Four factors college students should consider about for-credit internships, not-for-credit internships and summer jobs

Now is the time that many college students are applying for summer internships or jobs. I had a conversation yesterday with a former student of mine who is eager to be selected as an intern for a locally based website organization and wanted to ask me some questions about the internship process. The discussion and her questions led me to write this post, as college students sometimes don’t know some of the fundamental issues distinguishing jobs and for-credit internships and not-for-credit internships.

I’m basing my comments on my experience as an academic advisor for undergraduates and for graduate students who were required to have an internship as part of their degree program and also on dozens of conversations with students, faculty and intern coordinators in businesses.

1. An internship should mean that you are receiving instruction and coaching and not just being placed in a work assignment.

With a summer job, you are being selected based on your job skills, academic background, etc. You will receive training and then will be expected to get working. You will have a work supervisor, but that person’s role is more managerial than mentoring and instruction.

With an internship, you are in a position that should include more learning and mentoring. Interns typically spend part of their work time learning about the organization, how it works and the roles of different divisions and employees. In the communications field, that means that an intern in a news operation could be assigned to work with reporters covering different beats (i.e., school board, health, city council). The intern would attend planning meetings to hear how decisions are made. The student intern would be expected to complete assignments but with coaching from an on-the-job internship supervisor.

2. Internships may be for credit or not for credit.

Most universities offer internships as a for-credit option. Students enroll in and pay for the internship. The advantage of such an arrangement is that the student should have someone checking out the internship initially to make sure it will be a productive learning environment for the student.

The student also will have someone to contact at the university with questions or concerns. If the student does have concerns, the university internship coordinator should contact the business or organization to resolve the issues. The credits will count toward the graduation requirement, and the internship will be listed on the student’s transcript.

But that does mean that the student is paying the university for the opportunity to have the internship.

Typically, the number of credits is based on a formula that includes the number of hours a week that the student is working and the number of weeks of the internship. For example, a student might earn two hours of internship credit for working 20 hours a week.  So a student who is interning could not be earning too many credits during the term he or she interned because of the time demands.

A student can call a volunteer or paid position an internship if that position is related to the student’s career interests. Businesses may offer internships that are not tied to the student being enrolled for university credit.

3. An internship may be for pay or not for pay.

New York Times letter, April 10, 2011

The pay or no pay issue is a BIG issue. Internships – even with major organizations and for 40 hours a week – may not include a salary.

That’s why students may be encouraged to intern in their hometown or in a city where they have friends or relatives they can live with.

Some students can afford to take a non-paying internship, even moving to another city and paying rent. But for some students, a non-paying internship just isn’t an option. They are responsible for their own college expenses or have limited financial support from their families. They have student loans. They can’t afford to be working in an internship for 10 to 40 hours a week without being paid.

Some students take a non-paying internship that will provide them the resume-building experience they need but also will be working part-time to pay their expenses.

In an op-ed column in the New York Times last month, Robb Perlin criticized institutions of higher ed for promoting unpaid internships, which do not provide the faculty supervision that would be expected as the university is receiving tuition payment. (Note that Perlin is the author of the soon-to-be-published “Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy.”)

4. Businesses often prefer students who are enrolled in internship credit because they can’t quit like not-for-credit or employees could.

When I was working with a graduate program that required an internship as part of the degree plan, I was responsible for recruiting internship positions and for working with organizations that were interested in setting up internships. When discussing why the organization wanted a student enrolled in internship credit, several said that the student intern was more dependable as they couldn’t resign.

The businesses said that sometimes students who set up an internship not for credit would do a good job but would reach a point of deciding that they had learned all that they needed to learn from the experience and would resign, leaving the business in the lurch, as they had counted on the intern for a set amount of time.

So what should a college student do?

For students in almost every major, a relevant job experience is vital both for learning about the student’s career interest and for becoming marketable upon graduation. And most of those opportunities will be internships.

  • Determine if your degree plan requires a for-credit internship.
  • Look for internship and job opportunities related to your field of interest. The Web is a terrific resource, and you typically can find information about internships in your campus career resource center.
  • Talk with your support network about the financial aspect of internships.

In upcoming posts, I’ll be providing advice about internships from some of my former students who have internships this summer.

I’d be interested in your advice about internships.

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