Internships and Other ‘Experiences’

It’s no secret that we’re in a slowly improving but still tough job market right now.  Those of you with PhDs (in progress) are probably being constantly inundated with doom and gloom about how there are virtually no academic jobs opening up and PhDs have difficulty being hired to do anything else, either – so our fancy degrees don’t exempt us from the troubles of the national economy.


There is a rising awareness of how valuable internships can be in convincing someone to hire you for that first post-PhD job (similar to internships for college students) because you can demonstrate one or more skills and show you can function in a non-academic environment.  Internships will also expand your network, potentially providing you with additional mentors and letters of recommendation.


I’ve been giving a lot of thought to internships over the past couple weeks, trying to figure out why I haven’t done one during grad school and what is preventing other grad students from pursuing them.  I did apply for internships at management consulting companies two years ago but didn’t get very far into the rounds of interviews.  Aside from that rejection, I think the main reason I didn’t pursue other internships was that it never seemed like a good time for me to shut down my research and take off, especially because I’ve always felt behind in my degree progression.  Other students who would otherwise be interested in the benefits of internships might not pursue them because their advisors or programs are against them (“it’s just not done”) or they have families and can’t move for the summer.


about one-fifth of the total notes on this topic

about one-fifth of the total notes on this topic

Why have I been thinking about internships so much?  I’m participating in a 6-week career development course right now at my university, and a big component of it is a group project. (Side note: What do you think happens when four “emerging leaders” are assigned a group project together?)  On the first day of the course each of the participants came prepared with the thoughts of five people we interviewed on what is going well and not so well for the career development of graduate students at our university.  We made a giant affinity diagram to categorize the concerns (one per sticky note), and a very popular one concerned a lack of knowledge of non-academic career tracks.


We thought that students doing more internships would advance their career development in a variety of ways – exposing them to non-academic career paths, giving them new skills or opportunities to demonstrate their skills, adding work experience to their resumes, and expanding their networks.  All five of the people I interviewed for that first day of the seminar said grad students would benefit from doing internships or that the university needs to increase the percentage of grad students who complete internships.  After some more information-gathering and self-reflection, we decided to focus our project on showing grad students that it is possible to gain the benefits of internships through many types of experiences, even if they are not able to complete a classic internship (for the reasons above).


Grad students who say to themselves “I want to do an internship, but I just don’t have time/my advisor won’t let me/no one in my program does them/I can’t leave town” can still pursue career-building experiences during their PhDs.  I interviewed one woman who did two local, part-time internships and didn’t have to take significant time away from her research.  I know other grad students who got to try out their desired job, worked in a collaborator’s lab, volunteered with local organizations, taught an extra course, or freelanced for scientific writing/editing organizations.  And I know many people who did classic summer internships, either in the scientific realm or in business.


I’m even convincing myself that I should try to squeeze a part-time internship in before I graduate to make myself more competitive.  While I am interested in a couple fellowships that take either students or recent grads, I know that many internships are only available to current students.  While my advisor and I recently confirmed that I’m striving to graduate this coming summer, I’m secretly thinking that perhaps delaying until the fall would allow me the time to do a part-time internship while I’m writing my dissertation.  I’ll probably broach that subject with my advisor when this career development course concludes.


I’m also trying to re-cast some of my grad school activities in terms of career development ‘experiences’ – broadening my own definition as I am trying to convince others to do so.  Maybe I won’t get a chance to do a proper internship before I graduate but I have done some things outside of coursework or research, even if they weren’t a big time commitment.

  • I participated in a case competition
  • I serve on my university’s personal finance committee
  • I volunteer as a financial coach through my church
  • I’m completing this career development course
  • I run this blog (who knows, it might end up on my resume!)


Did you do any internships during college or grad school?  Have you had any ‘experiences’ that helped you get a job later?  How do you think current college or grad students can differentiate themselves from other job applicants?


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31 Responses to "Internships and Other ‘Experiences’"

  1. Alicia says:

    It is an interesting concept, but it think it really needs to be accepted from supervisors and program administrators before it would be remotely commonplace. My alma mater has a nationally funded program that essentially pumps out students ready to be researchers – but also hits important skills that generally get glossed over: how to write a proper (academic) CV, managing a lab budget, a small management component, etc. they also do internships (if you’re funded by this specific grant, which is only about five students), but those internships are in science industry, not so tangential to the original goal like you are suggesting. They are still trying to breed scientists, not “markets with a PhD” etc.

    I didn’t do an internship… and I am someone that generally is against most internships because of the wage problem (aka none while interning for potentially months) associated with many fields that typically do internships. That being said, if that is what I needed to stay competitive, I would have done it.
    Alicia recently posted..When Did Graduate Degrees Become the Norm?

    1. Emily says:

      I agree that the big impediment to students completing internships is advisor and program resistance. But our objective is to show students in that predicament how they can get some experiences that their advisors either approve of (something they can understand) or don’t know about (low time commitment).

      That sounds like a great program, especially the lab management skills. I don’t know of anything available to me that trains in that way but it makes so much sense for people staying in research (academic or industrial).

      You know, the pay issue has come up a few times in our discussions as well, which was new to me. In my program, either the internship pays you or your department pays you. All the ones I considered paid more than my base salary. It really didn’t occur to me that anyone would do an internship that didn’t pay, if it was full-time, but maybe that’s the case in other fields.

  2. Cash Rebel says:

    I think the biggest advantage to the internships I did was understanding what people in real life jobs are actually like. Most people don’t work as hard as grad students, they have more fun, and they care more about their families than friends at work. I know these aren’t “professional” things to learn at an internship, but it definitely helped me understand better what I was getting into when I got my first real job.

    Besides that, like you said, it looks great on a resume, though I try never to do things just because it will look good on a resume.
    Cash Rebel recently posted..cottage food laws: How to sell homemade food

    1. Emily says:

      As you can see from the pic of the sticky notes, many of the identified issues are just not knowing what alternative career paths are out there. Thanks for your perspective on what real jobs are like vs. grad school. I think I’m like halfway to being in a real job by now given those priorities. 😉

      I think in the trying-to-land-a-job category the networking and letter of recommendation would be more beneficial than the resume addition itself.

  3. E 2 says:

    I did several internships in the nonprofit, “applied” arm of the field I study in college and before grad school to help me figure out if this is what I wanted to do, and it was great experience. However, I think the benefit of internships really, really varies according to the industry – for corporate science & technology, the odds of an internship leading to a job are MUCH higher because there are simply more jobs. In nonprofits, though, internships are kind of a Catch-22. On the one hand, they’re seen as necessary to getting your foot in the door, and if you can find a paid nonprofit internship that’s the unicorn of all internships and will be very competitive. On the other hand, there’s been such a crisis in funding and jobs that the vast majority of jobs I see advertised are for the level of departmental or organizational directors, NOT entry or even mid-level, and internships by definition don’t prepare you for those roles. (Ironically a lot of them say one of the main purposes is to supervise interns and volunteers!)

    I’m not sure how I feel about internships as a result – I think in the field I know best, they are part of the exact same structural problem of training more people than there are jobs for, and relying on underpaid labor in the meantime, as the academic job market. (In contrast to a good PhD program, they often don’t pay at all, but they also don’t have nearly as much opportunity cost.) Now that I’m looking into moving into more corporate sorts of work with better job opportunities, necessarily a bit further from my field of study, I’m seeing that a lot of the advice is to do a internship if you can, unpaid if you have to…but I’m really resistant to that. At this point, I’ve done a lot of work without pay in my life (generally funded by small fellowships), I’m not fresh out of college with zero experience, and the entire point of switching fields is to get paid. Also, I’m suspicious that if I have a million internships on my resume in various fields, that will look worse than having entry-level part time work in one field. All internships are not equal, and I’m more in favor of trying to develop “experience” by other means if you’re not looking at decently paid internships with an actual chance of helping you get a job.

    But one thing my school does that I think is pretty great is that it does allow students to apply for some assistantships that give different experiences than teaching or research – for example, one year I worked 20 hrs/wk at an institute connected to my school and because they looked at me as a student, I was given the choice to work on projects that were really valuable to my development, but I still got paid as though I were a TA/Ra all year. If your school provides any opportunities like that, it might help to publicize them, and if not, you future leaders should make the case that it ought to start!

    1. Emily says:

      Thanks so much for sharing your perspective! My group is 3 STEM people and 1 humanities person so we need to hear from many more people on the humanities and social sciences fields.

      We talked a bit about whether internships are intended to lead to jobs, like is typical in MBA and JD programs. In my observation, the non-business ones don’t, really. They’re more self-contained in their benefits than a tryout for a full-time job.

      Biotech companies are now apparently being very careful to not violate the laws about interns, so the positions either pay or they don’t exist. And mostly they don’t exist because of IP, liability, and training issues (we think).

      That is cool that your university makes those non-RA,TA positions available to mix it up and give those different experiences. I’ve not heard of anything similar available to us.

  4. Mrs PoP says:

    I did 3 internships, all in undergrad – one was an REU, the other two were competitive programs at a large well-known employer. I honestly believe each internship served as a door to the next, and still have the two at the well known employer on my resume despite them being almost a decade ago now. I still get questions aboutt hem in interviews and what I learned in the various scenarios I encountered there.
    But it must be noted that my internships were all paid – some quite well. I’m much less of an advocate for unpaid internships as I generally think those are not worth it. If the employer is not getting work out of you (and if they are they are required by law to pay you) then how are you learning anything relevant?
    Mrs PoP recently posted..How We Lowered Our Cell Phone Bill By Over $100/Month – Part 1

    1. Emily says:

      That is one of the major things I want to get out of an internship or “experience” – something more to talk about in interviews! I’m glad your internships worked to advance your career.

      ITA about unpaid internships. Either you’re working or you’re volunteering. Working will let you demonstrate skills and volunteering I would say is only beneficial for exposure to the field.

  5. There aren’t really internships in my field, but I did complete an optional residency. I don’t think it really helped or hurt me in getting my first job, but it did allow me to spend a year in the area where I live, so I knew I wanted to stick around for a while. Since then, I would say that residency has opened so many doors. My contract job with the Indian Health Service is 100% as a result of the residency. Also, I sold my satellite practice in Telluride to another optometrist I met through the IHS system. It’s a small, but well respected community. If I ever do decide to move to a city and work in a referral center or at an optometry school, residency is absolutely required, so I have no regrets at all about taking an extra year without much pay, although I do wish I’d paid interest on my loans at the time! The other huge bonus was working with so many doctors who had life experience, in practice and otherwise. I didn’t come out knowing everything, but I’ve never been intimidated clinically by anything either.

    1. Emily says:

      Are there any experiences you wish you had during but outside of your training? I know medical programs are quite different from academic, but I’m thinking more of like the business side of running your practice.

  6. Matt Becker says:

    Well, to be honest this isn’t something I know a lot about, but at a high level I like the idea of diversifying your experience. Even if it doesn’t help you directly get a job, seeing more of the world and what it has to offer is a good thing, unless you’re already laser-focused on exactly what it is you want to do.
    Matt Becker recently posted..The Stock Market is Falling! In Other News, Grass is Green!

    1. Emily says:

      We are definitely trying to keep our project at a high level. I think even if you are laser focused some of these experiences could be really beneficial because a PhD doesn’t provide everything you might want to continue doing research. For instance, you could go work in a collaborator’s lab for a while – that’s still an academic context, but you’ll get to learn from a new mentor.

  7. You already know how I feel about internships. 🙂 I think what you are doing at school is awesome, and lots of graduate students will hopefully benefit from your efforts.
    Well Heeled Blog recently posted..To Kid or Not to Kid – How did you figure it out?

    1. Emily says:

      Thanks a ton! I’ll put the link to our finalized project up here in a few weeks.

  8. SarahN says:

    I think an internship is CRITICAL to your chances of securing a job. I know that the academia path is ‘easy’ and known to PhD students, but the jobs are limited, and there needs to be adaptability to go into other industries and markets.

    Personally, I didn’t even consider further study after my bachelors. IN Australia, less students go straight to grad school than the US, but even still, I think ‘real world work experience’ is so critical, and can add so much to a research or higher degree. I’m not even sure if I will pursue a masters, but I will wait til the time comes, and knowledge is needed. A PhD (whilst my mother is currently studying for one, and my aunt has one) is something I can’t see relating to my industry or interests. Both my relatives are teachers though, so it’s in the education system… sort of cliched!

    I hope my different in opinion about higher study is ok – I don’t judge you, and am a regular reader, and work in the STEM field, so I thought I’d weigh in.
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    1. Emily says:

      Believe me, nearly all PhDs have ambivalence about the opportunity cost of pursuing their degrees at some point along the way, so your opinion is not unfamiliar! There are tons of articles being shared in PhD circles about the tight job market now, not only for academia but also industry. I seriously considered leaving with my MS but wanted to keep doors open for advancement and (apparently) a PhD is needed to work in science policy at a high level. There is such rampant degree inflation! Anyway, experiences – need ’em!

  9. NZ Muse says:

    Internships in NZ from what I understand are quite different to internships in the US.

    I’ve done multiple internships, both organised through uni, and of my own accord. I got my first part time job in the industry through the latter, which turned into a FT job, and applied for another internship at one point which I didn’t get, but led to PT /freelance work and then again later to my second FT job.
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    1. Emily says:

      Whatever the usual model, those internships sound like they were great for your career advancement! Did you do any internships after college and if so were they paid?

      1. NZ Muse says:

        Not after graduation, no (I applied for that second internship, can’t recall if it was paid or unpaid, right as I was about to graduate, as I didn’t have any solid full time prospects. That didn’t work out but they have me some paid part time work, and a little while later I wound up getting FT work and did both in tandem). I did do a little writing for free to build up my portfolio here and there after graduation as well though.
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  10. I would do an internship if I felt like it would advance my career goals. The biggest thing a student can do to differentiate themselves from other job applicants is to learn how to appropriately communicate and connect with people. As someone who has interviewed dozens of people over the years, those first few moments of live communication in an introduction or interview are critical. Studies are showing that an employer makes a judgment call on you within the first few minutes, so there is very little time to make that first impression.
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    1. Emily says:

      Great point about those vital soft skills. I got some feedback on the last interview I did that my, ah, warmth and friendliness was not so good though I was technically competent. I need to work on that stuff!

  11. I have definitely had some experiences that didn’t seem like they would pay off, but then they actually did. I worked as an accountant at a summer camp, and didn’t really know if it would pay off, or if I was just wasting my time and it wasn’t a job/experience that people would take very seriously when I came to try and get a “real” job. However, in an interview, I was asked about it and how it would relate, and they were impressed with my answer. And I wound up getting that job!! So I definitely think those types of experiences are important… if nothing else, it shows you have initiative and drive to try to get relevant experience!
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    1. Emily says:

      I’m glad to hear that hindsight validated you having experiences that you doubted at the time!

  12. Internships are a great way to get some experience and see what the world outside of school is like as far as working. There is some controversy around internships and whether they should exist but I do think they are valuable still.
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    1. Emily says:

      Do you think there is any controversy regarding paid internships? That’s the only kind I would consider for full-time.

  13. […] from Our Fine Adventure supported my idea that ‘experiences,’ internships or otherwise, can help advance your career: “I have definitely had some experiences that didn’t seem like they would pay off, but then […]

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  15. […] @ Evolving Personal Finance writes Internships and Other ‘Experiences’ – I’m working on a project to get more grad students to do internships or have other […]

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  17. […] guys can help me out by checking out a website we launched this weekend.  My project on internships and other experiences has advanced and my group now has a website up with testimonials from PhD students who have had […]

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