Selecting and Making the Most of an Internship

By Adam Thoms, Ph.D., Stephen Lord, CSFM, and Weston Appelfeller, CSFM

Just like other careers, the sports field management industry relies heavily on the internship process. Skills learned on the field can help supplement knowledge learned in the classroom, and, in many cases, set an individual apart from others. Finding the correct internship can be a bit of tricky process, but with any luck an internship will be one that you will grow from professionally while learning new skills. Being an active member in the STMA can help you meet people who will set you up with excellent internships. Attend the national STMA Conference and Exhibition, and meet as many people as you can. If you can’t attend the national conference, attend the local chapter events or look at the listings on the STMA website. Also, start early, especially if you have a specific opportunity in mind. Many students start looking for an internship in October/November. If you are new to the turfgrass industry and have never worked an internship, consider an opportunity where you can learn as many new skills as possible, over perhaps just working at a facility because of the team’s name. Also, consider moving out of your comfort zone for an internship by working in a different part of the U.S. or world. Internships are a three-month chance to experience life in an area with which you may not be familiar.

In addition, as you see internships of interest, make sure to ask fellow students if they have any previous experience with those listed. Find out what they liked or did not like about those internships, and see what they would change about those experiences. This feedback can help guide you in shaping your internship. 

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As you select an internship of interest, you need to prepare a couple of documents, including a cover letter and resume, before you apply. Preparing these before you e-mail the field manager or human resources department will ensure you can move the selection process along quickly if you receive an interview. Your cover letter should be specific to the job to which you are applying. For example, do not write to a baseball internship and say that you are excited to learn more about football field management. Also, add relevant skills, such as what equipment have you operated, any experience you have with edging a softball/baseball field, or if you have a pesticide applicators license. These skills will set you apart from other potential interns. Remember, too, that you are part of a team, so try to avoid using “I” too much in the cover letter. Your resume should cover skills that you have as well, but not an exact copy of those discussed in the cover letter. With both documents, make sure to have others read them for errors. Also, make sure you have checked your social media accounts to ensure they are not damaging to your efforts. Employers will often check your accounts, and don’t want to see anything that may put their organization in a negative light. 

Do some research before your interview. Try to be able to ask a few questions about the facility at which you are applying to work. Have a short, prepared statement that you know by heart about what you want to do with your life as a career so that you can easily repeat it if asked. Make sure you listen to what the others on the interview are saying as well, and ask questions about what they cover. Additionally, during your interview, be willing to tell the field manager what it is that you want to learn from them. This will help them guide your internship. The best interviews are those that feel like a conversation, as this shows you can communicate with others.

Once arriving for the internship, ask questions about the jobs and tasks that you are assigned. This will help you understand why you are completing the various tasks. If at a previous job you had been taught how to carry out a task, you may offer that method on the internship; but always make sure to learn how they carry it out as well, as it may be more efficient. There also may be a reason a task is done a certain way with each crew compared to how another crew at a different facility carries out that same task. Make sure to have an open mind, and one that is willing to grow. Don’t forget to ask for feedback on tasks you complete; you want to make sure they are up to standards set or learn where you need to improve. This will help you become a better field manager. 

Once settled into a routine on the internship, make sure to learn as much as you can. That is best done by volunteering to work as often as they will let you. Working the off days will help you gain confidence, and often your boss will then allow you to complete more high-profile tasks on game day. There is no better way to learn new skills than by being on the job to carry out the various tasks. Be the employee that sees tasks to do and completes them without being asked. You will also build a positive relationship with your boss by being the one to volunteer to water on the holiday weekends; this will carry over into an excellent reference when you are done with the internship. Also, make sure you understand there is no job too small for you. The best field managers are often those that have the greatest attention to detail, especially the small details. For example, if, on your way into the stadium, you see the flowers out front are dry, water them and pick up trash instead of walking over it. 

Students are often asked how an internship goes when they come back to school, and they may not be sure. As the internship progresses, you should start to see yourself become more independent and carrying out more tasks without having to be told how to do them and when to do them.

Additionally, you will start to get more high-profile tasks such as mowing on game day. If you are not advancing with these tasks, then you are not demonstrating growth for the employer. As an intern, make sure to ask what it is you need to change to show growth and earn the new opportunities. It is often left up to the intern to shape his or her experience, and how much he or she wants to get out of the internship. If you don’t show an interest in the job, your boss will not be interested in showing you new skills.

Do your research and find a good fit for an internship. There are plenty of field managers who are willing to teach you new skills; however, it is up to the intern to learn those skills. Also, make sure to ask plenty of questions and challenge the field manager to explain why they are applying the products they are so that you can grow in knowledge. Make sure you volunteer to work. The best way to separate yourself from the other interns is to be at work and learn from the full-time employees. Typically, it is only three months, and you can use the money when you get back to school. This is how you will gain skills and earn a better reference, as your boss will see you grow and learn. Take the time to select a good fit for an internship, communicate with the boss, and build a reference for life. These references can really help you throughout your career.

Adam Thoms, Ph.D., is assistant professor specializing in commercial turfgrass management, Iowa State University, Department of Horticulture, Ames, Iowa.

Stephen Lord, CSFM, is a sales representative at Advanced Turf Solutions.

Weston Appelfeller, CSFM, is senior director of grounds at Austin FC.