Internships and Experiential Learning

myth busters

Susi Varvayanis, Cornell University

Abby Stayart, University of Chicago
Audra Van Wart, Virginia Tech
Tracey Baas, University of Rochester
Geenier, University of California Davis

Website content compiled and edited by Laura Daniel, Carol Rouzer, Ambika Mathur, Roger Chalkley, and the workshop panelists

Experiential learning is a way to provide trainees with hands-on exposure to careers in the workforce. These activities provide learners with a conceptual understanding of real-world problems, situations, and experiences. They are immersive experiences that often involve exposure to job sites or career professionals who are familiar with the job responsibilities. Activities include internships, externships, and job simulations. In the case of the BEST institutions, these career exposures are usually outside of the traditional tenure-track faculty positions. Successful experiential learning formats and time commitments are widely variable ranging from full-time effort for months, part-time effort for a semester, or just a few days. The duration of the experiential learning will often depend on the goal of the learning opportunity and whether the trainee is compensated for their time.

Many institutions do not initiate experiential learning or internships due to concerns based on the following myths:

  1. Internships are not relevant to the goals of research training
  2. Full-time internships are the only way to gather useful information about career options
  3. There is inadequate institutional support to provide experiential learning and it can be prohibitively expensive
  4. Postdoctoral Fellows and non-citizens cannot do internships
1. Internships are not relevant to the goals of research training
Word cloud representing the audience participants.

Word cloud representing the audience participants.

To address this fundamental point, we first surveyed the participants (see figure). Audience responses, with the percent respondents for each response in parenthesis, are listed below:

At your institution, why are internships and experiential learning not more commonly embraced?

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

A significant portion of training graduate students and postdocs is time devoted to their disciplinary research training in the lab. Progress in their project is critical for graduation and career advancement. A major concern for workshop attendees was that offering internships would interfere with productivity (overall 79%). At the start of BEST funding, some members of the consortium shared these concerns; however, given trainee interest, most of the BEST programs incorporated aspects of experiential learning into their programs. We are beginning to find that in some cases, the trainees become more productive because the internship helps them better understand the career goals towards which they are working, identify the needed skills to achieve those goals, and help clarify whether or not the specific career is for them. For example, the experience may demonstrate to the trainee that a career in industry research is not of interest and convince the trainee to instead pursue a career in a different sector even coming full circle back to academic tenure-track positions.

BEST institutions are now beginning to acquire data on how internships affect time-to-degree. So far the data show very modest variations from the mean, but it is still too early to make a definitive statement. One possible way to avoid even a small increase in time to degree is to arrange for the internship after graduation or between defense and degree conferral, although this can be an issue as it might interfere with writing or career plans and may not be an option for a postdoc.

Preliminary data suggest that internships lead to fewer postdocs or shorter times as a postdoc, and do not significantly affect productivity. However, some audience members questioned what the right metric should be for a cost/benefit analysis. If it increases the trainee’s time in their current position but better prepares them for their desired career, then the internship should be considered a success. Institutional administrators are often more concerned about time-to-degree than the trainee. Most often, the trainee’s primary concern is to acquire the best training and not necessarily how long it will take.

A separate concern relates to how relevant and valuable internships are for the trainee. We have found that internships allow the trainee to interact with a more diverse group of people, which enhances his or her ability to network. This is critical to successful scientific collaboration and can improve the trainee’s overall research training experience.

Even if graduate schools and postdoctoral offices agree that internships are valuable, it is equally important to gain support from the individual mentors. Some faculty surveys, such as Vanderbilt’s, show that the majority of faculty is supportive of activities such as internships; however, we still recommend advising the trainee on the best way to approach their advisor. The trainee should be mindful of their progress prior to approaching their mentor. Things to consider are grant deadlines, the status of current manuscripts, and whether they have finished their qualifying exams or dissertation.

2. Full-time internships are the only way to gather useful information about career options

A poll of the audience asked:

What do you think is the most significant challenge in providing internships or similar experiences to trainees?

  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%)

The myth that internships can only be full-time was reinforced by the results of this audience poll.

It is not unreasonable to think that doing a full-time internship would take too much time away from the lab (35%) and therefore the mentor would not be supportive (28%) but remember, faculty surveys indicate that very few actually object to trainees participating in an internship. This is a common misperception stemming often from a lack of communication between the trainee and their faculty mentor, each of them hesitant to bring up the subject.

Location (30%) can be another concern for certain institutions in setting up full-time internships. Institutions that are not located in a major metropolitan area may have problems offering full-time local internships. The absence of appropriate businesses in close proximity could require trainees to travel a long distance to participate in an internship, which is likely to require a more substantial commitment of time away from their research and cause them to incur added living expenses. In some cases the faculty mentor will agree to such an absence if funding can be provided; however, for other trainees, lab or family responsibilities could prevent this. Fortunately, there are a number of ways to offer part-time experiential learning opportunities to the trainee, many of which are not dependent upon location.

Several of the BEST institutions have found ways to offer internships to their trainees, regardless of location. The University of California, Davis (UC Davis) has secured an editing internship, which is a remote option, for their trainees. Others have established successful institutional opportunities. For example, the University of Chicago provides internships within the Medical Center News & Communications Office, Microscopy Core, Clinical Trials Office, Center for Data-intensive Science, Research Computing Center, Grants Administration Office, and more.

In many cases, short-term projects can be emphasized, such as writing or editing an article for a campus newsletter or an online blog. The BEST consortium offers a blogging opportunity to four trainees per semester. The University of California, Irvine (UC Irvine) partners with their Entrepreneur Center to pair graduate students with small companies for short-term projects.

Other, non-internship, experiential learning opportunities that can be beneficial to the trainee are company site visits and job immersion. These are full-day visits to local businesses. In addition, some BEST institutions provide hands-on training using courses or workshops, which include: science communication workshops with Powerhouse Science Museum (UC Davis), science communication course with Practical Assignments for Radio Broadcasting (UC Irvine), and PEP Program – postdocs in part-time adjunct teaching positions at community colleges or state universities (University of California, San Francisco).

Some audience members said that attempts to set up a part-time experience in industry often leads to the trainee trying to do a full-time job on a part-time commitment. In addition, a 2- or 3-month period is not long enough to make the experience sufficiently valuable, where six months would be much better. Of course, this requires that the trainee leave the lab for an extended period. However, in certain circumstances, this could benefit both the lab and trainee. For example, collaboration between academic and industrial labs can be initiated, leading to joint publications, shared patents, or both. In other words, all parties could think more robustly about what they are trying to accomplish, recognizing that this may also require an institutional culture change.

3. There is inadequate institutional support to provide experiential learning and it can be prohibitively expensive

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A poll of the audience asked for a single word that best describes resources that are hardest to get to support experiential learning. The most reported word was “staff.” To add precision, you could say “qualified staff”; the support required to establish experiential activities requires a high degree of skill.

From the audience poll, it was clear that a large issue surrounding the inability to offer internships to trainees is lack of support. Whether that be staffing, monetary support, or time, all of which are interconnected.

In a second poll, audience members then were asked:

Which strategies have been most effective in surmounting these obstacles?

  1. Collaborating with internal offices of career services/postdoctoral studies, graduate school (32%)
  2. Partnering with 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%)

Collectively, we have found many ways to reduce the burden on staff, from encouraging the career office to include experiential learning opportunities for their trainees, to empowering trainees to seek out and arrange creative opportunities independently.

Trainee support

Locating internships places a substantial burden on staff and can be a large hurdle to programs that wish to offer these opportunities to their trainees. As a consequence, some institutions do not place trainees in internships. Instead, they provide resources to enable trainees to identify and solicit their own internships. UC Davis offers a 10-week career exploration workshop that provides tools to the trainees to pursue their own experiential learning opportunities.

In one of Cornell’s models, groups of trainees get together and set up an experience themselves, which can be a profoundly empowering experience for the trainees. When trainees 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.

Collaborating with external/internal units

Initially, setting up internships does require a large investment of time, but maintaining these relationships is much less time intensive. Furthermore, there are other benefits, besides the internship itself, which evolve from establishing and maintaining relationships. Virginia Tech found that industry partnerships have led to site visits, guest speakers, and a job pipeline. Therefore, the time investment in setting up the internships can be viewed as helping the program as a whole.

Some institutions avoid the problem of setting up internships by only providing externships and workshops, which also requires establishing relationships with outside entities. For example, Virginia Tech has a mini-internship workshop that uses visiting speakers, and Rutgers provides job-shadowing experiences (72-80 hours over one semester).

Another way to make use of external partnerships includes providing trainees the opportunity to shadow a person engaged in a career of interest.

When looking for collaborations do not limit yourself to external support. Internal support can also be valuable. Partnerships within your institution can lead to internships in offices relevant to trainee goals. Cornell encourages on-site experiential learning and has embedded trainees in various offices including licensing, biosafety university communications, and the life sciences startup incubator.

4. Postdoctoral Fellows and non-citizens cannot do internships

The following poll addressed some common audience misconceptions on this broad topic.

Which of the following statements are FALSE?

  1. NIH prohibits postdocs from pursuing professional training away from the bench.
  2. It is legal (by federal regulation) for postdocs who are US citizens to receive payment from sources outside the university.
  3. Rules around sources of payment are different for postdoctoral scholars vs. fellows.
  4. Some F-1 and J-1 visas permit part-time employment.
  5. 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.

Only statement #1 is FALSE. Did you get the answer correct? If not, you are not alone. It was clear from the poll of the audience that there was considerable confusion surrounding the ability of postdocs and non-citizens to engage in work outside of their research and to receive payment for that work. In many cases, increased understanding of the rules regarding internship eligibility and visa regulations can encourage particular trainees to legally engage in an internship. You must know the rules of not only your institution but also those of the granting agency and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Internships for postdocs

NIH now allows postdocs to participate in internships; however, this is restricted to those grants that directly fund the trainee, such as T32 training grants and individual fellowships. In fact, as of July 2017 (Se NOT-OD-17-095) postdoctoral fellows and trainees are permitted to spend 10 hours/week in endeavors outside of their full-time (40 hours/week) training responsibilities. It is important to note that this NIH policy does not extend to postdocs funded through non-training grants such as R01 research grants. In those instances, it is up to the institution and the PI to establish the rules and may very likely require a reassignment of effort reporting. Knowing the rules of your school is vital; some institutions do not approve of trainees engaging in an additional 10 hours of work on top of the 40 hours of research. Additionally, trainee or mentor compensation issues may arise. This is an issue that each institution must address, and perhaps even addressed on a case-by-case basis. But it should be underscored that (clarified since October 2014, see NOT-OD-15-008) staff in research appointments as postdocs are expected to be actively engaged in their training and career development.

Internships for non-U.S. citizens

In order to use CPT (curricular practical training) and OPT (optional practical training) to enable internships for non-citizens, the situational details must be vetted carefully. Trainee eligibility will depend on the wording of their visa. There were no experts on the panel or in the audience to address the legalities. Regarding trainee eligibility, you can refer to your institutional Office of International Affairs. In the case of non-citizen graduate students (F-1 visa), unpaid internships are usually permitted. In this case, the use of CPT and OPT would be appropriate. However, postdocs, who are often on H-1 visas, are traditionally not allowed to work outside of their laboratory regardless of pay. When venturing into uncertain territory, it is wise to consider the current political climate; governmental attitudes concerning immigration rule enforcement could make certain approaches riskier. To ensure the greatest protection for your institution and your trainee it is advisable to get written authorization from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security before initiating any activity that might be interpreted as outside employment. In cases where offering internships are not allowed, brief immersive experiences are a good alternative for trainees.

Paid vs. unpaid internships

Technically, unpaid internships are 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. If an intern provides added value to a for-profit organization, the law (Federal Labor Standards Act) requires that the company compensate the individual. An alternative to monetary compensation would be to provide the intern with academic credit for work performed. See the “primary beneficiary” test for unpaid internships.

The experience of most of the BEST institutions has been that for-profit concerns routinely pay interns for their work, so trainee compensation is typically only an issue for nonprofits. Note that, if the trainee is away from the lab for an extended period, the mentor may also request compensation to make up for the trainee’s absence, possibly by hiring another individual to do the trainee’s portion of the work. BEST grant dollars cannot be used to pay trainees during an internship; therefore, if the trainee is working without being compensated by the internship partner, other funds need to be identified for this compensation.

Setting up an Internships and experiential learning opportunities

It is best to formalize expectations and requirements for all internships and experiential learning opportunities; the proposed activities must clearly reflect the training goals. Issues regarding work hours, pay, length of time, etc. must be established before beginning an internship. Ownership of intellectual property that might result from the work done during the internship by the trainee must be negotiated. Contact with the trainee must be maintained throughout the duration to guarantee that goals are being met. Many Consortium members have established a template for recording what the trainee expects to gain from 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). Even if students set up their own internship, institutional supervision will still be required.

In one model, the trainee must have an interview with the Dean to discuss a planned internship, laying out how it will benefit the trainee’s research and professional development. A team oversees and supervises the trainee’s progress so that the responsibility is not left solely with the mentor. Mentoring of the trainee must be ongoing throughout; therefore, it is often valuable to engage the research mentor so that he or she can work with the trainee to determine how skills acquired during the experience can be brought back into the laboratory.

It is also valuable to have trainees that have engaged in experiential activities share their experiences with each other. In one case, all trainees were given each others’ e-mail addresses so they could communicate with one another during their respective internships. Selecting hosts who bring in groups of interns can streamline training and more easily facilitate sharing of experiences among the interns.

Despite these concerns, some BEST institutions report that providing internship opportunities seems to increase the success of the trainee when seeking employment. The trainee is more likely to stand out in comparison with other applicants, having had additional experience and by demonstrating the ability to multi-task through managing research and internship requirements.

Note, at BEST institutions that offer internships, the percentage of trainees who take part is 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 does not want to interrupt progress in the lab. But the goal here is not 100% participation; it is to provide an experience to those few at the right time during their who are most interested in exploring this option.


Starting as early as the BEST program’s inaugural annual meeting there has been a keen interest in experiential learning. However, it was clear that there was a great deal of uncertainty as to precisely what was involved in this process, what would be the level of interest among the students, and how we would set up an internship at our home institutions. All the BEST programs have invested a great deal of effort in developing different strategies and assaying which may be the best routes to build skills and expertise in this area.

In summary, we find that relatively few trainees avail themselves of such an opportunity (~10%). Trainees taking advantage of the internship and experiential learning opportunities perceive the benefits to be substantial and appreciate that these experiences serve a useful purpose in helping them develop career paths. While establishing experiential training can be time intensive for staff, the benefits are worth the effort, especially since it appears that faculty are not as resistant to this opportunity as was originally thought. Thinking broadly about the variety of time commitments, locations, and mentors in the process have been instrumental in gaining faculty acceptance. Clearly, there are significant benefits to establishing internships and experiential learning opportunities and the relationships that foster them.

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