Interns, start a side project this summer

By on August 9, 2013

This is one in a series of posts offering quick internship advice by students wrapping up their summer programs. Read the whole series here.

Even during an internship, there’s more free time in the summer to rediscover hobbies neglected during the daily collegiate grind.

Netflix accounts will be reactivated and breakfast will be eaten again. But after watching every episode of “The West Wing,” it’s probably time to be productive and start a side project.

Side projects are important learning experiences, especially for the future digital journalist. Whether it’s learning how to use Vine effectively, getting experience in editing video, or learning to code, side projects give you an opportunity to add skills and to improve on old ones.

Here are a few tips to get started:

1. Start with ideas, not tutorials

While a side project is essentially a self-directed learning experience, don’t let a textbook or tutorial stand in the way of the hands-on learning. If you’re learning to code, decide what you want to build and what it should do and research what web technologies are needed to build it. If you started reading “HTML For Dummies” before you attempted to build a webpage, you did it wrong.

2. Take your time.

Unlike a school project, side projects should be stress-free and void of deadlines. Take extra time to understand everything you’re doing. If it’s a snippet of code that worked and you don’t understand why, deviate from the project to look it up.

3. Ask for help

If you have a question or can’t figure something out, you’re almost certainly not the only person who’s faced a similar situation. A Google search of the problem should always come next, but if that doesn’t work, consider submitting a question to a forum. Stack Overflow is a great resource for programmers and so is Open Data, a new Stack Exchange website.

4. Have something to show for it

With the internship as the priority, you might not be able to do everything you set out to do by the end of summer. If that’s the case, at least have something to show at the end. If you set out to edit a short documentary but couldn’t get all the footage you wanted, edit what you have and hit upload. You can come back to the project later, but at least for now there’s proof you did something.

Frank Bi is a data and interactives intern at The Chronicle of Higher Education in Washington D.C. He graduated this past spring from the University of Minnesota, where he studied computer science. He has previously interned at Minnesota Public Radio and the Democrat and Chronicle in Rochester, N.Y. You can reach him at @FrankieBi or