Internship 101, Part 1: Are graduate students too smart for internships?

Few graduate students, especially those in PhD programs, pursue internships during their graduate studies. Are graduate students too smart for internships? Having completed an internship during my PhD, the short answer is, “certainly not.”

Openings for academic positions have been steadily declining in the past two decades, while enrolment in graduate programs has increased. This has pushed graduate students to broaden their skillset and experiences to be more competitive on the job market. In parallel, some departments have started to allow both Master’s and PhD students to pursue non-academic experiences during their studies. While it is unfortunate that we needed an academic job crisis to open the door (slightly) to letting graduate students gain experience outside of academia, few graduate students consider internships as a valuable source of professional development and sadly, even fewer actually embark on one. But internships can truly be a stepping stone in finding a fulfilling career. So let’s unpack internships a little.  

The magical aspect of internships is that they are like a job, but with the opportunity to experiment and fail—though if you like the company, performing well can certainly help you find future employment in said company. And if you don’t like the company that much, the temporary nature of an internship means you won’t waste time or be judged for leaving at the end of your term. 

Justine Salam at a conference while internning

Justine Salam attends a conference on Europe's energy future while an intern with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

The other benefit is that interns are often expected to “be learning” so internships are a fantastic way to gain work experience, while being allowed (and expected) to ask questions, network, and connect with others—all without the added pressure associated with regular employment. During my internship, my team introduced me to the entire division and I learned about the “bigger picture” and our section’s contributions to it. They also connected me with other groups and organizations, which allowed me to establish a wide network of experts I could learn from if I had questions. In a regular job, one may feel intimated to ask questions fearing it might affect their professional reputation; in an internship, asking questions is expected.

One of the obvious distinctions in internship opportunities are those that are paid vs. unpaid. But this isn’t as clear a line as one would think. While some internships clearly state that you will be remunerated, others offer perks and benefits that may well make your efforts worthwhile. For example, an internship may offer to cover your relocation expenses and provide you with accommodation and a meal plan. Others may also have benefits such as opportunities to give presentations, publish, and even training and professional development programs. Still, as graduate students have at minimum one or two degrees, often coupled with years of post-secondary and professional experience, it is important to assess the pros and cons of each experience (some internships may be more valuable than others depending on your needs and circumstances).  

The beauty of internships is that there are (almost!) as many types of internships as one can imagine. While some internship programs are well established and well defined, others can be a little more “a la carte,” especially for companies and organizations that are looking to hire graduate students. For example, you could propose a project to a firm and become their intern. 

Now, we need to deconstruct the myth that is pervasive in academia, especially in PhD programs, that internships are not worth graduate students’ time. Unlike the public and private sector where internship experience is recognized and valued, academia is often reluctant to encourage PhD students to broaden their horizons outside of the university environment and gain hands-on work experience through internships. It is easier if your internship is heavily research-oriented, but be prepared to face some obstacles if you decide to pursue an internship, especially if it is outside of your field and/or with limited research work. Still, it might be worth pursuing.   

For example, you might hear in academia that some internships are unpaid and therefore unworthy of your time and efforts—but that really depends on the internship you consider, your personal interests, your professional goals, and your circumstances. In addition, aren’t many academic pursuits unpaid too? Think of publishing, the ‘holy grail’ of academic labour. In today’s academic job market, PhD students are expected to have at least one peer-reviewed publication by the time they graduate. But if you are working by yourself on a paper accepted for publication, chances are you won’t be paid for the dozens, if not hundreds of hours, that went into this work—while the publishing company will happily charge everyone else for access to your piece. Therefore, try to consider all aspects of the internship before deciding for or against it.

So really, it boils down to two things: 1) your objectives in pursuing an internship; 2) your ability to deconstruct the myth that internships are not worth graduate students’ time. Stay tuned for “Internship 101, Part II: Making it Happen”, coming in fall 2019!

Justine Salam is a PhD candidate in Global Governance at the Balsillie School of International Affairs, University of Waterloo. During her PhD studies, Justine did an internship in Energy Security at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in Brussels, Belgium. She is passionate about international affairs, global leadership, and strategic career planning.

Are you interested in pursuing an internship during your graduate studies? Check out the Graduate Studies Academic Calendar to see if there is an internship or practicum elective available to you, and talk to your department Graduate Programs Officer or Associate Chair of Graduate Studies.

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