Internships and Experiential Learning

Moderator: Susi Varvayanis, Cornell University
Panelists: Abby Stayart, University of Chicago; Audra Van Wart, Virginia Tech; Tracey Baas, University of Rochester; Jen Geenier, University of California Davis
Website content complied and edited by: Carol Rouzer, Ambika Mathur, Laura Daniel, and the workshop panelists

Many institutions do not initiate experiential learning or internships due to resistance that is based on a number of myths. An informal poll of the audience, however, showed that a substantial portion of the represented institutions provide some form of experiential learning, including full time or part time internships, job shadowing, incorporation into for-credit courses, and/or career-themed workshops. Each of four myths was addressed by the panelists.


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Myth #1: Internships are not appropriate to the goals of research training

“They aren’t appropriate/relevant to research training…”
Debunker lead, Tracy Baaas

In direct refutation of this myth, internships (or some other hands-on type of experience) are being incorporated into Ph.D. programs. In many cases, the trainees become more productive because the internship helps them to clarify their goals and identify the needed skills to achieve those goals. The internship gives the trainee an opportunity to interact with a more diverse group of people – a skill that is critical to successful scientific collaboration. Furthermore, experiential learning does not necessarily convince the trainee to choose a non-academic career. Often such experiences demonstrate to the trainee that this career path is not for him/her. So, internships may actually improve the trainee’s overall research training experience and productivity.

Securing the support of the faculty mentor is key. Many trainees are reluctant to raise this topic with their advisor, assuming that he/she will not be supportive. In many cases, it is advisable to train the trainee with regard to the best way to approach their advisor. Timing is critical, as is the approach to the topic. An informal poll of the audience asked for key topics/negotiating points that should be considered. Among the most commonly suggested were the status of current manuscripts, time involved, scheduling, compensation, and the effect on dissertation progress.

A poll of the audience asked (audience responce in parentheses):

At your instiutuion why are internships and experiential learning is not more commonly embraced?

  1. Trainees are already getting lots of hands-on experience in research (~5%)
  2. Trainees don’t need the distraction/they don’t have time (~55%)
  3. They might not finish—or take longer to finish– their degree (~24%)
  4. The skills they learn aren’t relevant to the lab (<1%)
  5. Our institution embraces internships and experiential learning (~16%)

A particularly important issue is that institutions that are not located in major metropolitan areas have limited resources for setting up internship opportunities. The absence of appropriate businesses nearby means that students may have to move to participate in an internship. This would require substantial commitment of time away from campus and their research and cause them to incur added living expenses. The faculty mentor must agree to such an absence, which is true even for internships that are provided locally. It is important for this reason to specify a limited time commitment. The issue of funding also arises. The mentor should not have to pay the trainee while he/she is away. Does funding come from the entity providing the internship, or from the institution, or a combination of both?

 Some audience members stated that their institutions do not “place” trainees in internships. Rather, they provide resources to enable trainees to identify and solicit their own internship opportunities. Such opportunities may now be included as part of an NIH T32 training grant program.

Myth #2: Postdoctoral fellows and non-citizens cannot do internships

“Postdocs and non-citizens can’t do internships.”
Debunker lead, Abby Stayart

A poll of the audience addressed common misconceptions on this topice.

Which of the following statements are FALSE

  1. NIH prohibits postdocs from pursuing professional training away from the bench.
  2. Some F-1 and J-1 visas permit part-time employment.
  3. Optional Practical Training (OPT) and Curricular Practical Training (CPT) are mechanisms through which an F-1 visa holder could be paid by a source external to the university.
  4. It is legal (by federal regulation) for postdocs who are US citizens to receive payment from sources outside the university.
  5. Rules around sources of payment are different for postdoctoral scholars vs fellows.

Only statement #1 is FALSE. Did you get the answer correct? If you did not, you were not alone. It was clear from the poll of the audience members that there was considerable confusion regarding issues surrounding the ability of postdocs and non-citizens to engage in work outside of their research and/or receive payment for that work. NIH does allow postdocs to pursue professional development activities outside of the laboratory under at least some circumstances.

In many cases, issues regarding funding or visa regulations can be circumvented to allow trainees to engage in an internship opportunity. However, it is critical to know the rules, including those of the granting agency, the federal immigration service, and one’s own institution.

Possible ways to circumvent red tape include:

  1. Secure the approval of the faculty mentor. He/she should understand that professional development is part of training.
  2. Find out the rules at your own institution. Go to the Dean of postdoctoral affairs, Human Resources, the Office of International Affairs, and Academic Affairs to discuss regulations related to postdoctoral affairs, employment and compensation, visas, and postdoctoral appointments, respectively.
  3. Consider part-time and unpaid positions. Regulatory restrictions usually do not apply to volunteer work.
  4. Think outside of the traditional format of a three-month full-time experience that completely takes the trainee away from the bench. Alternatives include job shadowing or bringing in professionals to provide workshops or case studies.
  5. Making the internship part of a credit-bearing course, using  CPT to enable trainees on an F-1 visa to participate, adjusting effort paid through the laboratory if the internship is paid.

Audience discussion led to additional points. It is true that NIH now allows postdocs to participate in career development; however, this is restricted to those programs that directly fund the work of the trainee, such as NRSA and T32 mechanisms. In these cases, trainees may participate in as much as 10 hours per week in such activities, but this must occur in addition to a full-time 40 hour/week effort in the laboratory. It is important to note, however, that this NIH policy does not affect activities of postdocs funded through R01 grants. In those cases, it is up to the institution or the PI to establish the rules, so the rules will vary from one institution to another. Note also that some institutions do not approve of trainees’ engaging in an additional 10 hours of work in addition to the 40 hours of research. It is clear that institutional leadership is required here. Ideally, one should convince the faculty mentor to allow the trainee to participate in professional development activities without having to make up the time in the lab. In this case, however, compensation issues may arise. Should the faculty member be paying for a 40 hour week if the trainee is only working 30 hours/week? These issues contribute to the sense many trainees have that their mentor will not approve or support their taking an internship. Often, trainees find that they are wrong about this – that their mentor will, indeed, be supportive. However, timing may also be critical. It is not good for a trainee to leave the lab or decrease work effort at a critical time in a project.

It was pointed out that use of CPT and OPT to enable internships for non-citizens might be risky. It is dependent on how the visa is worded. In the case of graduate students, it is generally fine for them to work outside the lab as long as they are not paid. However, postdocs, who are usually on H-1 visas, generally are not allowed to work at all outside of their laboratory whether or not they are paid. Also, one must consider the current political climate with regard to governmental attitudes concerning immigration rule enforcement. The tendency to strict enforcement could make these approaches more risky. It is advisable to get written authorization from the State Department before initiating any activity that might be interpreted as outside employment. The creating of immersive experiences on campus might replace internships for trainees who cannot participate in them.

Despite these concerns, the experience of institutions that have provided internship opportunities is that they greatly increase the trainee’s success when seeking employment. The trainee is more likely to stand out in contrast to other applicants, both in terms of having had the experience, but also in terms of demonstrating an ability to multi-task by managing both research and internship requirements.

With regard to industry internships, past experience suggests that attempts to set up a part-time experience often end in the trainee’s trying to do a full-time job, part-time. In addition, often time a 2- or 3-month period is not long enough to make the experience valuable; six months would be much better. Of course, this requires that the trainee leave the lab for an extended period of time but sometimes both the lab and trainee can benefit. For example, collaboration between the academic and industrial lab can be initiated, leading to joint publications or shared patents. In other words, all parties could think more robustly about what they are trying to accomplish; this may require institutional culture change. It is good, in fact, to have the perspective of industry.

Some institutions avoid these problems by only providing externships and workshops. In one model, groups of trainees get together and set up such an experience themselves. This can be a highly empowering experience for the trainees in itself. In these cases, however, funding must come from the institution.

A question arose regarding the legality of unpaid internships. Technically, this is only legal if the trainee is working for a nonprofit organization or the government, and in this case, there must be an official memorandum of agreement. It is true that if an intern provides added value to a for-profit organization, the law requires that he/she be paid; however, if the work is performed for academic credit or for training purposes it can be unpaid. The past experience of most institutions is that for-profit concerns routinely pay interns for their work, so generally, this is only an issue for nonprofits. Note that, if the trainee is away from the lab for an extended period of time, the mentor must be compensated for the lost time in the lab. Notably, it was not allowed to use BEST funding to pay trainees during internships, so if the trainee is working for no pay, compensatory money has to come from the university.

Myth #3: There is inadequate support time to provide experiential learning. Coordination is beyond current bandwidth and budget

”Coordination is beyond our bandwidth and budget…”
Debunker lead, Audra Van Wart

A poll of the audience asked for a single word that most clearly describes resources that are hardest to get to support experiential learning. Answers included staff, availability, geography, money, time, contacts, and partners.

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In a second poll, audience members were asked:

Which strategies had been most effective in surmounting these obstacles.

  1. Respondents selected collaborating with internal offices of career services/postdoctoral studies, graduate school (32%)
  2. Regional trade organizations or other external groups (5%)
  3. Providing low- to no-cost events (32%)
  4. Empowering trainees to seek their own opportunities (27%)
  5. Employing the assistance of graduate students (3%)

Possible ways to work around limited resources are many. UC Davis provides a 10 week career exploration workshop that provides tools to the trainees to pursue their own experiential learning opportunities. Others provide advice, structure, and/or facilitation to trainees who seek out their own opportunities. This might include, among other things, lists of potential contacts. Collaborations with external and/or internal entities may be helpful. These include the Alumni Office, Career Services Office, and regional organizations and business partnerships. Other options include providing mini-internship workshops that utilize visiting speakers, opportunities to shadow a person engaged in a career of interest (72-80 h/semester), remote internships in which a trainee meets with a remote host but then executes the project at the home institution, or embedding the trainee in relevant offices in the institution, including such options as licensing, biosafety, communications, business incubators, tech transfer, etc.

Important considerations include the fact that investments in setting up partnerships may pay off in the long run. Maintaining relationships with local companies and business organizations may lead to opportunities other than providing trainee internships. Site visits, guest speakers, potential collaborations, and a job pipeline are all possible. It should also be noted that it costs less to maintain these relationships once they are established than it costs to set them up initially.

When trainees are empowered to set up their own activities, they become more engaged, and when the activities involve other trainees, they learn collaboration skills and are encouraged to give back to the community. It should be noted, however, that even if a student sets up his/her own internship, institutional supervision is required, and this is true for all internships. The outlines of the intended activities must be clearly defined. Mentoring of the trainee must occur. Issues regarding hours, pay, length of time, etc. must be established. Ownership of intellectual property that might result must be negotiated. Contact must be maintained during the internship to guarantee that goals are being met and learning is occurring. In one model, the trainee must have an interview with the Dean to discuss a planned internship, laying out how it is expected to benefit the trainee’s research and professional development. A team of people then supervises the trainee’s progress so that the responsibility is not left solely with the mentor. It is also often valuable to have trainees that have engaged in experiential activities share their experiences with each other. In one case, all trainees were given each other’s e-mail addresses so they could communicate with one another during their respective internships.

It is often best to formalize expectations and requirements for all internships. Many Consortium members have established a template for recording what the trainee expects to get out of the experience, to keep track of progress during the experience, and to document what they accomplished when the experience is over (UC Davis supplied an example document).  It is often valuable to engage the research mentor so that he/she can work with the trainee to determine how skills acquired during the experience can be brought back into the laboratory. It is often valuable, if possible, to select hosts who will bring in a group of interns together so that they can share their experiences. This is often particularly valuable for underrepresented minority students.


Myth #4: Full time internships are the only way to experience another career.

A poll of the audience asked:

What is the biggest challenge in providing internships or similar experiences to trainees? Options and the approximate percent of the audience giving this response were:

  1. It takes too much time away from research. (35%)
  2. Mentors are not supportive. (28%)
  3. There are few places where trainees can go. (30%)
  4. Trainees cannot afford to work without pay. (3%)
  5. We do not find it difficult. (5%)

Despite the general feeling noted above that industry internships are best if full time, there are many experiences that can be carried out on a part time basis. Examples include experiences related to editing, education, and science policy. In many cases, opportunities like these can be engaged in part-time and/or remotely, and they may be available on campus. In fact, most universities have many potential internship opportunities for trainees in entities such as core labs, technology transfer, publications, clinical trials, development, and the computer center. In many cases, emphasis can be placed on short-term projects, such as writing or editing an article. Similarly, projects with small companies or job simulations can offer part-time options. In addition, activities such as standard or immersive company site visits and courses or workshops that provide hands-on skills-based activities may substitute for full internships.

In follow-up discussion, the issue of the effects of internships on time-to-degree was raised. Various institutions are now beginning to acquire data on this issue and the data show variation from a slightly shorter to a slightly longer time-to-degree. There is some indication that internships lead to fewer postdocs or shorter times as a postdoc. Some early data indicate that internships do not significantly affect the productivity of postdocs. However, some questioned whether this is even the right thing to measure. If it takes a little longer to reach degree completion, but the trainee is well-prepared for his/her desired career and obtains employment, is that a bad thing? Note that administrators are often more concerned about the time-to-degree issue than the trainee. Most often, the trainee’s primary concern is to acquire the best training, not how long it will take.

One suggestion that was offered is that the internship should occur after graduation. In this case, concerns about time away from the laboratory are eliminated, as are concerns regarding how to balance pay and hours worked.

At institutions that offer internships, the percentage of trainees who take part is generally low – around 10%. Perhaps the major contributor to this is the sense that the mentor will not approve, or it may be that the trainee him/herself does not want to interrupt progress in the lab. Note, however, that the goal here is not 100% participation but rather to provide this experience to those who will most benefit.

Additional Resources

Internships And Experiential Learning MSU Myth vs Reality Handout

UCSF: How Should International Trainees Respond to Visa Inquiries

UC Davis Intership Form