Grad students gain business experience in fellows program

Interns in a meeting

There’s no substitute for experience. Whether graduate students study engineering, law, or anything in between, knowing how to navigate a business setting can make them more eligible job candidates and give them a head start in their careers.

This spring, the University of Minnesota’s Office of University Economic Development (UED) is teaming up with the Advanced Professional Degree Consulting Club (APDCC) to introduce the Economic Development Fellows Pilot Program, which assigns a collection of project managers who will guide graduate students internship projects with small businesses. The graduate students, already selected for this round, will form teams of five led by an economic development fellow. The teams will collaborate on one of four projects offered by area small businesses.

APDCC, which helps graduate students learn about consulting as a career option and connect with recruiting and networking opportunities, and UED officially launched the internship program on Jan. 20. The projects, lasting eight to 12 weeks, will conclude in a final deliverable — such as a presentation, meeting or report — to showcase the successful culmination of the interns’ efforts.

Brittni Peterson, an APDCC officer and co-leader of the internship program who is pursuing her Ph.D. in neuroscience, said the program will provide valuable experience for the graduate students, who have robust knowledge in their field of study but may not be accustomed to navigating a business environment.

“Being in the business setting, interacting with others and hearing the lingo can be a whole new world,” said Peterson. “The training that comes along with the internship program lets students get familiar with the business terminology and the business mindset.”

While the interns work to complete their projects, the economic development fellows, hired by UED as paid positions, will help manage the projects, provide mentorship and facilitate communication between the students and their business clients. At the end of each project, the fellows will report on the project’s economic impact, including how it has helped promote economic development in the region.

“The economic development fellows will play an important role as liaisons between the interns and their business partners,” explained Tim Tripp, UED’s assistant director. “They’re going to help ensure the best possible outcome to these projects by helping interns find the resources they need and resolving any issues along the way. We are excited to see how our fellows use their role to enhance the experience for both the interns and businesses.”

Exploring new avenues for partnership

The economic development fellows are the result of talks between UED and APDCC that aimed to expand the reach of the student group’s existing internship program and create an advisory board for professional guidance. If this spring’s pilot program is successful, they hope to continue the program with new internship opportunities and economic development fellows three times a year — in the spring, summer and fall — to once again form teams of interns that can play off each other’s strengths.

“We tried to make sure there was good diversity among the intern groups, in terms of their field of study, academic degree and previous business experience,” said Kyle Biesecker, an APDCC officer who co-leads the internship program with Peterson and is also pursuing his Ph.D. in the U’s neuroscience graduate program.

Biesecker was one of the four economic development fellows hired for this spring. His role is to lead the intern group working on a project for Medgineering, a Minneapolis-based consulting company that specializes in med-tech regulations. His team will conduct marketing and strategy research to develop materials for the company’s consulting services.

Brittni Peterson and Kyle Biesecker, APDCC officers, meet to prepare for this spring's graduate student internship program.

Brittni Peterson and Kyle Biesecker, APDCC officers, meet to prepare for this spring’s graduate student internship program.

The value of business experience

Both Biesecker and Peterson can vouch for the program’s emphasis on business experience. Last year, they both participated in APDCC’s spring internships, conducting market research and product development, and helping the companies with decision-making.

“It was completely eye-opening,” Peterson said. “We want to make sure other advanced degree students get the experience earlier in their careers.”

And the benefits of the partnership extend to the client companies, as well. APDCC said the majority of companies involved in past internship opportunities were very satisfied with the interns’ work, and some have gone on to hire the students they worked with for contract positions.

While the spring semester projects are just getting started, Biesecker and Peterson are also planning ahead for this summer’s internships. APDCC and UED will accept companies’ submissions for project ideas between April 20 and May 4, with the summer projects slated to officially start June 1. Small businesses interested in submitting a project and graduate students interested in internships can visit the Economic Development Fellows page for more information.