Frequently Asked Questions about Internships

What is an Internship?

The National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) defines an internship as a form of experiential learning that integrates knowledge and theory learned in the classroom with practical application and skills development in a professional setting. Internships give students the opportunity to gain valuable applied experience and make connections in professional fields they are considering for career paths; they give employers the opportunity to guide and evaluate talent. Internships can be paid or unpaid, and you may or may not receive academic credit for performing the internship.

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Why Should I Pursue an Internship?

According to NACE, internship programs are listed as the number one place employers look when recruiting new hires. In a nutshell, internships provide you with the opportunity to test-drive a career option and to gain valuable experience and skills in the process that will make you more competitive and marketable in today's job search.

Students pursue internships because they want to gain professional experience that links their academic coursework to the disciplines they want to pursue for their careers. To gain this experience, students want to engage in projects and tasks that contribute to the professional work of the organization. Learning by doing and being exposed to professionals working in the field provides valuable experience, a professional reference and often leads to a position upon graduation.

In addition to learning hard skills used to complete tasks, internships help build soft skills needed to interact in a professional setting. Internships also help individuals hone communication and interpersonal skills and experience and understand organization/company culture.

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Will I Get Paid?

Internships can be paid or unpaid. If they are unpaid, they’re usually subject to stringent labor guidelines. In the United States, federal law mandates that unpaid interns must not benefit the company economically or be used to displace the work done by paid employees.

It is the responsibility of each employer to determine whether an internship should be paid or unpaid based on labor laws. Each employer's human resources department should be familiar with labor laws in order to determine eligibility based on the organization's specific internship opportunity. Minimum wage and overtime laws cannot be avoided merely by labeling a position as an internship. Private-sector internships will most often be considered employment unless the factors listed below are met.

The following excerpt from the U.S. Department of Labor's "Employment and Training Guidance Letter"PDF offers a glance into unpaid internship related labor law:

The U.S. Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division has developed the six factors below to evaluate whether a worker is a trainee or an employee for purposes of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA):

  • The training, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to what would be given in a vocational school or academic educational instruction;
  • The training is for the benefit of the trainees;
  • The trainees do not displace regular employees, but work under their close observation;
  • The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the trainees, and on occasion the employer's operations may actually be impeded;
  • The trainees are not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the training period; and
  • The employer and the trainees understand that the trainees are not entitled to wages for the time spent in training.

If all of the factors listed above are met, then the worker is a trainee, an employment relationship does not exist under FLSA, and FLSA's minimum wage and overtime provisions do not apply to the worker. Because FLSA's definition of "employee" is broad, the excluded category of "trainee" is necessarily quite narrow. Moreover, the fact that an employer labels a worker as a trainee and the worker's activities as training, and/or a state unemployment compensation program develops what it calls a training program and describes the unemployed workers who participate as trainees does not make the worker a trainee for purposes of FLSA unless the six factors are met.

For more information about unpaid internships and labor law, please review the U.S. Department of Labor's Employment and Training Guidance LetterPDF.

For additional information, please review NACE's survey on unpaid internshipsPDF.

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Will I Receive Course Credit?

Internships may or may not offer academic credit for performing the internship.

You should talk with your school and the employer about the process to get credit from your internship. It varies by school, internship and employer. Start by talking with your school so you understand what is involved to obtain credit.

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Will I Get Offered Employment Upon Completion of the Internship?

Internships may or may not carry an offer of regular employment upon successful completion of the internship and/or school term.

Though employment isn’t guaranteed at the end of an internship, many employers use internships as a way to train and evaluate future employees. In fact, a 2009 NACE survey of U.S. employers with interns found that 67% of those interns were given job offers after their terms were complete.

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How Long is a Typical Internship?

Most internships last about 10 weeks to three months or the duration of one quarter or semester. They also are offered during a school break; summer and winter internships are popular.

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How Do You Prepare to Pursue an Internship?

If you've decided that an internship is for you, then it's time to apply.

Preparing for an internship search involves everything from crafting a targeted resumé (or resumés) and building a portfolio to exploring what type of internship experience will fit seamlessly with your schedule and goals. It also might involve a good deal of relationship building to make sure you're not just another name in somebody's inbox.

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When Should I Apply for Internships?

Summer internship application season actually begins in autumn of the year prior, around the time universities hold their fall career fairs. It runs all the way up to late May, with the heaviest volume of applications generally received between late February and early April.

Government organizations, engineering firms, financial institutions and defense contractors typically have some of the earliest deadlines, partly because of intense competition and partly due to lengthy background checks.

Given the crowded market for summer internships it’s probably a good idea to start looking for opportunities before winter break. Try to make an appointment with your career counselor by Thanksgiving, so you have lots of time to consider options. For most people, the heaviest work should be done before spring break. There is often a large drop-off in applications considered between early April and the beginning of May as companies fill many of those positions. If you haven’t found the right internship by late April or even May don’t give up. Needs can change quickly at any organization and plenty of employers won’t start an intern search until the summer is practically in gear.

Remember: Unlike college programs, there are no industry-specific standard deadlines for obtaining an internship. If summer arrives and you’ve still had no luck, you can still pursue internships with less traditional dates and hours.

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