Internships are About Education, Not Compensation

In my role at UConn I field questions from students, employers, and faculty about the definition of an internship, the terms that make one a quality experience, funding expectations, supervision, etc.

So in considering an internship’s educational worthiness, I review the description for such elements. How is it different from a part-time job? What projects, research, job shadows, etc., are built into the internship position that are not directly related to the day-to-day work the intern will do? How is the position offering learning that relates to the student’s educational purpose, major, or degree? All parties involved must be in sync with this question, regardless of whether the student is earning credit.

Organizations may need guidance in understanding the parameters of an internship, as well as in determining what makes a good internship program. Supervisors and Internship Coordinators need be accessible each day the intern is on site. They need oversight about what tasks are suitable as well as what number of hours may be considered reasonable. Employers have to recognize that compensation and credit are separate entities. Educators decide if such work is educationally sound and would meet learning objectives established by the curriculum. Employers decide to pay or not pay the student intern. They are not contingent on one another.

Universities have the obligation to provide resources, including a working definition, to educate the employer, and to ensure that they approve and post opportunities that do not exploit the student. Yes, I used the term exploit; many employers do not like that term, yet it is at times the correct word when positions expect students to work excessively long hours, travel, and be productive without appropriate compensation. Educators have to review internship program descriptions and ask if the offered internship is in fact providing an experience that is equivalent to classroom learning, even if the student has not asked for credit. Career offices will need to make hard decisions about who may recruit on their campuses.

Lastly, we must acknowledge the students. They are the ones who are looking for experience, to build up their portfolios and enhance their résumés. They need support; they need to trust that the adults in their lives, educators and employers, are not abusing their roles for their own purposes. Of course, the students must be savvy and not be willing to take just any position labeled an internship. They have to own the process, to be accountable and do the tasks assigned, to speak up when they are not receiving suitable educational alternatives to sitting in a classroom.

It is then up to all of us: educators, employers and students, to ensure that educational elements beyond the day-to-day tasks are incorporated into internships. Employers need to know what is considered legitimate and beneficial. Educators need to be comfortable holding employers accountable. Students need to ask and make good decisions. The process does not need to be hostile or confusing; it can be supportive and beneficial.

I am also asked to help interpret the Fair Labor Standards Act’s six point criteria, which is a guide for employers to determine if they can offer an unpaid internship. Given I do not work for the Department of Labor, I will do my best to help those with questions on these policies, keeping in mind that the purpose of an internship is an Educational Opportunity outside the classroom.


-Beth Settje