If you really want to get the most out of your graduate school experience, an internship can augment your classroom learning by reinforcing the concepts you study while applying them in the workplace. During your internship, you’ll also have opportunities to network with professionals in your field and get connected with potential employers. This alone can be incredibly valuable when looking for jobs post-graduation.
But how do you find an internship? What kinds of internship should you look for and how much will you make? In this guide we’ve assembled a panel of experts from different professional backgrounds who share their experiences during their master’s-level internships and answer all of these questions and more.
You may only think about internships in terms of undergraduates, but many graduate students also participate in internships. There are over 52,100 graduate student interns currently employed in the U.S. according to Zippia, with 74.2% being women and 25.8% being men. The average age of students participating in graduate school internships is 44.
Just as you would with an undergraduate internship, it’s important to understand the types of internships you can participate in as a graduate student to help decide what kind of experience is right for you. Below you’ll learn more about the kinds of internships that are available to graduate students and the benefits of participating in one.
What types of internships exist?
- Paid vs Unpaid: Whether compensation is offered for an internship can be a deciding factor for graduate students, especially since they tend to be older and have family responsibilities. Paid internships may pay an hourly wage or provide a stipend given as a lump sum for a semester. Unpaid internships offer credit instead of payments. In some states, there may be a limitation on how interns can be used if they’re not paid, so be sure to check the laws and company expectations of interns in your area before accepting an unpaid position.
- Semester-long, Year-long, or Summer: When deciding when to do your internship, the time of year you choose should be based on your schedule. Although you can complete an internship in a semester or an entire academic year, a summer internship may be the most attractive option since you may not be taking classes during that time. If you are, your courseload may be much lighter.
- College Credit or Not: Schools must approve internships that offer credits to ensure they’re highly relevant to student learning and augment what’s covered in the master’s program. In some cases, students may choose to participate in an internship as an extracurricular activity. When they do, they don’t earn college credit.
- Externships and Practicums: Externships, which are also known as job shadowing, are a shorter version of internships that also allow students to get hands-on training in their fields. The externships can last anywhere from one day to a few weeks, and the opportunities result from partnerships that colleges and universities form with businesses. Practicums also allow students to gain useful experience. Unlike internships and externships, practicums are graduate-level courses that focus on a specific program topic. During a practicum, students mostly observe instructors rather than perform actual work.
What are the benefits of an internship?
- Develop Valuable Skills: The skills you gain during an internship can help you throughout your career. In addition to learning skills that may be specific to your field, you also get the opportunity to develop and sharpen general abilities, such as written and verbal communication skills, that can be applied to any profession.
- Grow Your Professional Contacts: When you complete an internship, you can connect with seasoned professionals who you may stay in contact with for years to come. In addition to meeting people who may hire you, you can network with colleagues to share ideas with for the rest of your career. This goes a long way toward continuing to learn and grow after you’ve completed your master’s degree.
- Gain Real-world Experience in Your Field: Classroom learning is an integral part of a master’s degree program but being able to put the concepts you learn into practice in a real-world workplace setting makes your educational experience even more valuable. During an internship, you get to experience the realities of your profession that you wouldn’t be able to see through coursework alone.
- See if Your Chosen Field is Right for You: Students may have an idea of what a profession is like, but until they see it up close and personal, they may not know exactly what they’re getting into. By completing an internship, you get to experience the reality of your chosen field, which you may not be able to do during classroom studies.
- Discover Job Opportunities: Often, organizations use their internship program as a recruitment strategy and a test run for future employees. Participating in an internship may be the perfect way to land a job after you’ve completed your degree because the company is already familiar with you and what you’re capable of.
Introducing the Experts
Julianna Coughlin, M.S., R.D., LDN, majored in nutrition and dietetics at Framingham State University. She graduated in the spring of 2015 with her Bachelor of Science and passed the Registered Dietitian exam in July 2015. She earned a Master of Science in dietetics at the University of Nebraska Lincoln in May 2020. She has also worked as a dietitian in long-term care for five years and strives to provide the best nutrition care to all her residents.
Samantha Kaiser graduated from American University with a Master of Arts in International Communication. She is passionate about intercultural connectedness and celebrating our differences. She has worked in higher education by encouraging students to learn, live, and work overseas. She is a self-published author of the book “Become a Better You Abroad” and operates The Lifestyle Travelers Outdoor Travel Blog. Samantha currently works in conservation and hopes to eventually use what she has learned from her studies to address the climate crisis on the global stage.
Jennifer Vincent, LMHC, CSAYC, is the owner of The Brave Life Therapy in Indianapolis, IN. She is a licensed mental health counselor and clinical supervisor. She provides mental health therapy to individuals and families struggling with mood disorders, trauma, gender identity, family and generational abuse, and cult recovery. She completed a master’s in mental health counseling online at Capella University.
How to Find Your Perfect Internship
The best way to learn about graduate internships is to hear the experiences of people who have gone through them. To give you a glimpse of what graduate internships are like and how you can find the best one for you and succeed in it, we spoke to three professionals who shared their insights.
Where can students find internships?
Coughlin: I was able to find my internship through my college program. They had a lot of agreements with healthcare facilities, schools, and public health facilities where they sent students every year. I was able to do my internship at a local hospital and also at a community nutrition location in my state. I think definitely knowing what industry you want to go into is helpful when finding the perfect internship and also being able to meet with the people you’ll be working with ahead of time is really helpful.
Kaiser: During my graduate degree, I interned at Inter-American Foundation. IAF is a government developmental aid agency located in Washington, D.C., but since I was interning during the peak of the pandemic, I worked remotely. I found this particular internship by applying through Handshake, a job and internship board for students. Handshake is a great way for students to find internships because they can filter their search by location, job type, start date, interests, and so much more.
I also utilized resources that my university offered to find an internship, including weekly job board newsletters and a list of potential employers on my university’s website. LinkedIn is another great way to research internship opportunities. Usually, universities have an alumni group you can join, and by scrolling through the members you’re able to see where previous students have landed jobs. This is a great opportunity to create professional networks and ask for guidance about applying to a company you’re interested in.
Vincent: I completed my internship at Reach for Youth in Indianapolis, IN. It’s a nonprofit organization that helps adolescents on probation for first-time offenses get mental health support to get off probation. I found this internship site by networking with local nonprofits and finding out which agencies were hiring interns. You can also often find internship placements through your college. Many colleges have a list of internship placements that previous students have had. You can also ask previous students where they found placements.
Landing Your Ideal Internship
Even though an internship may not be a full-time paid position, that doesn’t mean you’ll be able to easily land one. Just as you work to impress an organization when looking for a regular job, you need to take the same serious approach when vying for an internship. Our experts provide pointers to help you put your best foot forward during the intern recruitment process.
What are your best tips for landing an internship?
Coughlin: I would say to go visit places you might be interested in and talk to the people who work there to gauge if you’d actually like working there for your internship or not.
Kaiser: Don’t be afraid to ask for help. I reached out to my university’s career office, and they reviewed and edited my cover letters and resume. Another thing that was helpful for me was to create a spreadsheet of every place I was interested in interning. It’s an easy and effective way to keep track of things like application deadlines, required documents to submit, who to email, and job duties. It’s also a great way to narrow down what type of work you’re hoping to do.
I would also suggest applying to multiple internships so that you have options to choose from when the time comes. After you apply, check your spam folder. Unfortunately, I missed an opportunity to interview for an internship I was hoping to land simply because their email wound up in my spam folder. I was still offered an internship at IAF, but that was only due to my willingness to apply to multiple places. As my career advisor said, “Don’t put all of your eggs in one basket.” It’s better to have three different internship offers than none at all.
Vincent: The best way I found to get the placement that you want is to network with others in your community in similar fields to which you are studying. There are often local organizations that host networking events like meet and greets. That is a really great place to start making connections in your field. It’s never too early.
An internship may not be a permanent position, but you still want to perform at your best even if you’re not interested in working for the organization later. We asked our experts how they were able to get the most out of their internships and to provide advice to help you do the same.
How can students get the most out of their internship?
Coughlin: I was able to get the most out of my internship by taking it seriously like it was a real job and also by engaging with everyone and just showing genuine interest in the role I was playing. Enthusiasm can go a long way.
Kaiser: I got the most out of my internship by always being willing to learn. The development field was completely new to me, so it was easy for me to begin each day with an open mind. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Most often than not, people are more than happy to answer them. I also believe that I got the most out of my internship by creating strong professional bonds with my superiors. It is a great way to fast-track your success because having a good relationship with your boss enhances the work environment, and, as a bonus, you get great references later on in your career path.
Vincent: Internships can often be very busy and stressful, so it’s important to create a self-care routine to eliminate as much additional stress as you can before starting your internship. The way I was able to get the most out of my internship was by creating really structured morning and evening routines several months before I was planning to start an internship. Some of this was getting as much sleep as possible, not delaying my school or internship work, creating a quiet workspace in my home, and preparing meals on my off days. I was able to always show up on time to my internship well-rested and have prepared meals that allowed me to be fully present to learn from my internship.
The Experts Share Their Experiences
What is it really like to participate in a graduate school internship? Our panel of experts shares their experiences and the most important things they learned.
What were your key takeaways from your internship experience?
Coughlin: My experience was that I was literally doing the job that I could have if I was in that healthcare setting. I will say I feel like the people I was interning under were extremely harsh on me, and it definitely left a kind of sour taste in my mouth. The biggest lesson to take away from it is to just be open to learning.
Kaiser: I had a great experience during my graduate internship because I got insight into a new field, networked with organizations in Latin America, and got to practice my Spanish in a professional setting. It was a blessing to have done this internship because it helped me clarify which direction I wanted to take in my career. I learned valuable skills on how to build professional networks and respectfully work in intercultural settings, but in the end I knew that the development field wasn’t for me. The biggest lesson that I took from my internship was that it’s always a great idea to try new things and explore different interests that you have. You’ll learn more about yourself along the way, and, in return, you’ll come closer to what you want for your life and where you hope to see yourself in the future.
Vincent: My internship was wonderful, although working in social work has its challenges. I truly learned so much from this experience. It allowed me to work in a variety of different settings — school setting, shadowing, support groups, teaching workshops, and one-on-one counseling — to enhance my skills and learn from others who had been in the field for several decades. It helped me prepare for my career by giving me lots of expression with less pressure than a job would have. By shadowing colleagues, I got to learn directly from them, which you rarely get once you get a job. My biggest lessons are how important networking and relationships are during internships. Ten years after my internship, I still have close relationships with my previous colleagues and clients from this internship who have continuously referred clients to my new practice. Networking during that time has single-handedly helped me start my own business. This is invaluable.
Also, I do feel like my experience was different because I was an online student. I chose online learning because I was moving around at the time, so while in school I was also trying to navigate a new location prior to starting my internship. Online students can make the process easier by doing a little planning ahead. Talk to advisors in your school months before trying to secure an internship to learn about possible opportunities, see if you can connect with alumni students, and start interviewing ahead of time. Unlike traditional schools, online schools have students all over the world, so they often don’t plan students into internships as easily. Planning ahead is the best advice.
The Master’s Internship: 8 Questions to Ask Yourself
Q. What do you hope to gain from an internship?
Do you want to do an internship at a specific organization in the hopes you’ll land a job there later? Are you hoping to work with a well-known professional in your field? Do you want to learn specific skills that you know you’ll obtain during an internship? Every student wants something different out of the master’s internship experience, so ask yourself what you hope to gain from an internship and whether you’ll be able to get it.
Q. What kind of experience do I need?
In some cases, organizations offering internships expect you to have specific work or academic experience. Their expectations may align with what you’ve already accomplished, or you may have to do some upskilling to meet their minimum requirements.
Q. Do I need to make an income from my internship?
When an internship is unpaid, many students aren’t able to participate because they need a steady income to support themselves and their families. Since students in master’s degree programs tend to be older, whether or not they’re able to make ends meet may ultimately be the deciding factor for pursuing an internship. If making money is a concern, keep in mind that many organizations do offer paid internships, so you may not necessarily have to miss out on the experience.
Q. Does the internship fit my degree and goals?
Doing an internship just for its own sake is not a good use of your time, so make sure that the opportunities you’re considering are directly related to your career goals and what you’re studying in your master’s degree program. Find out what kind of work will be expected of you during a potential internship because the last thing you want to do is invest a semester or year into one that doesn’t provide the valuable experience you’re looking for.
Q. Does the time commitment work with my school schedule?
Are you interested in a full-time internship? Are you taking a heavy courseload and wondering if a part-time internship would work better? Do you want to dedicate most of your time during a certain semester, such as a summer session, to engage in experiential learning? Do you prefer to do your internship for a full year or just a semester? Ask yourself how much time is expected of you from the internships you’re considering, and weigh it against your school schedule to see if it’s a good fit.
Q. Will I earn college credit?
Remember that not all internships provide credit, but the experience you gain may make up for that. If you want to earn credit for an internship, be sure it’s approved by your school or department to ensure it will count toward your degree credits.
Q. Is the internship local or will I have to travel?
If you need to travel far for an internship, it may not be worth it, particularly if you’re not being paid. If you’re attending an online college or university, you’re enjoying the flexibility that comes with not having to go to campus every day, so you may not be interested in traveling for an internship. Think about geographic location as you make a list of internships you’re interested in because you’ll need to decide if the time and expense of a commute outweigh what you’ll gain from the experience.
Q. What are the potential benefits of working for this specific company?
If you have your eye on specific companies you want to work for after you finish your degree, an internship is a great way to become more familiar with them. An internship will allow you to meet people at a company and impress them so they’re more likely to hire you later.