable moments” into the mix. This includes the less-glamorous GIS skills often not taught within the halls of traditional academe but are equally as attractive to potential employers, such as project scoping and management, data management and optimization, and metadata authoring. Combining these management skills with technical GIS proficiency helps round-out the intern’s skill set and expand her resume. Additional teachable moments are likely to arise as well. As a fan of combining commercial GIS software and open source GIS solutions, I have found many opportunities to show interns who are trained on ESRI software about the benefits of using open source software for certain GIS applications.
  7. Give. This goes back to my ROI x 2 principle above, and I cannot emphasize this enough. Thus far, many interns I have managed commute an average of 30 minutes. At an average of $4 per gallon of gas, I estimate they spend anywhere from $5-$10 per day just to get to their unpaid internship. I constantly keep this fact in mind when working with interns; it helps me find every opportunity to give back in the form of advice, education, and maybe a fresh cup of coffee now and then. I always offer myself up as a reference, and I pass on job ads that come through my inbox.
The payoff of a successful internship can be substantial. I have estimated that by offering productive, well-designed and managed internships, I have saved my client upwards of $4,500 per month (after subtracting my management and oversight costs). Besides the obvious cost benefits, I have seen each and every intern grow as a direct result of the program, and feel satisfied knowing that the program is helping them achieve their goal of becoming more experienced and employable while expanding the pool of future GIS professionals.

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