Internships, a form of experiential learning in which a student works in an entry-level capacity at an organization external to the school for little, or more frequently, no, pay, is touted in the pedagogy literature – including some written by me — as a key component of both business and arts entrepreneurship education (e.g. Solomon, 2007; Essig, 2009; Hong, Essig & Bridgstock, 2011). A recent article in the New York Times, however, exposes the downside of the intern/firm relationship.
Despite Perlin’s concerns, which are valid, I maintain that a field experience is an integral part of a portfolio of pedagogies for learning the habits of mind and the practices of entrepreneurship as well as many other disciplines. How, then, can the student, the university, and the internship site mediate those concerns and potential pitfalls? I offer a few thoughts:
- The internship is about student learning NOT free labor. If an organization is looking for unpaid help on a project, in an office, on a production, the student and his or her school should stay away.
- Because it’s about student learning, the learning objectives must be clear to the student, a supervising faculty member, and the site supervisor.
- The internship activities should align with the learning objectives. For example, if a student in an arts management program is interested in learning more about development, the internship should be in the development office of a nonprofit organizations, not in, for example, a theatre’s scene or costume shop. Placement far from the student’s learning objectives is a sign that the organization is looking for labor nor learning.
- The learning objectives should be evaluated and assessed by the site supervisor and a supervising faculty member at the home institution.
- The student should keep a journal and write a summative self-assessment of the ways in which the learning objectives are being met.
- All of the above: student learning objectives, activities, evaluation plans, should be agreed to in writing by student, supervising faculty member, home institution, site supervisor, and external organization
Perlin cites an internship with NBC as an example of less-than-ideal experience, but my own experience working with the same parent company was quite different. I worked with NBC/Universal on a film internship program that placed a very small number of students in production settings according to the guidelines above and it worked both for Universal and for the students, several of whom have subsequently found employment with the company or elsewhere. Plus, they received some real credits and experience prior to graduation.
At the recent p.a.v.e. symposium on entrepreneurship and the arts, I was asked by a former student considering a move from freelance theatre technician work in San Francisco to an arts management position elsewhere, “would you recommend a post-graduate internship?” Here the issue of working an organization without pay is a bit muddier than when one is a student. I suggest she (or anyone) consider the following:
- Do you have clear objectives for what will be gained from the experience?
- Are the internship duties aligned with the objectives?
- Does the internship position displace a paid employee? (Stay away!)
- Is the placement time-bound? Before entering into an internship of any type, I strongly recommend setting a clear end date and sticking to it. An open-ended internship is indentured servitude, or worse.
- Will the placement include mentorship? Developing a strong professional mentoring relationship with someone may make two months without pay worthwhile – but that is a very personal decision
- Will there be networking opportunities? Many companies will “sell” their internship experiences based on the opportunity to network. Are these opportunities real? Check with previous interns.
- Is this internship about “learning the biz?” or “laboring free?”
Last season, I helped a former student attain a stage management internship placement on the Broadway hit “Wicked.” This was in an established professional transition program with the company, the duties were in the stage management department, it was a six-week placement, a mentor was assigned, there were networking opportunities, and, due in large part to his keen attention, he learned a lot about the business, learning that he has subsequently parlayed into paying work. This kind of short-term, structured placement can be very useful, even after graduation, but, again, be cautious, ask questions, ask previous interns, and if it doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t.
Much of the learning that happens on an internship, or in any experiential setting, results from the students themselves: observe, ask questions (as appropriate), reflect, and synthesize. Good luck!
image from buzz paradise, creative commons license.
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