Sunday, June 29, 2014

The Middle Flipper's Guide to Good Interning (Part One)

Let's talk about interning.

We all start cleaning off by poop! never stops.

One of the weirdest, most confusing parts of becoming a marine mammal trainer revolves around internships.  If you're in this stage of your life (or past it), you know exactly what I'm talking about without me having to explain further.  If you aren't involved in this field at all, allow me to explain.

There is this catch-22 when it comes to landing your first job in this highly competitive, experientially-based field: how do you get your first job with no experience, if the entry level jobs say you need a certain amount of experience?  It seems like an oxymoron!


On top of this, aspiring marine mammal trainers know they are way more likely to land a job if they've got an internship or two under their belt.  And this translates into a total misunderstanding of what this experience is.  Hence, the inspiration for the blog.  

This is a huge topic, so it's divided into two parts.  The next part will be next week!  Okay, let's get started.

So many people focus on "gaining experience" in their internship in the form of animal interaction.  It's an understandable mistake (one I made early on, too).  You see all these job postings, knowing that you have a very slim shot at landing a job, and think, "I HAVE TO GET THE EXPERIENCEEEE" and wind up on an insane journey to train some dolphins real quick so you have a fighting chance.

So you look at internships that promise hands-on interaction with the animals.  That seems like the safest bet to being able to tell a prospective employer, "Why yes, I DO have that six months of marine mammal experience you asked for, because I worked with the animals directly at my internship!"  That becomes the focus of your internship journey.  Unfortunately, it's the wrong focus.

...I google image-searched "bad focus" and this was the result.  You're welcome.

I'm going to do you all a solid and tell you what "experience" means in an entry-level sense.  Hopefully I'll provide some relief and give you a few tips on how to succeed as an intern.  

First, what does "experience" really mean?

Let's look at this topic logically.  We know that working with animals is not simply walking onto a dock, giving a few SDs, chucking a football into the water and calling it a day.  We know there is a ton of cleaning, fish prep, habitat maintenance, public education/interaction, monitoring animals'  physical and mental health, and lots and lots and lots and lots of learning about operant conditioning both by the book and in practice.  There's also that whole working-as-a-team contingency.  

But what I think we forget is that a critical element to working with animals is the relationship you build with each one.  This is on top of all of the other stuff I just mentioned above.  And there is no replacement for TIME when it comes to cultivating a relationship with an animal (even humans, right?).   

Respect and time build relationships, and not a whole lot else

As an intern, you're not at a facility for a long enough period of time to establish a relationship with an animal in a way that provides you with the type of experience that you think you're getting.  I'm not for a moment suggesting that interns haven't forged relationships with animals they work with...but it's not the same as professional trainers who spend months and years with that animal.

And there may be situations where interns work directly with animals in settings that do let them actually train new behaviors, or at least troubleshoot established ones.  That is very valuable experience.  But those sorts of situations are very rare.

The type of hands-on interaction interns typically get are basically like a reward for doing well.  You are taught a few SDs and criteria, and while a trainer sits near you they may bridge the behavior (or maybe, they'll have you bridge it).  There are definitely some perks to this for your development.  You learn to look at the animal's behavior and sharpen your eye for criteria.  You learn how to time your bridges.  You even learn how to be WITH the animal, figuring out how to sit in front of a dolphin or an otter takes practice to get over the nervous jitters.  And while these lessons are so awesome to have, they are not what's going to make you stand out on a resume.


Because again, you're not there long enough to really get into the meat of training.  You're not.  The hands-on experience you have is a perk.  That does not in any way trivialize what YOU learn from your encounters....and that is not something you should take lightly.  But what I'm saying is if you end up at an internship where you get little to no hands-on experience, you are not behind the eight ball.

OMG what.  Are you friggin' kidding me?

Read that again.  

You can still get a job without having hands-on experience as an intern.  Because the experience is not just about working WITH the animals.  It is about so much more; it is about knowing the job in its entirety, which as we've established is not just working with animals.

So take a deep breath.  And now let's delve into what you need to do well in an internship in such a way it gives you a great chance to land a job.  

I'm going to explain this with common mistakes interns make, both on the job and in their own minds.  Please please please do not feel bad whatsoever if you read any of these and think, "OMG, that is ME! I MESSED UP! MY LIFE IS OVERRRR!"

No no no! These are here to help you.  These things are lessons we ALL learn.  Mistakes I've personally made, or seen other people make...and most of us have very successful careers as marine mammal trainers.  So don't despair.  Just learn!  Plus, there are solutions to these mistakes at the end of each section.

Mistake #1: Focusing Too Much On Animal Time

Does it count as animal time if it's still in an egg?

Have I made this mistake clear enough yet?  No?  Okay, let's talk more.

It could be because I've been doing this job awhile and have mentored a lot of interns.  Sometimes though, if I'm being honest, I get frustrated when I see how fixated some people are on when they are going to work an animal.  Then I read back on my intern journal and am reminded I was the exact same way, and realize I need to give those people a break.

Look forward to those special moments you get to learn with the animals.  Squeeze every moment from those experiences.  But don't think that they are what makes you a good intern, or even a good job candidate.  Think of it as another awesome lesson to put under your belt.  A lesson that may come in handy in the near future, or ten years from now.

There are things I learned as an intern working with the otters that didn't really translate into my career until years later.  Why? Because I didn't work with otters for another four years after my internship.  And then, I went back to dolphins.  And then two years later, I started working with otters again.  The information I gained for maintaining a few simple behaviors with North American river otters did not help me get my first job.  But it did help me later down the road.  So just because the experience you gain won't help you get your foot in the door per se, doesn't make it worthless experience.

One hand target did not a good trainer make.  It just meant I got a picture with a dolphin.

I have seen plenty of interns who get so focused on when they get to do a session with an animal that they basically ignore all other critical opportunities to actually help them understand the job and get their foot in the door.  This concept has ruined teamwork, too, when people get jealous of each other. I've actually known interns who tallied how many times other interns got sessions with dolphins to prove how "unfair" it all was.   Wow.  Talk about having the wrong perspective.

So what's the solution?  Watch sessions.  Not just with other trainers, but your fellow interns as well.  You can learn from everyone's successes and mistakes, experiments and habits.  You can listen in on constructive feedback, not to make yourself feel better that someone else is getting notes, but so that you can go, "ohhhh okay, if I ever am in that situation, I have a better understanding of what I can do."

Mistake #2: Not Watching Sessions and Asking Questions

That Confucius! What a guy!

We've just touched base on this topic.  But it is important enough to have its own section.

Here's a tip for all of you hopeful marine mammal trainers out there:

If you watch lots of sessions and actively ask thoughtful questions, you are way ahead of the game.

Believe it or not, it is not very common for interns to observe sessions.  They may start out their internship experience watching shows, sessions, and interactions.  Most of the time, this is before they are totally aware of the behavioral aspect of the job.  So they're seeing the session from a totally different perspective.

This is what happened to me at CMA.  My first few days I was told to just observe, but I didn't really know what I was looking at.  Yes, I had learned about positive reinforcement and LRSes and all that, but I didn't know what I was looking for.  I didn't know about criteria, I didn't even know what "SD" stood for.  Oh man, I remember so clearly sitting and watching the dolphin presentation and listening to one of the volunteers narrate.  And he was explaining a behavior that a dolphin named Nicholas was learning, saying "SD" and things like that.    After the session, the volunteer asked Nicholas' trainer about the criteria of the behavior, and they kept throwing around the word "SD".  

My head was whirling, trying to figure out WTF that meant.  I felt so stupid.  Then the trainer (who happened to be my mentor) turned around to me and asked me if I had any questions.

"No," I said, thinking I'd look stupid if I had a question.

"Oh," she replied.  "That's not good.  You should have lots of questions."

Oh god.  


As I continued with my internship, I really wanted to prove how hard of a worker I was, and I thought just sitting around watching sessions wasn't valuable.  Where I'd really learn things was from working the animals, or from the required reading.  WRONG.  As I was learning more and more about the behavioral theory, that was the critical time to go out and LOOK for the things I was learning, now that I knew what I was looking for.  Eventually, I figured this out.  I learned SIGNIFICANTLY more just watching other trainers than I did working the animals independently.  Seriously.  I mean, watching people who have worked with those animals for years and years is going to show you things that you'd never experience directly with an animal as an intern...or even as a brand new trainer.

So watch! Ask questions! This is arguably one of the most important elements to "gaining experience" (as long as you're balancing your required work with watching, which we'll get to later).  

Still don't believe me?  Guess what a popular type of interview question is at some facilities (including Sea World)?  Scenario questions.  Almost every interview I had for entry or newer-level positions had at least two training scenario questions.  

"How would you handle a situation between two aggressive animals in a public setting?"

That was an actual question I got.  For an entry-level position.  

I never experienced that directly before.  Why? Because there's a slim chance as an intern you'd be put in a situation where you'd have to deal with that scenario.  So how do you answer a question like that if you've never experienced it?  Easy.  You saw it happen.  Or at the very least, you asked a question like that to an experienced trainer, who answered how they would do it and so you learned one method of handling that situation.  The interviewer isn't looking for you to have had every single experience they are asking you to solve, but they want to know that you have at least thought about that situation....that you understand training well enough to answer a hypothetical question.

You could not successfully answer that question had you not devoted your time to observing and asking.  

So the solution to this mistake is crystal clear: WATCH AND ASK AND LEARN.  No matter how many times I repeat this, most interns will call BS and won't follow my advice.  So you make sure you get ahead of the game and watch ;) I know what I'm talking about!

Mistake #3: Not Taking Advantage of Rare Opportunities....Even The Ones That Are Kind of Uncomfortable

Just say yes!

"I'm just gonna do the status quo."  What intern starts off their experience with that attitude?  Very, very few.  But when it comes to working extra hours for special circumstances, they forget very quickly.

Before I go further, I am NOT condoning making interns work ridiculously long hours just because they're interns.  No no no.  That is wrong, I don't care how you slice it.  The interns should work the same type of hours that the trainers work.  So if trainers have 12 hour days, I understand that the interns would have 12 hour days.  There is a lot of talk these days (in many, many fields) about how poorly some companies treat their interns, and that's not what I'm suggesting here.

What I'm talking about involve situations like animal medical procedures, special events (like the birth of an animal or observation of a mom/baby, animal transports, mixing social groups for the first time), lecture series, or doing tasks that go above and beyond your normal workload.  For example, at my current facility, you have the option of learning part of the dolphin show narration.  You don't have to do it, it doesn't look bad if you don't do it, but if you want the extra public speaking experience, you can volunteer to learn it.  Does it mean you get a job?  No.  But it does mean you can say that you have public speaking experience in a show setting for a very large group of people.


I know that as an intern, you aren't paid (or if you are, it's very little) and that many people have to get second jobs.  That makes it difficult to take advantage of some of the special events.  But it's very, very unusual that you're not available for ANY of them.  And truth be told, many interns do not take advantage of these things.

Just as an example, when I was an intern there was an Atlantic spotted dolphin named Hurricane who was in rehab.  His releasability status was still pending from National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), but he wasn't quarantined so the marine mammal training staff could work with him.  He had several health problems, which came to a head a couple of times during my 6 month stay.  When he'd take a turn for the worse, we had to tube feed him every few hours for 24 hours a day.  That meant that some of us had to watch him in the middle of the night...and then work all day the next day.  Did I want to work on no hours of sleep?  No.  Did I think, "ohhh man, I'd rather go home and eat two boxes of mac and cheese and fall asleep watching alien movies?"  Yes.  But I figured when would I ever get experience with an Atlantic spotted dolphin?  And he needed us more than I needed to watch Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  In fact, no matter how tired I felt the next day, it was probably still better than how Hurricane felt when he was sick.  So if I could provide some relief even in a minor way, that was all that mattered.  

Little Hurricane (after he was declared unreleasable)

I've seen interns stay to help with sea turtle rescue, even if they're just holding a bag of fluids.  And their job description in no way has anything to do with sea turtles.  But they get to see what that's like, they get a unique experience to add to their repertoire (and put on their resume).   Every single time you can volunteer to do something that's different, even if it's uncomfortable or inconvenient, you're making yourself a better trainer and animal caregiver.  And that of course will help you get a job.

So the solution?  Volunteer and say YES when you can to new, different, bizarre, and inconvenient experiences.  Doing or even just observing something out of the ordinary is a great way to expand your knowledge base AND stand out from the competition.  And speaking of competition....

Mistake #4: Being Way Too Competitive happened here?

Does getting a job in this field have a strong competitive element? Yes.  An internship is without question a really long job interview.  Maybe not always for the facility you're at, but certainly for others (this field is very, very small).

Does competition mean throwing someone else under the bus? No.  Does it mean you focus on everyone else's development?  No.  

For a lot of people, their idea of competition needs recalibration.  Competition is healthy, it helps you sharpen your skills, it keeps you moving forward when you're struggling or have fallen behind.  It is there to show the best of the best.   There is a lot of merit when it comes to striving to be the best you can.

But you can accomplish all of those things without making the mistake of becoming too competitive.  

It is understandable that we as animal trainers, who have always had our "eye on the prize", could fall victim to this mistake.  We want anything that can maybe sorta kinda possibly guarantee a job or a good reference.  When we think of doing our best and trying to stand out from the others, we might think that means if we fly through a checklist, or have more dolphin time, or make sure our supervisors know every single second what task we are doing so we show them that we are better workers than the other interns, then we are standing out.  Some people take it to a further extreme and point out the mistakes of others in order to make themselves look bad.

No one likes a bus thrower-under!

I hope at this point, you see why what I've just written all leads to an unfavorable reputation.  

"But Cat!" you protest.  "Then how am I supposed to show I'm working hard? What's the point of checklists or gaining experience?"

The point is to focus on YOU.  Not what the others are doing, unless you notice you are falling really, really behind.   I'd much rather hire an intern who takes a longer time getting cleared on certain things who has a great attitude, learns from their mistakes, and isn't afraid to ask smart questions than someone who zooms through something just to get the prize at the end.  

You can take great pride in the work you do, striving to move through your internships and all of its learning opportunities thoroughly and efficiently, but keeping the main objective always at the center of your intention.  You want to get a job in this field, why? To wear a shiny whistle around your neck?  No, of course not*.  You have chosen to pursue this career because it allows you to serve a greater purpose; the animals, conservation methodologies, public outreach.  Who cares if you got signed off faster on doing a dorsal layout with a dolphin?  What I care about is that you understand the concept of the behavior, you focused on your own development and didn't worry about someone else who is struggling or doing better than you.

Trust me!

The last thing I'll say about this topic I already grazed over earlier in this section.  It's the tendency of extremely overly-competitive people to constantly Make Known Their Noble Efforts.  If your boss tells you to do this, that's totally different.  There are different methodologies for training people, and you should trust that your supervisor has your best interests at heart**.  

But if you aren't expressly told to alert trainers about what you're doing, let your attitude and your WORK speak for you.   It makes me cringe when someone comes up to me and says, "Just so you know, I'm going to be washing buckets."  Yes, I can see that you are washing them.  What did you actually mean to express to me when you went the extra mile to tell me you're doing your job?  I know I may rub some people the wrong way when I say this, but let's be honest.  Most people who do that (again, if they aren't asked to do so by a boss) are doing it to make sure you know they're doing something and....well, come to your own conclusion about the other people.  You know, the ones who are obviously NOT washing buckets.

Please.  We as trainers are always monitoring how our interns are doing.  We can always identify the hard-workers, the people who really have their head in the game, and the people who really care to learn all aspects of their job.  

Here's a quick quiz to check your retention of this first installment of internship advice:

You are asked if you'd be willing to do an extra observation shift for a newborn harbor seal pup.  The shift is from 2am to 6am, and you'd have to work a full shift after than from 8am to 4:30pm.  You won't be doing a lot, but you'll take observation notes on nursing and any other relevant ethology.

You (choose all correct answers):
              a) Say yes, you'd love to! How exciting!
              b) Say uh, well, is it like mandatory? Because like you have to work tomorrow so       
                  you're gonna be pretty tired.  Can you get an extra day off later?
              c) No, unfortunately you can't because you have to work that night and you really
                  need the money.  But you'd love to volunteer for the next day, because you are
              d) Say yes, you'd love to, especially since you know two of the other interns would
                  never help out if it's not their normal shift
              e) Say yes, then tell the other interns that you were specifically selected for a really
                  special task, not to brag or anything
              f) No, and lie about why you can't do it
              g) Say yes, then complain the entire night and all the next day

Hopefully you all know that the right answers were a and c.  But those are all responses I've heard in different situations.  

Come on back next week for the next batch of info and tips!  In the meantime, whether you are doing an internship now or planning on one in the future, take some time to think about what you've just read.  And don't hesitate to contact me (or comment below) with questions!

* If you do, find a new job interest.

** Right supervisors??


  1. Cat, I love these blogs and these ones are timed perfectly since I am literally packing up my truck today to move to Florida for my first internship. Thank you for your advice! I look forward to next weeks continuation.

  2. Hi! Loved this! For future interviews, can I ask how would YOU handle a situation between two aggressive animals in a public setting? I love asking different trainers this question, and since you brought it up...... :)

  3. Man I really wish I would have read this before my first internship... I definitely made some of those mistakes. Such a good read and I'll definitely be remembering all of this for my next internship :)

  4. It's amazing how much of this also applies to other fields as well! Especially about getting everything you can from every opportunity, it's the things I didn't do that I've regretted the most in the end!