How important are internships for baccalaureate graduates entering the workplace? The exclamation point after the one-word title of this article is your clue. In a survey of 301 employers sponsored by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U, 2008), respondents were asked which methods of assessing student learning are most helpful in evaluating a job applicant’s potential to succeed at their company. Topping the list was a "supervised/evaluated internship/communitybased project where students apply college learning in real-world setting”; 83% of the employers regarded this form of assessment as fairly or very effective (multiple-choice tests were the least preferred assessment, receiving only a 32% effectiveness rating). In the National Association of Colleges and Employers’ (NACE) Job Outlook 2011, 72% of the 172 employer respondents preferred candidates with "relevant” job experience; 53% of that group views internships and co-op experiences as the way for applicants to acquire relevant experience (NACE, 2011a).
I shared these findings with Jon Keil, director of operations for The Salem Group (a staff augmentation firm), whose responsibilities include staff training and development, project management, client relations, some HR functions, and oversight of the operations team at all of the company’s staffing centers. In addition, he manages internship programs at the national headquarters of Fortune 500 companies in the pharmaceutical and financial industries, averaging 175 internships per year and reaching a peak of 700 interns in a single year. In college, Keil was a psychology/business: human resources major, and whose career is one example of how to use a joint psychology/business degree. Here is my Q&A session with Jon Keil.
To what extent are internships important for graduates seeking entry to the workplace? Or, in other words, when an employer interviews two applicants with similar qualifications for an entry level job, why would the employer be generally inclined to favor the applicant with the internship?
Keil: Internships are extremely critical to a student preparing for a successful career. The internship experience provides crucial real world experience and exposes the student to industry- specific or career-specific vernacular and preparedness they might otherwise miss out on by not taking internships. It allows students to expand their experiences and enhance their abilities. As an employer, I would lean toward the candidate with internship experience, especially if it was related to the job and industry I was hiring for. The experience, discipline, and exposure they receive often set them ahead of other candidates.
Besides academic credentials, what qualities do employers seek in internship applicants?
Keil: Academic credentials are always important in decision making for internships. However, as with any candidate, the applicants must possess excellent communication skills and convey eagerness, energy, and enthusiasm about the opportunity. Candidates must demonstrate that they have a solid understanding of the position and the expectations that go along with it. Previous work experience, part-time jobs, or elected positions at school are often excellent indicators of their future performance and will help in the selection process.
In general, what particular outcomes can students expect from a six-week (or longer) summer internship or a semester-long internship?
Keil: Internships are amazing opportunities to explore, expand, and enhance the student’s knowledge and abilities. Often, the most desired internships are coveted and competitive and, as a result, are often highly regarded by future employers. The six-week internship can lead to more intense and longer-term internships. Most interns are closely evaluated as potential employees, and strong intern performance can lead to firm job offers. Beyond that, an internship is an excellent opportunity for the student to evaluate his/her chosen field. Shorter internships give you a quick glimpse at how organizations in that field operate, and often students will affirm their decision to pursue a career in a chosen field. Sometimes, however, they might choose to change course in their desired career aspirations; it is beneficial for students to come to this realization and decision through an internship rather than later in their careers.
I read a report from the Collegiate Employment Research Institute (CERI, 2011) that due to outsourcing of jobs and baby boomer retirements, internships in some businesses are replacing entry-level jobs in terms of skill levels and experiences needed and expected of new graduates when they enter the workplace. To what extent do you find this true?
Keil:To some degree, this is true. It provides employers the chance to evaluate many potential candidates before committing to one. Internships provide an employer with a workforce pool that they do not have to commit to long-term and allow them to evaluate business needs before making staff changes.
What advice would you give to psychology students about seeking and preparing for internships?
Keil: First, research, research, research! Do not avoid the internship. There are many opportunities beyond the clinical for psychology majors. Determine what field interests you, such as human resources, marketing, or communications, and target certain companies with an excellent reputation in your area. Next, contact those organizations and ask to speak with the professional in charge of their internships and find out how to apply. The only disadvantage to an internship is not performing one.
What additional insights can you add?
Keil: Internships are extremely valuable to the student, but as you can see, they are equally valuable to an employer. For graduates having a difficult time securing a regular hire opportunity, I recommend contacting employers and offering your experience to them on an intern basis. It’s out of the box, and it just might be the foot in the door you need.
Internships vary in several ways. They can be credit or noncredit based, paid or unpaid, offered through an academic department, career counseling center, university-wide course, or directly by an organization. Expect all internships to be competitive, especially those that are paid or offer a small stipend. If seeking an internship in a social service agency, do not expect financial compensation, but you can obtain good experience, especially if you plan on attending graduate school with a mental health specialty. In contrast, you can expect to pay for an internship in highly competitive positions in some fields.
Some employers are being criticized during our national labor crisis for offering unpaid internships to save company compensation, when they would otherwise have to pay employees. And some students are accused of taking jobs away from the unemployed through internships. However, unpaid internships have been the norm for many business organizations long before the recent job crisis.
It is important to perform serious self-reflection about your long-term career interests and goals prior to seeking an internship. As a psychology student in a field that reaches deeply into diverse aspects of society and behavior, you may be interested in mental health, research, marketing, human resources, science, technology, public service, social media, law enforcement, animal welfare, or other areas Whatever your interests, discuss them with your advisor and a career counselor; visit the alumni office and investigate the possibility of contacting alumni working in your field of choice. Be persistent. If there are no opportunities available through your school, then contact organizations directly (as Keil advises) or online. Search wisely, plan your efforts, and prepare your questions. Application procedures may vary widely but expect to complete a process that requires an interview, current resume, letters of reference, a transcript, and a statement of your goals and skills.
Become familiar with an organization’s mission, services, products, and expectations of interns. Similarly, learn what you can expect from the organization, such as the kinds of tasks you will perform, if possible. Most internships involve some dull assignments (e.g., filing, photo copying, data input), but you should be able to perform at least some tasks equivalent to an entry-level job for a college graduate. In return for your work, you should receive some training, regular supervision, and feedback (though it may be infrequent and general). Consult the NACE (2011b) position statement regarding criteria that define an internship experience and criteria for unpaid internships. It is likely, however, that some internships will not match each criterion in the NACE statement.
Some post-college entry-level jobs require a solid internship experience and established skills. You might not meet those requirements in one experience, and chances are you will have made some mistakes along the way. So plan your schedule for a second, more challenging, and more career-related internship. View it as a second real-world component of your academic program that can simultaneously guide your career decision process and inform an employer or graduate school about your serious desire for practical experience (Landrum & Hettich, 2011).
But do internships lead to jobs? The statistics may change from year to year, but according to NACE (2010), 42.3% of the college senior job applicants who had internship experiences received at least one job offer, compared to 30.7% of those without an internship experience. This data is from a sample of students from wide number of disciplines, including liberal arts and applied majors. Consequently, do not assume that the internship you complete will lead to a job, especially if it is in a not-for-profit social service organization. Whatever the variables that influence the conversion rate from internship to job, the bottom line is that you should get out of the classroom during your college education and try to experience real-world working conditions in your areas of interest. Finally, prepare for your internship as you would a major paper or thesis. Consult sources such as the CERI Thought Piece below and other CERI online reports, and follow Keil’s advice to "research, research, research!” as a competent psych major can and would—your first satisfying full-time job may depend on it.
Association of American Colleges and Universities. (2008). How should colleges assess and improve student learning? Employers’ views on the accountability challenge. Retrieved from HERE
Collegiate Employment Research Institute. (2011). CERI thought piece: Internships as high stakes events. Retrieved from www.ceri.msu.edu/wp-content/uploads/2010/01/High-Stakes-Internships.pdf
Landrum, R. E., & Hettich, P. (2011). Your Undergraduate psychology degree at work and in career. Manuscript in preparation.
National Association of Colleges and Employers (2010). Interns more likely to have job offers. Retrieved from www.naceweb.org/internships.
National Association of Colleges and Employers. (2011a). Job Outlook 2011. Bethlehem, PA: NACE.
National Association of Colleges and Employers. (2011b). A definition and criteria to assess opportunities and determine the implications for compensation. Retrieved from www.naceweb.org/about/membership/internship/