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Is That a Fact? A Summer of Research at National Geographic

Written by Gabrielle Montanez '08
10/5/2007

“It’s great,”senior National Geographic researcher Heidi Schultz exclaimed one day as we were walking to lunch. “We’ve turned you into a research snob!”

It was true. I’d spent part of that day with Heidi and another intern moaning and commiserating over frustrations with editors who are more concerned with “looks nice” than “is factually accurate.” It’s a territorial war that began long before I got there and continues even though I’ve gone. My meager 10 weeks at National Geographic gave me a small peek into the world of office politics, but it was enough to convince me that I was on the side of right. I have research to back me up.

Before my summer at National Geographic, I had no idea that someone other than an author was paid to verify every tidbit of information that the magazine ever prints. But there I was, working in a department of nearly two dozen librarian-cum-investigative journalists who, like me, wanted to know everything about everything and had the most random and respectable stores of knowledge. Let me tell you, our lunch conversations were fantastic. I spent my summer working at a place where you can walk up to a petite young woman in a flowing peasant skirt and ask, What do you know about flak jackets? and get, What do you need to know? in response. Everyone had the answer to everything, and if they didn’t, they knew who did.

Finding this fascinating internship was a process that began last fall when I applied to Professor Barbara Adams’s writing and publishing internship program. The program is designed to help interested students craft resumes and cover letters in the hopes of securing internships in their field of interest. Many of the internship locations have employed Ithaca College students in the past, and just being part of Barbara’s program is a stellar recommendation by itself.

Professor Adams thought that National Geographic would be a great opportunity for me because it matched my background as a writing and anthropology double major. I had also expressed interest in working somewhere dynamic and science related that would give me an opportunity to get solid professional experience. And that’s how, one cold winter evening in February, I came to be jumping up and down with excitement upon receiving my acceptance as an academic intern for the research division of National Geographic magazine—one business day after submitting my application.

The first and most important thing to know for anyone interning with National Geographic’s research division is that this internship is unlike any other. You don’t fetch coffee, make copies, collate, or file for anyone but yourself. “Intern” very quickly becomes just a name on paper—I had the same responsibilities and was held to the same standards as all the full-time staff. Research interns are entrusted with as much real work as they ask for. And I loved every minute of it.

On day one, I received two department pages slated for the September 2007 issue, and it was my job, and mine alone, to make sure everything on those pages was factually correct. If I messed up, my mistake would go to print, and credibility is key at National Geographic—after all, the reputation of the magazine is on the line. Okay, no one would die if we ran a misquote or got a decimal place wrong, but at National Geographic, accuracy is important, and the staff take it very seriously.

Because I’d have only 10 weeks at the organization, I handled mostly front matter and served as an aide to any full-time staff member who needed an extra hand with his or her own research on feature-length articles. The turnaround for my pieces was about five weeks— the feature-length articles were scheduled on a three-month timetable. As an added bonus, I got to write the Did You Know? web supplement pieces for any full-time staff writer who would let me. At the end of my internship, I had written a grand total of eight web articles with bylines!

During my time at National Geographic, I learned about the resources available for tracking down facts. (The National Geographic library subscribes to hundreds of databases like Lexis-Nexis, Community of Scholars, and WorldCat, a global library catalog.) I’m now a reliable source of information on the genetic history of redheads, prairie chickens, the Autobahn, and so much more. I also honed my diplomacy skills and learned not to be intimidated by editors just because I was an intern. They hired me for a reason, and I worked hard every day to show them what I was made of.

It was hard not to cry during my goodbye party, and even though I was sad to leave, I’m excited to get back to school, share what I’ve learned through my various roles and jobs on campus, and finish up so I can start the next phase, be it graduate school or other pursuits. I would be honored to go back to National Geographic after graduation, but even if I don’t, I’ve found the type of job that I’m good at and love, and that’s priceless.



2 Comments

this makes me so excited to be interning at nat geo next summer!

thank you so much for this article!

What is the exact name of the position you had as an intern? I would love to try it out!


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