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What is an Internship?

An internship is an exchange in which you agree to undertake a work project which will benefit the host organization, give you the opportunity to learn new skills, expand your knowledge of a particular field, explore career options, and apply or test out academic learning while gaining hands-on experience in a professional work setting. Your work responsibilities may include completing a special project or performing a variety of regular staff functions. Internships offer you the chance to extend learning opportunities beyond the traditional classroom into professional work environments.

Internships may be paid or unpaid. Some internships require full-time commitments while others offer you flexible part-time work hours (so you could also find paid employment). Do not automatically rule out unpaid internships. Instead of an hourly wage some organizations will offer a stipend, reimbursement for travel expenses, assistance with housing, and/or offer you training or the chance to attend a professional conference. You may need to be creative and assertive while inquiring and negotiating for benefits you want.

An intern is not

  • A Volunteer—Regardless of the financial arrangements, an intern is not the same as a volunteer. As an intern you should expect to receive supervision whereby you are challenged to learn and grow, provided support and encouragement, and included in the work team, and given the chance to reflect on your experience. A volunteer may perform the same tasks equally well but may or may not be deliberate about their learning.
  • A Resident Expert—Student interns bring special skills, knowledge, and fresh ideas to an organization. It is not appropriate, however, for an organization to expect an intern to be the "resident expert" or to fill a gap in an area in which the staff lacks basic skills or knowledge. You should be supervised by a professional staff person who has some expertise in the area in which you are working.
  • A Gopher—An intern should not be expected to perform all the routine or uninteresting work within an organization. An internship should be a meaningful learning experience; one you have planned and adapted as needed with your supervisor(s). Most positions and projects will involve some routine work; however, it is recommended that it be limited to twenty percent of your time as an intern.
  • Guaranteed a Job—Sometimes interns are offered part- or full-time employment as a result of contacts made during their internships but there is no guarantee that an internship will lead to a job. Many employers value hiring someone who has had internship experience; therefore, when you are competing for a particular position in a given field, your internship may prove beneficial. The best way to gain career and job advantages from your internship is to get to know the people with whom you are working. Build an information and referral network for yourself.