Experiential learning opportunities provide a way for students and postdocs to test the waters before committing to a career path. The opportunities range in time and depth. Virginia Tech and The University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, a few of the BEST schools that support experiential learning, share different types of experiential learning opportunities.


Experieintial LearningBenefits

To Students and Postdocs: Experiential learning provides trainees with career exploration, professional skill building, impressive credentials and networking opportunities.

To Your Institution: Experiential learning has the potential to change the campus culture to value varied career paths. Moreover, it builds important community/industry partnerships with the university.


Types of Experiential Learning Opportunities

Workshops and Skills Classes: Workshops can be as simple as a one-hour speed networking session or as involved as a semester-long course. The important thing is for students and postdocs to use their skills and test out careers. For example, a Science Communication workshop series could have participants write articles for the university newspaper, and a course on Entrepreneurship could culminate with a Shark Tank type proposal to business professionals.

Experiential Learning PosterMini-Internship: Mini-internships include site visits, 1 or 2-day externships, or on-campus training days delivered by industry professionals. They are designed to provide a deeper experience than a job talk and involve hands-on activities to give trainees a feel for the job, required skills needed, and the work environment and culture. On a site visit, students and postdocs may get to take a tour, learn the interview process from a human resources representative, or attend a panel of mid-career professionals.

Internships: Internships range from month-long to semester-long positions and can be full-time or part-time, depending on employer needs and laboratory commitments. At the end of the year, trainees can then share their internship experiences in a poster session or panel discussion.

One way to offer internships to trainees is through a cohort model. When using this approach, the internships are paired with Peer Career Exploration Groups. This allows trainees to share their experiences with one another and provide each other with support, which can be important support psychosocial and career development.

UCSF and UC Davis offer their trainees a regimented internship program that is broken down into two components: 1) a workshop-based portion that aims to help trainees make informed career decisions; and 2) an internship experience. In an article published in March 2018, Internship Experiences Contribute to Confident Career Decision Making for Doctoral Students in the Life Sciences, both schools report that the internship program provided Ph.D. students with career development skills while not affecting median time to degree.

Comparison of Short and Long Opportunities

Short DurationLong Duration
Less time investedGreater time investment, may require leave of absence
Can engage in a greater number and variety of experiencesIncreased depth of experience and responsibility
Increased networking opportunitiesStronger professional relationships
Faculty buy-in is more likelyFewer trainees may be able to invest the time or obtain faculty buy-in
May lead to more in-depth experiences, such as internshipsGreater chance of leading to a job
Many trainees can participate at one timeFewer trainees can participate at one time


Experiential Learning 3Building Community & Industry Partnerships: How can your school establish relationships with community organizations and local business? Some ways include networking with faculty, building from alumni and industry contacts; promoting your career development program at community events; and working with companies to expand their paid undergraduate internship programs to include graduate students and postdocs.

Funding: Sustained support is a challenge for all career development programming. Experiential learning can be supported by institutional funds, foundation support, portions of trainees NRSA or NSF fellowships, graduate programs/departments, or host companies/employers.

Timing: Should students and postdocs participate early or late in their training, have long or short internships, take a leave of absence or balance laboratory responsibilities, or extend their training? Program, laboratory, industry and personal needs will likely drive the timing of each learning experience.

Faculty support: A student or postdoc’s commitment is, first, to his or her research. But faculty are also interested in seeing their lab members succeed after training is complete, and reminders of this can help faculty support career planning. Communication among students, faculty and internship providers is key to ensure that expectations are clear and commitments are kept. Staff members can encourage and facilitate conversations between trainees and PIs to customize each intern’s experience. As Universities engage in more career-related conversations, including those about internships and with data backing up their importance, gradual culture change within an institution can occur, building support for internship programs over the long term.

Selection process: Some schools select participants on a first-come first served basis, while others have more competitive application processes. For example, you might require trainees to submit a job application cover letter to attend a site visit. Learning opportunities that are in high demand usually warrant more involved applications.

In summary, there are many ways for your students and postdocs to experience a new career. Hands-on opportunities help them make career decisions and lead to greater job satisfaction in the future.