Whether you’re thinking of applying to grad programs or you’re in the thick of internship applications, being aware of these seven points can save you some heartache when applying for an internship or practicum.

Know your program’s match rate before applying.
If you’re thinking about applying to a program that requires an internship, you’ll need to know the program’s success in matching students. Many match rates are available by discipline or provided by the department themselves. For example, click here for Association of Psychology Postdoctoral and Internship Centers for psychology match rates. Steer clear of programs with poor track records. If you’re already in a graduate program requiring an internship, you should still look at the data so you’ll know how well students have fared before you.

Start finding your internship on Orientation Day.
Whether you’re required to do an internship or not, you need to be proactive from Day 1 to position yourself for success prior to graduation. For internship-seekers, you need to make sure that you’re continually building a compelling résumé so that when the time comes to get the internship, you’ll be ready. This may require you to make professional connections outside your comfort zone or do volunteer work for organizations to which you hope to secure an internship someday. If an internship application states they want someone with 1-2 years of experience, then you’ll need to make sure that you have done some considerable volunteer work ahead of time.

Don’t expect the system to accommodate you.
Internships don’t fall into people’s laps. If you have done zero prep work, don’t be surprised when no one has returned your phone call. Remember that internships are typically more beneficial to the intern than they are to the organization. Even paid interns need training and an initial investment on the part of the organization. For students working full-time or with a family (or both), this advice may be highly inconvenient. But think about it from the internship organization’s perspective. There is no incentive for them to accommodate your needs unless you make a strong case for them regarding your credentials and experience.


Paid internships are better than unpaid internships.
A recent survey of college students by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (click here) found that students with paid internships reported higher job offer rates than did students with unpaid internships. These discrepancies were especially prominent when comparing starting salaries by internship status. For example, the median starting salary of grads in paid internships at for-profit companies was $54,304 compared to $37,612 for grads in unpaid internships. Remember that this relationship is correlational. It makes sense that organizations would actively recruit the top students for their paid internship positions. Therefore, these students would presumably do better than unpaid interns given their credentials.

Unpaid internships may or may not help in the long run.
If internships are not a requirement to your program, the data is unclear regarding how effective unpaid internships are compared to no internship at all. According to the NACE survey (found here), unpaid internships showed marginal effectiveness compared to no internship regarding job placement and starting salaries. However, that survey was on college students who were about to graduate. There is no data to date on how well unpaid intern grads do compared to “no internship” grads after graduation day.

Federal laws determine when internships can be unpaid.
There have been stories about interns being overworked to death ( literally; see this story). Many interns are not even aware of their rights under the Fair Labor Standards Act set forth by the US Department of Labor. The federal government provides six guidelines to help determine when a for-profit internship is paid or unpaid. Some key criteria include where the benefit of the internship experience is placed (i.e., of the intern and not of the organization supplying the internship) and on the educational experiences provided to the intern. If your for-profit internship is not following these guidelines, you may be entitled to at least minimum wage and overtime ( see Wage and Hour Division website of the Department of Labor).

Be your own advocate.
If you’re beginning an internship, be specific about things that you need or want to learn. Be sure to make your voice clear up front so that all parties going forward are aware of what you’ll be learning and doing. Be aware that some students can be put in the middle between academic advisors and internship supervisors (see PhDStudent.com’s “Ask the PhD” answer to a struggling intern). Also, keep in mind that people with diverse experiences will fare better on the job market than will people who are specialized early in their career (see the American Psychological Association’s advice regarding practicum). Because it’s up to you as the student to be in control of your academic experiences, get out there and have a great internship!


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