An internship is a short-term work experience that provides the opportunity to explore an area of career interest, an occupation, or an industry. Typically, internships last for a semester, but they can last up to a year. Internships are designed to reinforce academic theory with real-life experience. The internship activity is supervised and is concurrent with coursework, and school credit is frequently awarded. Internships can be found outside of the intern’s home country and can yield global work experience, sometimes with a total-immersion language-training opportunity. Intern work may include special projects, a sampling of activities in many disciplines required by the sponsoring organization (employer), or, in some cases, intense activity within a particular discipline or department. Internships are commonly, but not necessarily, paid positions. Both for-profit and not-for-profit corporations as well as government agencies provide internship opportunities. An internship is sometimes called a practicum.
Although the goals are similar, it is important to distinguish internships from cooperative education, or co-ops. Cooperative education features the toggling of full-time academic work with full-time paid work experience in blocks of time, commonly six months. The co-op position is closely related to the student’s major and is considered a formal part of the education process. Co-op positions are typically used in applied fields of study, such as engineering or the sciences. With a co-op job, there is more emphasis on the compensation as a major feature of the relationship. Frequently, co-op positions provide essential tuition money. Also, there is a clearer connection between a successful co-op experience and full-time employment at graduation.
An internship is a supervised work experience with many objectives and great opportunity if managed correctly. As such, each intern has a supervisor at the academic institution who builds a strong rapport with both the intern and the sponsoring organization. The internship supervisor can be a professor or a staff member specializing in industry relations. Commonly, the internship supervisor is responsible for finding, selecting, and maintaining a relationship with employers. The internship supervisor will match the intern to the employer that meets his or her needs in terms of career interest and schedule. Employers interview prospective interns to ensure a good interpersonal and career match.
Internships offer benefits to the intern, the sponsoring organization, and the academic institution. The intern gains valuable work experience that reinforces classroom training, usually earns money, and can earn school credit at the same time. The work experience imparts knowledge of the industry: the specific terminology and work atmosphere. The intern gains confidence in his or her social skills, critical-thinking skills, and specific work-related skills. The experience provides the intern with an enhanced knowledge of self and the potential to achieve career aspirations. The internship experience helps the intern determine genuine interest in a particular career path. Most important, the capable intern is in a strong position for future full-time employment with the sponsoring organization, clearly ahead of other candidates for available job openings.
The sponsoring organization gains an opportunity to build rapport with the school while getting a close look at specific job candidates. Internships offer the employer an opportunity to develop a pool of talented individuals in its own industry. If the intern is properly supervised, the employer will get real work accomplished at reasonable expense. Interns can bring a refreshing level of enthusiasm to an organization.
Internships provide schools with an opportunity to enrich academic programs with practical applications to theoretical concepts. Strong relationships between sponsoring organizations and schools serve to improve curricula by keeping academic programs in sync with industry changes, and sponsoring organizations can provide fertile soil for ongoing academic research at the university or college.
To achieve optimum results for all concerned, both the sponsoring organization and the intern need to be prepared. The internship supervisor should manage this preparation. The preparation includes writing an internship agreement, briefing coworkers, preparing the intern, and creating intern-specific evaluation criteria.
The internship agreement delineates the responsibilities of the intern, the sponsoring organization (as represented by the workplace supervisor), and the school (as represented by the internship supervisor). The agreement also specifies what is to be accomplished by all of the parties: work to be completed by the intern plus interpersonal and technical skills to be introduced and/or improved. The agreement clarifies behavioral requirements of the intern, including personal demeanor and business dress requirements.
Coworkers and the immediate supervisor(s) need to be apprised of the internship, including its goals and duration. Work assignments must be able to be completed within the time frame of the internship and must be in support of the educational goals established in the internship agreement.
The intern should research the sponsoring organization, the work discipline, and the industry within which he or she will be working. This research enhances the educational effect of the internship, helps set realistic expectations, and highlights required job skills to be learned in preparation for the experience.
Evaluation criteria should be established to help ensure that the objectives of the sponsoring organization and the intern are met. A formal evaluation should be completed at the end of the intern experience to provide feedback to all parties. Intermediate evaluations are useful to keep the intern and the sponsoring organization on track and allow for suggested course corrections as required. The evaluation criteria should comprise a mix of objective observable milestones and an analysis of interpersonal characteristics.
The key to successful career management is the development of a clear self-identity supported by career strategies and goals. If properly supported by high-quality sponsoring organizations and internship supervisors, internships have proven to be an invaluable career-management tool for college students in the development of both a clear self-identity and the setting of career goals. Furthermore, internships deliver tangible results because they provide the intern with an advantage in securing employment at the time of graduation in the chosen discipline and industry. Supporting organizations should continue to offer internships to ensure a steady flow of qualified and interested future employees. Schools should encourage and support internship programs in light of their practical and educational value. Students should avail themselves of such opportunities to gain a better self-understanding and a distinct advantage in the work world.
- Callanan, G. A. and Benzing, C. 2004. “Assessing the Role of Internships in Career-oriented Employment.” Education+ Training 46:82-89.
- DeLorenzo, D. R. 2000. “The Relationship of Cooperative Education Exposure to Career Decision-making Self-efficacy and Career Locus of Control.” Journal of Cooperative Education 35:15-24.
- Greenhaus, J. H. 2003. “Career Dynamics.” Pp. 519-540 in Handbook of Psychology, Industrial, and Organizational Psychology, edited by W. C. Borman, D. R. Ilgen and R. J. Klimoski. New York: Wiley.