Your online academic program may include a requirement to work in your field as part of your official Plan of Study. This requirement is usually called an internship but could also be known as practicum or clinical experience. Whatever the name, the goal of the experience is for you to take the knowledge gained from your coursework – papers, projects, lectures, activities, reading – and apply it in a real-world setting. Internships may be paid or unpaid, and may also be eligible for college credit.
Student teaching is a great example of applied experience for education students. It's one thing to write a paper about classroom management techniques, and another to manage students in a classroom, leading them though learning activities and keeping them engaged in the tasks at hand.
Opportunities to gain real-world practice are increasingly part of the overall educational experience and also important to your future employers. A recent article published in the The Chronicle of Higher Education focused on the current value of internships. The authors cited a 2010 report that found 73% of employers encouraged higher education institutions to better prepare graduates for the world of work with opportunities for applied practice. Employers are looking not only at transcripts but also at experience when recruiting and hiring. As online degrees continue to gain acceptance with employers it is important to add experience to your resume as well.
When an Internship is Required
If your program requires an internship, check with your Academic Advisor for the details. If you have not yet started a program, ask your Admissions Counselor about what will be required once you are enrolled and what support is available for students who need to find internship placements. Your school may have an Internship Coordinator who is focused on helping you find a location or facility.
In most cases when the internship or practicum is required, there are formal steps for approving where you'll intern. Make sure everything is in place before you begin! Review all of the information available to you about the requirement and ask questions.
- Will you have to find the placement yourself or is there a placement coordinator?
- What are the requirements for total number of internship hours?
- Do you have to complete the internship within a specific time frame?
- Is there a list of approved internship locations?
- If you are already working in your field, can some of your work hours be used toward the requirement?
When an Internship is Not Required – Create Your Own
If your program does not include an experience component, I encourage you to make your own arrangements. Where can you find opportunities to apply the knowledge gained in your classes?
- Part-time Jobs – Major online job board sites, like Indeed.com, provide search options for part-time jobs and internships. Apply for positions that are directly related to your academic program.
- Internship Websites – Internships.com, InternshipPrograms.com, and Summer Internships are three sites that focus on internship listings. These allow you to search by location and topic. As with all websites, make sure you understand any commitments, ask questions, and research employers before signing up.
- Government Internships – The U.S. Federal Government provides opportunities for students and new graduates. Check out USAJOBS for more information. You can also research opportunities at the various agencies if there is one that meets your needs and interests.
- Volunteer – You may already be involved in volunteer activities in your community. Can you find a position or volunteer work assignments that relate to your field of study? Volunteer positions are unpaid but the experience itself can be very valuable. Work with local volunteer coordinators to explore your options and find a good fit.
- Current Employment – If you are already working, could you shift to or take on additional projects related to your field of study? Doing so will help you to expand your scope of experience and build on the knowledge gained in your courses.
Benefits Beyond the Classroom
While the primary goal of an internship, or similar experience, is to extend your learning beyond the classroom, there are additional benefits to be gained from your time as an intern.
- Confirming your career choice – Practical experience allows you to become more familiar with the day-to-day work in your field and at an on-site location. Is it what you expected? Is it a good fit with your goals?
- Evaluating your knowledge and abilities – Through formal and informal feedback from your internship supervisor you'll gain insight about your strengths and weaknesses on-the-job. What additional knowledge or experience opportunities should you seek out?
- Marketing to future employers – Internship experience is a resume-builder especially if you have not previously worked in your field of study. Employers are seeking experienced employees and internships can help you gain experience and compete for jobs after you graduate.
- Networking with professionals – Your time as an intern will include meeting and working with professionals in your field. This is especially important for online students who do not have the traditional campus experience and connections. The professional relationships you develop during your internship may assist you as you progress through the rest of your academic program and enter the profession after graduation. Make a good impression and keep in touch!
Internships, formal and informal, provide a rare opportunity to be in the work environment, as a student, learning from experienced professionals. As you consider your options and plan for an upcoming internship, work with your Academic Advisor and instructors to make sure that you are meeting any school requirements and planning appropriate experiences. They can guide you through the process, answer questions, and provide suggestions.