How to build a successful science writing internship program

Story by McKenzie Prillaman
Photography by Paul Adepoju

Internships can play a pivotal role in a budding science writer’s career. But creating a successful internship program from scratch — or revamping an existing one — is a daunting task for any publication or institution.

“Expect that it will take a significant chunk of time,” said Tom Ulrich, associate director for science communications at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. “But it’s definitely worth it, I think, for both the interns and also for the mentors.”

Ulrich discussed these insights at the virtual workshop “Building a Successful Internship Program: Lessons from the Field” (#SciWriInternships), presented as part of the ScienceWriters2023 national meeting. Featuring a panel of internship organizers and former interns, the session was organized by Ulrich and Sarah Lewin Frasier, assistant news editor at Scientific American, and moderated by University of Florida professor and NASW Education Committee co-chair Czerne Reid.

When first looking to create an internship program, Ulrich, who helped launch the Broad Institute’s program in 2019, recommends seeking advice from people nearby running similar internships. “See what’s worked for them, what hasn’t worked for them, and then cherry pick,” he said. “I hate reinventing the wheel.” It’s a helpful way to begin thinking about structure, priorities and pay rate. Lewin Frasier, who helped restart and expand Scientific American’s internship program a few years ago, advises carefully considering tasks an intern could take on. There should be overlap in duties that they will find engaging, but that are also useful for the organization, she said. “Finding the perfect combination of those things is key.”

Internships can have different goals: Some prioritize generating as many clips as possible, while others focus on honing the craft of writing and interacting with scientists. Regardless, the panelists agreed that mentorship and ensuring that an intern knows where to focus their energy should take top priority through regular one-on-one meetings. “I’m not micromanaging them, but I just check in because it’s so hard as an intern to know how much work to take on,” Lewin Frasier said. These check-ins should include career chats as well, Ulrich added, and it’s okay if an intern realizes that science writing isn’t their calling. “I still see that as a win because it means that they have learned something about themselves.”

It's also helpful for the mentor and mentee to outline a strategic plan for the internship, and for the intern to know who to turn to with questions and concerns, said panelist Caleb Hess, a communications manager at Michigan State University’s Plant Resilience Institute. Interns can easily get bogged down with lots of tasks that may come from people other than their supervisor, he noted. “It’s an opportunity to learn how to say no.”

Virtual internship options have also risen since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and they present pros and cons. “They’re worth it for opening the pool to more people,” Lewin Frasier said. “It makes it so much more accessible.” At the same time, she added, mentors must be more explicit in setting expectations and explaining work procedures. Scheduling challenges can also arise from working in different time zones, Ulrich added, so flexibility is a must. Still, supervisors should display flexibility and understanding regardless of the internship’s location, added panelist Jasmine Johnson. In 2022 while interning on a hybrid basis at American Scientist magazine, Johnson also had to balance graduate school work and other responsibilities.

To draw in a large applicant pool, internship opportunities should be promoted far and wide. Standard methods may include LinkedIn, NASW’s job board and science writing graduate programs. But pulling in diverse applicants requires planning. “The recruitment process for my internship was… very intentional,” Johnson said. The Science Communicators of North Carolina (SCONC), which organized the internship recruitment program that Johnson participated in, specifically reached out to students at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), she noted. Other places to advertise include the National Association of Black Journalists, Asian American Journalists Association, and National Association of Hispanic Journalists.

Still, one of the hardest parts of the process is selecting an intern, the panelists said. It’s vital to consider who will benefit the most. For instance, Ulrich said he may give less consideration to an applicant who has already completed an institutional communications internship. And Lewin Frasier explained that Scientific American always hosts a few interns at a time, so she and other supervisors try to create a “class of interns” with a breadth of perspectives, backgrounds and educational experiences.

Overall, internships facilitate strong connections that benefit everyone involved. Relationships are a writer’s greatest resource, Johnson said. Her former supervisor at American Scientist still sends her resources and helped Johnson find her latest training opportunity. “The relationship doesn’t stop after your internship.”

McKenzie Prillaman (@meprillaman) is a freelance science and health journalist based in Washington, DC. Her work has appeared in Nature, Scientific American, and Science News, among other publications.

Paul Adepoju (@pauladepoju) is a freelance journalist and editor, author, and media trainer based in England, with bylines in health and medical stories for Nature, Scientific American, Devex, Insider, The Lancet, Health Policy Watch, New Scientist, and other publications.

Presentation deck courtesy of NASW members Tom Ulrich and Sarah Lewin Frasier.

This ScienceWriters2023 conference coverage article was produced as part of the NASW Conference Support Grant awarded to Prillaman and Adepoju to attend the ScienceWriters2023 national conference. Find more 2023 conference coverage at

A co-production of the National Association of Science Writers (NASW), the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing (CASW), University of Colorado Boulder, and the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, the ScienceWriters2023 national conference featured an online portion Sept. 26-Oct. 3, followed by an in-person portion held in Boulder and Anschutz, Colo., Oct. 6-10. Learn more at and follow the conversation on social media at #SciWri23

Credits: Reporting by McKenzie Prillaman; edited by Ben Young Landis. Photography by Paul Adepoju; edited by Ben Young Landis.