Internships are widely seen as valuable experiences that provide college students with professional skills and connections to boost their careers after graduation. However, a closer examination reveals several issues that should give us pause before universally promoting internships as essential for all students’ success.
This article summarizes key findings from a 2019 research study that surveyed over 1,000 college students and conducted focus groups to better understand their experiences with internships.
- Only 29% of students surveyed had participated in an internship. This rate varied significantly across different colleges and universities.
- Participation was much lower for students who worked more hours at an outside job, had lower GPAs, were enrolled part-time, or were in certain academic programs.
- 64% of students without an internship had wanted to pursue one but could not due to scheduling conflicts with jobs or classes, lack of paid internships, and limited openings in their field of study.
- Obstacles to access appear to disproportionately affect low-income and minority students, exacerbating existing inequalities. Unpaid internships were simply not an option for many students.
- There is a need to ensure equitable access to internships by providing paid opportunities, flexibility around student schedules, and openings across diverse academic areas.
- Most students had internships that were paid and lasted around 14 weeks on average.
- Strong on-site supervision and mentorship by internship providers were significant drivers of students’ satisfaction and perceived career value of the experience.
- Interns wanted regular feedback and coaching from supervisors, not just being left alone to work independently. The quality of supervision mattered a great deal.
- A close linkage between the internship tasks and the student’s academic program also boosted satisfaction and perceived benefits.
- Colleges should vet and screen potential internship hosts to ensure they have the capacity to provide high-quality supervision, mentoring and meaningful projects for student interns.
- Students viewed internships as providing “real world” experience that complemented their traditional coursework.
- They appreciated the exposure to professional environments and exploration of potential careers.
- Many felt they grew personally and gained clarity about their interests, strengths, preferences and sense of professional identity.
- Internships were seen as crucial preparation for job applications and graduate school, providing relevant skills, experiences and networking opportunities.
- However, some students had frustrations such as limited feedback from supervisors or assignments unrelated to their academic and career goals.
- Overall students had high levels of satisfaction when they received strong mentoring and their internships connected meaningfully with their studies and interests.
- Instead of a simplistic view of internships as universally beneficial, research suggests a more nuanced process model is needed.
- Student participation and access, program structure, and developmental outcomes should be considered as distinct elements.
- Equitable access, high-quality supervision, and linkages to academic/career goals are key to creating satisfying experiences that provide career clarification.
- But internships could also potentially reproduce inequality for students who lack the financial means or connections to secure these opportunities.
- Postsecondary institutions, employers, and policymakers should adopt this developmental framework to critically evaluate and improve college internship programs.
The research highlights the promising aspects of internships, especially their experiential learning value. But it also problematizes assumptions that internships are inherently positive or equally accessible. Ensuring quality supervision, paid opportunities across disciplines, and thoughtful connections to students’ academic and vocational development are crucial to creating equitable environments for intern learning and growth. With attention to these issues, colleges can maximize the benefits while mitigating the risks.