For coaches, administrators, and facility managers who oversee graduate assistants (GAs) and interns, daily and weekly job responsibilities make up the bulk of the GA/intern experience. The formats of these positions vary from place to place, but many good positions provide learning experiences for building job-specific skills along with those related to essential day-to-day tasks.

Another layer of experience that GA/intern supervisors can provide to is career guidance and structured professional development. How much time a supervisor can devote to this can vary, but I think it’s important to invest in the students who are investing their time in your operation.

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The following information is from part of a presentation I gave at the 2018 Ohio Recreational Sports Association (ORSA) State Conference, called “Strategies for Improving the GA Experience and Preparing for the Job Search.” Although the information is directed at supervisors, if you’re a student reading this article, you can use these strategies to help to plan your own professional development as well.

This is a summarized version of the presentation, but I think it provides some information that should be thought-provoking as you examine your GA or intern professional development process.

Understanding the GA Growth Process

Before going into the specifics of creating a plan, I think it’s important to look at the growth process during the one- or two-year period where students transition from being undergrad students to being hopeful full-time professionals. GA positions provide the opportunity to receive guidance from supervisors in desired future positions, begin to take on professional roles and tasks (with extra guidance), and develop in a way that prepares them for full-time positions.

group of smiling students with blueprint

dolgachov ©

I think the Four Stages of Role Acquisition (identified by Thornton and Nardi in 1975) does a good job of defining the various stages you’ll see a GA go through during their experience.

  1. The Anticipatory Stage is when a novice student, holding lay notions of the profession, chooses to begin the GA experience. These students begin to get an idea of what is expected of them, and they view themselves in their future professional roles in a primarily conceptual/theoretical way. Basically, they’re just getting a feel for things.
  2. The Formal Stage is when a newcomer with some experience receives formal instruction in the profession’s knowledge, skills, and attitudes. These newcomers begin to view their roles from an inside versus outside perspective. They begin to work under specific expectations in their roles (and begin to be held accountable for them). This is a heavy learning and doing stage.
  3. The Informal Stage is when the student transitions from feeling like a student to feeling more like a professional. These students receive more specialized instruction, are given more autonomy, and learn more about the informal norms and expectations that most learn as they enter the professional full-time setting.
  4. The Personal Stage occurs when the student nears graduation or the end of their experience and has formed a professional identity. These students have accepted the profession’s value and higher expectations of themselves, and they are prepared to step into their professional roles.

I think being able to honestly assess where a GA is in their experience will help you to identify the pace of their growth and determine how best to engage the GA based on where they are. How you supervise the GA will differ depending on where they are in this process.

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Needs Assessment of the GA

It’s important to determine the needs of the GA so that they can not only be successful as an individual but also so they can support your organizational needs in the best way possible. Three questions that are important to identify throughout GAs’ experiences are as follows:

1. Where are they coming from? Where someone comes from doesn’t (and shouldn’t) determine their future, but because our backgrounds influence so much of how we interact with people and behave, it’s important to identify where your student is coming from. Having honest and open conversations right off the bat about their background and about things they identify with will help you to determine how best to supervise that person.

Intentionally discussing values is also an important part of understanding the GA’s background. Asking the GA to tell you about what gets them up in the morning and what they are passionate about will help you to better tap into and grow the GA’s core values and passions. Understanding these will be important as you provide feedback and work through the more challenging times that inevitably come in a busy work environment.

Strength assessments (such as StrengthsFinder) and personality tests can also be very helpful tools in helping you to understand how best to communicate with and supervise these staff members (and help them to understand your personality). They aren’t the end-all-be-all, but I think they’re helpful tools.

Lastly, continual conversations are important throughout the experience because many things will change as they move throughout the growth process of becoming professionals. You don’t want to assume that what you gained from a conversation you had at the front end of the GA experience will remain the same throughout the entire process.

2. Where are they currently? Where they are currently will mean continually re-assessing their values, strengths, and personalities throughout the experience as they grow as professionals. Also, consider that at the age of most interns and GAs (early to late 20s), they are growing and evolving a lot as people.

Regular evaluation (both self-evaluation and supervisor evaluation) will be important for providing them with intentional and constructive feedback. Continual conversations will also remain an important theme. Due to all of the tasks and work being performed, it’s easy to neglect having intentional one-on-one conversations in the busy shuffle. Keeping intentional times to have professional development conversations is important for keeping these staff members’ growth progressing and helping them to be the best workers for you that they can be.

3. Where are they going? Where they are going will mean continuing to have honest and open-ended conversations during your intentional meeting times. Through structured coaching discussions and processes, you can tell the GA what to do in the future, but you can also help them to come to these conclusions through constructive conversations with them.

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Realistically, in an average workday, many conversations need to be task-oriented and close-ended because of all of the things that need to be done. But that is why it’s so important to have intentional meeting times where you can have open-ended conversations and provide a space for more feedback and ideas from the GA. This is where it’s so important to understand the personality and communication style of the GA you’re working with.

For the open-ended side of the conversations, I think the OARS Model of Motivational Interviewing provides some good ways of guiding a healthy 1:1 conversation:

  • O: Open-ended questions (i.e., “What do you believe are some things you’d like to improve on this next year?”)
  • A: Affirm their thinking (i.e., “It makes sense that you would feel that way given that...”)
  • R: Reflective listening (i.e., “Let’s see if I get what you’re saying...”)
  • S: Summarize (i.e., “So, to make sure that I’m understanding you, you are saying...”)

Obviously, the examples will be molded to your communication style, but you get the idea.

Female University Student Working One To One With Tutor

Mark Bowden ©

Example Development Exercise for One-on-One Meetings

So, with all of these guidelines for intentional one-on-one development meetings, I’m sure you’re thinking, “OK, what do we even talk about?” The specific job performance and evaluative discussions will be specific to your environment, so I’m not going to dig into those right now. Some broader structured discussions on career paths are something you can lead, however, no matter what your industry/sector may be. This can also be used to help to match the GAs’ career goals with the goals of your organization.

The following exercise can be something for you to work through over the course of meetings with your GA:

  1. Have your GAs choose 3-5 ideal and/or desired job postings. Have them use job boards applicable to their fields and select various jobs they would apply to if they were looking for jobs today. At this point, don’t worry about location or exact salary down to the dollar, but think more generally about the job description and range. Create a Word doc with a link to the posting, and copy and paste the description (in case the job is removed during this process).
  2. Have the GA list 3 reasons why they are interested in that position.
  3. Optional: You, as the supervisor, can summarize the positions based on what you know about the industry (getting through all of the job-description-speak).

Once this exercise is complete, you can start to work through discussing this information with each GA.

  1. Have a discussion about the GA’s job choices. Identify themes and commonalities.
  2. Do a SWOT analysis of those jobs. Have them identify the following points that make up the SWOT analysis acronym: Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats (be aware of challenges)
  3. Do a SWOT analysis of the GA regarding how prepared he or she is for those jobs. Discuss this openly and honestly, and provide feedback.
  4. Align the SWOT analysis of the GA with your organizational needs. For example, “My GA needs event experience, and we have an event we want to add to generate more revenue, so we will have him work on this event.”
  5. Set goals and objectives based on the above.

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The exercises and recommendations above are by no means all-encompassing, but they should provide you with some ideas and a place to start if you’re struggling with how to provide a structured professional development experience for your GA or intern.

This is also a very summarized version of my full presentation, so if you have questions about this content or would like to discuss any part of this, feel free to contact me at and I can expand upon pieces of this.

We’re seeking interns here at elitefts! For more details, go here.

Header image courtesy of Scott Betts ©

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