In some pockets of graduate and postdoctoral education, internships are the norm. In others, however, internships remain novel and unfamiliar. In my own field of musicology, the idea of doing an internship was rare enough that I never even considered it during graduate school in the late 2000s.
Would an internship host organization even know what to do with a graduate student in musicology? What if my professors thought I wasn’t fully committed to my field or my research? Could I still be a full-time student? What if the internship were unpaid? On my graduate student stipend—and with no additional financial support—an unpaid internship would have been unavailable to me. I felt at that time that my doctoral education was simply incompatible with an internship.
Today, however, as universities grapple with new ways to prepare scholars for a diverse range of careers, they have focused increasing attention upon the internship. They see it as one important way to build skills and experiences that will support those scholars as they explore more than one career path. Meanwhile, organizations in the private and public sectors increasingly seem curious about interns with advanced degrees—new programs targeted to Ph.D.s in consulting, technology, publishing and even musicology are popping up. Some universities also have built robust in-house internship programs to provide graduate students with experience in higher education administration. The Accelerate to Industry™ program, founded by North Carolina State University, has expanded to many institutional and industry partners and continues to grow.
This growing interest in internships invites universities to revisit some old questions about how to ensure that such experiences are positive and beneficial for graduate and postdoctoral scholars. It calls on them to determine how scholars can be empowered to navigate institutional structures, policies, curricula and mentoring that, in some instances, haven’t yet adapted systematically to this new need. It also invites a new cohort of graduate and postdoctoral scholars to consider whether an internship might genuinely help them meet their academic, professional and personal goals.
This article will discuss some of the benefits of participating in an internship during academic training. In addition, it will offer some strategies for addressing some barriers or concerns that might arise in institutional contexts without a long history of supporting internships at the graduate and postdoctoral levels.
Benefits of an Internship
Internships can potentially offer many benefits to doctoral students and postdoctoral trainees, but they vary greatly in scope and format, particularly at organizations without a long history of recruiting large numbers of Ph.D.s. Internships can range from part-time to full-time, from online to in person, from short-term micro-internships to long-term experiences that align perfectly with the academic semester, from internships proposed and driven by the scholar to established programs that recruit large cohorts of interns. The advantages of each format can vary, but I will share some benefits that generally apply to any kind of internship.
If you are a graduate or postdoctoral scholar, an internship can give you a hands-on opportunity to learn what a job will be like. As one component of career development training, advisers like me will want you to gather evidence that paints a vivid picture of what a job will be like day to day. We might counsel you to read articles and LinkedIn posts, conduct informational interviews, or use a tool like InterSECT Job Simulations. As this picture comes into clearer focus, you’ll want to narrow that focus by asking, is this job aligned with my interests, skills and values? To answer that question, research can be extremely helpful, but there’s no substitute for actual experience in the workplace to help you identify if it is an area you want to invest further time into developing.
An internship provides you with skills and networks that can potentially make you a great candidate for a variety of career paths. As a graduate and postdoctoral scholar, you can gain experience through an internship and develop valuable skills that complement or build upon what you’re learning in your academic training. If you’re interested in building the internship into a career, it will not only connect you directly with people in the organization but also give you the credibility to continue connecting with individuals in the field in other firms.
In addition, organizations and fields can each have a distinct culture with subtle ways of articulating how they work, their values and their goals. People in the same firm or field may have shared language, stories or technologies that signal that they belong together. It’s similar to how academic disciplines may have familiar topics, texts or authors that help scholars in one discipline communicate with one another. Such nuances are not easy to comprehend through research alone; the best way to learn is through on-the-ground experience in a work community.
Strategies for Articulating the Benefits of your Internship
An internship may present a challenge if your program has not previously had a graduate or postdoctoral scholar engage in such an opportunity. You should try to anticipate potential challenges and strategize how to propose an internship in a way that clearly illustrates how the benefits described above will positively impact your academic trajectory. As you evaluate a potential internship, here are some questions to consider that will help you thoughtfully articulate how it might fit into the larger context of your academic and professional project.
Is the internship a serious learning opportunity? Internship experiences should offer a clear benefit to you. They should provide meaningful opportunities to learn relevant skills and gain experience that will impact your success as a candidate for a career in the field.
Some larger organizations will have robust processes to onboard interns and document and assess their experience, but smaller ones or those that are new to working with interns with advanced degrees may not. Whatever the case, you should take steps to outline the internship experience in terms of its learning outcomes, projects, deliverables and deadlines. Make sure you have a clear idea of whom your direct supervisor will be and how often you will meet with that person. Some universities have templates to assist with documenting such aspects of an internship in the form of an agreement between you and the internship host organization. If not, then it is important to write down clear goals for the internship that speak to what you will learn and what experience you expect to gain. You may wish to share that documentation with your mentor as evidence that the internship is a serious learning opportunity.
Will the internship opportunity advance your professional and personal goals? You should have a clear idea of your career goals so that you can identify an internship experience that aligns with what you hope to achieve. An internship can serve a range of purposes, whether they include early-stage career exploration, an interest in pursuing a faculty career or a direct transition into industry. Tools like MyIDP or ImaginePhD can help you clarify and articulate your career goals and identify what skills or experiences would support them.
Ideally, the skills you will learn are important for the career you want. Perhaps you will work on industry applications of research that relates to your academic work. Perhaps you have researched a career very deeply but lack the hands-on experience needed to become a viable candidate. Whatever your goals are, your mentor or adviser will want to know that your internship experience will move you forward in a positive direction.
Do you have a plan to continue to progress in your research? Finding the time to set aside for your internship may be tricky because you may have personal, family, work, research or other obligations. For part-time opportunities, it can be tempting to simply add an internship on top of other responsibilities, but that usually is not a good idea. As you make decisions regarding how to manage your time, you should continue to prioritize the time you need for activities that sustain your well-being. Then think carefully about whether you can delay, delegate, reschedule or skip certain aspects of your daily schedule. This is part of your plan that you should share with a mentor.
Your mentor will also want to make sure you are advancing your research agenda, so you should be prepared to articulate your plan for how you will continue to make timely progress. If you suspect your adviser may have a concern that internships are a distraction for doctoral students or postdocs, then it may be helpful to consider sharing research about how professional development opportunities, such as internships, are not known to delay progress or the number of publications.
Does the internship align with academic or HR policies of your institution? Institutional policy varies with respect to graduate- and postdoc-level internships. Some universities have developed extensive policies in this area. You should follow those policies closely to ensure you have institutional support behind you. Perhaps your career center, graduate school or postdoc office has an internship coordinator who can provide support. In contrast, you may find that your institutions’ policies in this area are limited in scope and don’t spell out what you should do. If that’s the case, it is important to work closely with your adviser, program, graduate school or postdoc office. If you are an international scholar, then you should do so with your institution’s support office for international students, as well.
Graduate and postdoctoral scholars should also ensure that their decisions are consistent with the conditions of their funding. If you have external funding sources like federal or foundation grants, your program officer and your principal investigator must be consulted. With respect to federal funding agencies, the Office of Management and Budget clearly articulated some time ago that graduate and postdoctoral scholars have a dual role as trainees and employees, indicating that you are permitted to engage some amount of time in your career development.
As the landscape of career pathways for individuals with advanced degrees continues to expand, flexibility around how internship opportunities intersect with doctoral and postdoctoral training is necessary. On the one hand, internships are likely to become more normalized, and graduate and postdoctoral scholars may face fewer barriers in the form of doubt about their benefits. On the other, as individual scholars forge new paths through internships, clarity around policy will begin to improve, making it easier for you to weave experiential learning into the fabric of your graduate or postdoctoral training.