The idea of an “older” intern may invoke images of Chandler Bing trying to find his way as he switches careers on Friends circa 2003, but it’s actually a reality for many students as part of their predetermined graduate path. From the University of California, Berkeley to Colorado State University, grad schools encourage their students to take on internships and other experiential learning opportunities. And even if the positions aren’t called “internships” per se, hands-on learning is a huge part of grad school.
As a grad student, expect to be thrown into many “real-world” scenarios in your field. Some graduate degrees require this experience. But even if not, chances are, as a graduate student, you have a specific idea of the kind of experience you want anyway. And you’ll emerge that much more prepared—and maybe even more energized—for your post-grad career after experiencing it firsthand.
What employers want to see
When you start looking for jobs with a newly minted master’s degree, you’ll find hiring managers aren’t just looking at your credentials and course work. They’re taking in the applicable real-world learning you had in grad school as well. Internships, research, student-teaching, apprenticeships, practicums—these are all taken into account and regarded highly. Just like when you were an undergraduate, your graduate experience is about more than just the classes and homework.
“No matter how many books you read about teaching, you just need to get in a classroom before you really understand it,” says Becky Kozura. She studied music education as an undergraduate at the University of New Hampshire. “I switched to the five-year master’s program when I was a junior, because I liked the idea of getting a master’s in just one additional year, and it let me student-teach for a full year.” Kozura felt that an entire year of student-teaching at the graduate level, opposed to one semester of undergrad, would be beneficial to her eventual job search and future career. (You may recall having a TA, or teaching assistant, in your undergrad courses. That counts as experiential learning, and it’s indispensable for anyone who wants to become an educator.)
But even if you’re not in a five-year program, that doesn’t mean experiential learning is out of the question. In fact, it’s often essential if you want a career that involves any kind of research. “Graduate school is kind of a prerequisite to having a career in research and is, in a way, a scientist’s first research gig,” says Donna Hogan, a graduate teaching and research assistant. “Ideally I will learn to ask better questions and become an expert in a specific subfield or system and learn to communicate a story . . . to other people in my field and hopefully to people outside it as well.”
Hogan studied biology as an undergraduate at George Mason University before she too headed to the University of New Hampshire. She says she wanted to go to grad school to launch a career in making scientific discoveries.
“Grad school offers an infrastructure for learning to do research and learning how to bring in funding to keep a lab running,” she adds, explaining that an advisor takes on the time to help a new grad student get up to speed in the key techniques within the field, guide the initial research questions, and navigate the landscape of how to publish and get grants. “It also provides for some convenient collaborations, since it can be very easy, logistically, to collaborate with another lab if they are just down the hall or in the next building.”
As a science student, this was not completely new to Hogan. She was a researcher as an undergraduate as well, and the experience wasn’t so different from her graduate research. In both cases, she carried out experiments, reviewed scientific papers, and reported to either a principal investigator (PI) or a postdoc/senior science staff member.
Gaining professional skills
So, you may wonder, why do experiential learning all over again as a graduate student?
“As an undergrad, I was unable to be there as often, because undergrads take more course work. As a grad student, the expectation is to become more independent and plan out some of the experimental details over time, and eventually direct the project a little bit more than an undergrad,” explains Hogan. “The topic, of course, still has to fall within the domain of the PI’s lab, but it’s a little bit more of an apprenticeship.”
Marie Potter, an Academic Advisor in the Master of Library and Informational Science (M.L.I.S.) program at the University of Washington, says internships may not always be required at the graduate level, but they are still very popular and recommended. Students come to her program with undergrad backgrounds in everything from the liberal arts to hard sciences such as computer science, biology, and physics.
“It’s professional-level work,” she says. “And they get to be right alongside the host site’s supervisor, or mentor. With library and information science, that could be project management and programming (public library programs and children’s literacy), and it could also be potentially leading others (instructional design). Students may also go into a non-library setting.” She adds that the M.L.I.S. internships vary based on the student’s interest and needs, as well as the needs of the host.
“I think it starts to really lean on a professional level of thinking and ownership,” Potter says. Through their internships her students get a functional basis for library and information science as well as a theoretical foundation. When they find postgrad jobs, they’re able to go in and make decisions at a higher level and take on leadership roles. This also provides more mobility within their careers.
Graduate internships level the playing field and prepare students for the realities of their postgrad work. You get the experience you need to thrive as a professional—with the safety net of an academic environment.