Internship experiences provide a way for students to test their skills and develop new ones, make connections with professionals in their field of expertise, and build their confidence to aid them in job hunting and future employment.

Dr. Sarah M. Zehr’s dissertation, “Student internship experiences and learning opportunities: a mixed methods study,” has interesting and relevant insights on the workplace as a conducive work environment, social interaction from supervisors and coworkers, and the characteristics of startups, established companies, and hybrid startups and companies.

Dr. Sarah M. Zehr

We spoke with Dr. Zehr, Assistant Vice President for Academic Affairs for the University of Illinois system, about her research findings. Dr. Zehr earned a BS in Finance from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, an MBA from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, and a PhD in Higher Education from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her research interests include experiential learning programs such as internships, cooperative education, and apprenticeships, as well as higher education policy and international issues.

What were the main findings of your paper?

In the study, I looked at how students learned. When they were assigned tasks and taught how to do the discrete tasks they were assigned, that was more like an apprentice model. However, a number of students shared stories about how they were assigned a project and then had to figure out how to complete the project; these students tended to describe their learning more like a constructivist model. The experience for students who were assigned discrete tasks was more similar to their classroom experience, while the project work was less structured and ambiguous, and probably more similar to what they would encounter in the workplace after graduation.

Your research findings talk about how internship experiences share characteristics, but certain differences can impact learning outcomes. In addition, inherent student characteristics (gender, domestic status, income level) also have an impact. Can you please explain why this is impactful?

The data analysis that I performed was correlational in nature. I found that male interns generally worked with a larger number of coworkers while female interns tended to work more closely with their supervisor. Males also tended to exhibit more comfort in identifying their own tasks, which is consistent with previous research that finds that males tend to exhibit more self-efficacy than females. International students tended to be less likely to speak up or feel comfortable making decisions, which may be a result of cultural differences in other parts of the world compared to the U.S.

As I anticipated, students who had interned previously were less nervous and more likely to be comfortable influencing decisions. Overall, the differences were minor.

I do think that my findings indicate that most students benefit from talking with others who have worked for the company prior to starting, if possible. Also, being proactive and showing initiative often results in a better experience and is more likely to fulfill student learning outcomes. I think the most important things are to take advantage of the opportunity to work closely with others to the extent possible and to seek out opportunities to contribute to projects or to solve problems in the workplace.

It can help to be aware of how different characteristics correlated with different types of experience, but I would encourage students to make the most of their experience and to not get too concerned about whether their characteristics will affect their experience.  

You note that with your experience as a career services professional at a four-year research university, you found that the majority of students reported positive experiences after returning from internships. Can you expand on this a bit? It is helpful when there are positive experiences because it can boost confidence and self-belief prior to entering the job market.

The vast majority of students have a positive internship experience. Most find that the workplace is welcoming and their contributions are valued. Many companies have special programs for interns to help them to get to know the company, their coworkers, and the city/location where the internship is located, and larger companies often have several interns and may even house them together. Even students who find they do not enjoy the work they are given still learn a lot and the experience helps them to narrow down what they do want to do after graduation.

Even students who find they do not enjoy the work they are given still learn a lot and the experience helps them to narrow down what they do want to do after graduation.

The few students who did not have good experiences typically did not find their coworkers to be welcoming, and often they did not talk with their supervisor about feeling unhappy or that they do not have an opportunity to contribute. I would encourage students who do not feel that they are getting what they were hoping for out of their internship experience to talk with their supervisor or someone they trust. Often, if they do this early enough, actions can be taken so that they are able to benefit from aspects of the experience even if it’s not the best fit.

Students may find they have room for improvement when it comes to connecting work and school, including applying concepts learned in class to tasks performed as part of the job. How can students connect work and school more proactively to help them succeed in a real-world work environment?

When I was the director of Engineering Career Services at the university where I worked, I taught an online, for-credit course that students could take during their internship. They watched videos about basic business concepts and interpersonal skills and then had practical assignments each week. They tried some things in the workplace and completed weekly reflections on what they had learned and their observations of the concepts in the workplace. In many cases, the exercise of reflecting on what they learned helped them to connect their experiences with the concepts in the classroom. The biggest difference they encountered was that problems in the classroom tended to be structured whereas the problems they dealt with in the workplace were much more ambiguous and broad. They had to learn to accept that there was not always a right or wrong answer, but a number of solutions and some might be better than others.

Also, to some extent, students may not make connections as easily when they experience school and work during a similar timeframe. Sometimes, I think it takes some time to see the connections between concepts that you learn in school and what you do in the workplace. For example, looking back, I see that during my undergraduate years, I learned to think for myself. When I studied for my MBA, I learned to see broad patterns and connections and how to communicate complex ideas quickly and succinctly. Then I went on to pursue a PhD and that is an entirely different form of communication and writing – much more descriptive and lengthy vs. broad and concise.

Decision-making is an important part of getting tasks done. Why is it a good thing that students are engaging in tasks that require making decisions during their internships?

Students enjoy being able to see the impact of their work, and making decisions is one aspect of that. Decisions come in all sizes – from small decisions like a line of code in a program to larger decisions like what part to use in product manufacturing. Students who were involved in projects often spent more time making decisions and then learning from them. Also, I think it is helpful to practice decision making during an internship when the stakes are lower, which prepares students to make more important or significant decisions once they graduate and enter the workplace.

In your survey, you note that more students responded that they used nontechnical skills (such as communication or initiative) in their work compared to technical skills.

Students learn technical skills in their coursework, but they do not always practice nontechnical skills until later in their college experience when they start working on senior design projects and other larger types of projects or assignments. It is possible that during internships the nontechnical skills are just more salient, or it may be that the nature of the workplace is more collaborative than typical undergraduate coursework, where students often work more independently. Learning to navigate the workplace is something that almost all students talk about when they complete their internship.

What advice might you give a job candidate who wants to highlight their nontechnical and technical skills in an interview?

First, I think it is important to listen to the questions that you are being asked and think about what the interviewer is trying to learn about you from your response. Some students do not directly answer questions because they want to share so much information or they are nervous and start talking without thinking through what the point they want to make is. Try to work with the interviewer and make sure you respond to the question being asked.

Second, most interviews involve at least some behavioral questions where you are asked what you have done in a certain type of situation in the past. An example might be how a student handled a situation where he or she worked with other students on a group assignment and one team member was not pulling their weight. Be sure to think about some of the experiences you want to share and how they could relate to different common behavioral questions. This way, you are prepared to respond to the question and you also share some of your most relevant and positive experiences.

Finally, be sure to do your research ahead of time to learn as much as you can about the company. If you know someone who interned there in the past or who currently works there, talk with them to learn about the environment. Think about what types of skills they might find most valuable and how your skills align with those.

How important is collaboration?

Collaboration was a key factor in student learning in the workplace. Students learned from working with others and asking questions as they completed tasks and responsibilities. Most jobs now require some collaboration and teamwork, so it is important to practice that and to work effectively with others.

Most jobs now require some collaboration and teamwork, so it is important to practice that and to work effectively with others.

What are some of the key differences between working for an established company vs. a start-up? Do you recommend one over the other or is it just a case-by-case, ‘smart judgment’ decision?

Actually, I found that some of the established companies had divisions that acted more like startups even when the overall company was more traditional. I think selecting what company to work for is a very personal decision, and it is important to consider fit. If you enjoy talking with people at the company, it is likely you would enjoy working there. Established companies tend to have developed and structured internship programs with a number of students interning at a given time.

There are distinct advantages to that type of structure and experience, but sometimes that also means the work is more structured and there is less room for innovation or creativity on the part of the student. (Of course, it depends on the company and the unit – there can be a lot of variation.) Startups are definitely less structured, but offer opportunities for students to make a significant impact since there are so few team members and everyone’s contributions are more apparent.

Startups are also often more open to new ideas and trying things out – and failing and trying again. Students who intern at startups may also have more ownership in what they are doing as well as how they do it. Both types of experiences are valuable, so it may depend more on the environment that a student is looking for or the skill set the student wants to develop. But again, fit is important as well.

Do you have any career advice for students who are pursuing internships or are wondering if an internship is right for them and their career path?

Honestly, I think an internship is a good experience for just about any student. Not only does an internship provide some concrete experience that you can use in interviews when you start looking for a full-time job after graduation, it also helps you to learn more about an industry or company and narrow down what types of activities or tasks you enjoy or dislike. Of course, other forms of experiential learning such as service learning or research are also valuable. A variety of experiential learning opportunities over the course of your college career may be the best option to consider.

After doing this research and analysis, do you think about internships and employers in a different way than before?

I had been studying internships and other forms of experiential learning before, so this really solidified some of the theories or ideas that I had developed over time. However, I was a little surprised to find that several of the established companies had divisions or units that were so entrepreneurial. I was also excited by the number of students who were able to demonstrate initiative and propose projects that their employers supported.

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