Kyoungjin Jang-Tucci, Project Assistant, Center for Research on College-Workforce Transitions, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Hee Song, Project Assistant at the Center for Research on College-Workforce Transitions, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Matthew T. Hora, Assistant Professor of Adult and Higher Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison

When Angelica landed a prestigious internship with a major corporation just outside of Houston, she was ecstatic about the opportunity to launch her career in finance.

Such optimism was warranted, as research shows that students with internships are almost twice as likely to graduate college, have a 12.6% higher likelihood of being invited to job interviews, and earn 6% higher wages than noninterns once they graduate.

But even with a decent paycheck and scholarships to cover her rent, Angelica considered leaving the internship within weeks. What went wrong?

As part of the three-year College Internship Study at the Center for Research on College-Workforce Transitions at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, we found that interns can have a tough time adapting to the culture of a new city, organization and work environment.

In Angelica’s case, the shock was partly about geography. She was the only intern in a group of 17 from out of town, and she felt “alone and in a big city where I didn’t know anybody.”

But more alienating was the fact that she knew of only one other Hispanic woman in her intern group, and the company itself, she said, was mostly white. Ultimately, she believed that “none of these people really have anything in common with me.” She felt excluded and started to believe it would be impossible to work full time at the company.

Angelica’s story demonstrates that not all student interns have positive and productive experiences. In fact, research shows that internships can reinforce gender inequalities in the workplace, create unrealistic expectations for career advancement and even exploit student labor.

Common internship pitfalls

Interns are learners as much as they are workers earning a paycheck. Unfortunately, the educational aspect of internships frequently gets overshadowed, with interns assigned mundane or repetitive tasks unrelated to their academic or professional interests. This can hinder their career development, for example by diminishing their motivation to pursue a career in that field.

Another problem, which our own research revealed, is that too often supervisors adopt a hands-off strategy. They expect interns to define and complete tasks independently.

While this may work for long-term or mature employees, it is unsuitable for most interns who are new to professional life. Interns typically have a shorter tenure, limited authority and less access to resources. This makes it difficult to complete complex tasks with little supervision. The lack of structure and guidance can also cause significant stress that weakens their learning and job performance.

And, finally, unstructured internships can alienate students who are already marginalized – particularly those who are first-generation, low-income or students of color. That’s because the lack of structure or supervision can make students feel overwhelmed, pushing them to seek guidance from family or friends. These students may not have family connections in prestigious or professional occupations and therefore lack support systems to deal with their challenging workplace situations.

Based on our research, we offer four strategies for designing effective and welcoming internships for college students.

1. Set clear learning goals

In order to ensure interns acquire new knowledge and skills, supervisors can establish both long-term and short-term learning goals. This is required in countries like France, where internships with companies are fully included in college curricula, but not in the U.S..

Learning goals can include specific tasks the intern will be expected to perform, technical knowledge they will gain and transferable skills like communication or teamwork that they should develop through the internship.

Ideally, they are developed in collaboration with faculty advisers, students and employers. We especially emphasize the importance of engaging students in these conversations. Different interns will likely have unique objectives for their own internship experience.

Documenting these goals using forms like this one from the University of Minnesota can help students discern where to concentrate and hone their skills during the internship.

2. Structure assignments from easy to hard

A well-known theory in educational psychology shows that people learn best when they are gradually introduced to new tasks or subject matters. In our own study, we found that interns also benefit from starting their jobs with easier tasks and gradually transitioning to tasks that require less oversight.

When internship tasks are structured progressively from easier to harder, it gradually increases students’ understanding over time. Our research also shows that interns benefit from assignments that have clear expectations and deadlines and pose minimal consequences if performed incorrectly.

3. Keep communication open

Research confirms the importance of clear, regular and open lines of communication between interns and their supervisors. This became especially important during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when online internships suffered from infrequent and virtual communications. Many interns were left feeling unsatisfied and neglected.

Whether the internship is in-person or online, an effective communications strategy involves regular meetings to review progress, discuss new tasks and ideas and provide students with an opportunity to voice their concerns. Open communication can be especially important for interns who are new to a job, company or city.

4. Connect interns with appropriate mentors

Employees in general benefit professionally and psychologically from having workplace mentors with similar backgrounds and identities to their own. Yet, workers from marginalized groups – especially women – often have a harder time finding supportive and relatable mentors.

However, simply pairing mentors and interns based on characteristics like race or gender may not be the best approach. Different interns – and supervisors – have varying needs, experiences and capabilities. Companies can first survey interns on their values and preferences regarding mentoring and supervision, and then match them in accordance with their mentorship needs and preferences.

Additional strategies to enhance interns’ sense of belonging include peer mentoring and frequent social events – methods that have been proven to help newcomers adapt to new environments.

We believe internships must be seen as more than a part-time job where students simply need to be hired, onboarded and shown a desk. Internships are learning opportunities and, as such, require careful design. Done right, internships can help interns gradually get more acquainted with the culture where they work and the jobs they will be expected to do.