In today’s wild-west economic reality, the college internship has never been more critical. As more and more students head to college flooding job application inboxes, and numerous players open “degree programs” of varying quality, listing actual industry experience on your resume at graduation is important, if not essential.
Internships, like the ones my students at a major university participated in, not only serve to provide you in-the-field experience, but they give you the opportunity to rub elbows with those that do the job posting and hiring at the company. You will also get to know other recent graduates who know how they got the breaks, and can often be terrific contacts and advocates for you.
Internships also take those book lessons from the classroom and provide you with critical context which “closes the loop” on your learning, making your knowledge more relevant and attractive to the hiring manager.
Internships are also terrific places to “show what you know” which is more and more important to companies. Just having that piece of paper is no longer impressive. You need to document what you know outside of the classroom and for this, the internship is invaluable!
In evaluating a college program of study, consider the following internship options, which I am listing in order of best option to least desirable.
Internship embedded in program: this is an internship that you are assigned to as part of your college credit. This means that a faculty member has arranged for the college/university to enter into a legal contract with an organization that has agreed to take on interns and teach them a certain set of skills. They also agree to expose students to specified areas of focus and include the students in the business of the organization to whatever level would be appropriate. In my Health Care program, our students often went along as interns to executive meetings, helped to develop quality improvement studies, built databases to collect data (hospitals and health care organizations are DATA – CRAZY!), documented clinical workflow processes, and much, much more. Almost without exception, out students found jobs BEFORE graduation and I attribute it to the 6-week, full-time internship that our students completed in their final semester with us.
Internship that is incidental to your program: some programs have recommended internships that students may apply for, but that are not mandated as part of the program of study. These, like the embedded internships are also arranged by the faculty who have industry contacts and can make for very positive and beneficial experiences. The main difference between these and the embedded internships is that there is less control by the college/university over the content of the internship and this could be no problem at all (or in some cases, even a better deal!), or it could mean that the internship lacks direction, substance or content. Still, at the end of the experience, you have those very valuable contacts, context and inside industry information – not to mention resume content!
Volunteer experience that you find on your own: there are programs that do not offer a formalized internship structure but that recognize that their graduates need something in order to compete at any level after graduation. In many cases, these programs are affiliated with for-profit, and online degree programs that are NOT accredited by the agencies that accredit similar programs at your local community college or state university. Some of these institutions recommend that students seek out a company that will allow them to volunteer and spend time in the business to observe the basic work flow and business activities. While being better than nothing, this is the least desirable option for an internship. First of all, many companies will be reticent to allow a random stranger to just hang out and watch what’s going on. In health care, students on internships are increasingly tasked with the need to secure child abuse, elder abuse and criminal record clearances, as well as present up to date immunizations proof, physical examination (recent) and now even an FBI criminal check is being sought by some institutions, which includes finger-printing! HIPAA laws and concern over institutional liability make it more difficult than ever to just walk in to a health care organization and ask for some experience as a volunteer or intern, without a sponsoring (i.e. there’s a legal contract in place) organization. This does NOT mean it’s impossible, but it is becoming harder and harder for students who are tasked with finding their own “internship”.
Beyond health care, other industries are cautious based on concerns around liability (what if the person is hurt while on site); cyber security (a growing concern), and simple productivity (people are being asked to do more with less, and adding an intern is often a hardship).
Investing in a college degree is a significant decision with LIFELONG implications! Do your homework; ask the right questions. Look for a program that gives you the value of an internship opportunity if at all possible. It will be the best gift you can give yourself (after your education, itself!)