University of Wisconsin–Madison

1st Annual Symposium on College Internship Research

Last week on Friday September 28th our Center held the 1st Annual Symposium on College Internship Research here at UW-Madison.  It was a great success, with over 100 researchers, students, career services professionals, employers, and policymakers in the room.  We’re still wading through the evaluations and hearing back from attendees, but here are 3 quick thoughts about the proceedings and what they mean for the multi-disciplinary community of people engaged in the world of internships.

A group of UW-Madison and Madison College students talk about their internship experiences

1. Empirical research on internships is growing across the disciplines

The day started off with 20-minute presentations by a handful of fantastic scholars who represent the fields and arenas of sociology, program evaluation, economics, and management.  We had sociologist Carrie Shandra discuss preliminary results of a mixed methods study of internships in New York, program evaluator Liz Zachry Rutschow report findings from an evaluation of a Great Lakes internship program, economist John Nunley talk about results from his research, and finally management scholar Patrick McHugh talk about differences between French and US internship policies and programming.

We heard about some new and startling findings, especially Dr. Nunley’s discovery that Black applicants (in a resume audit study where fake resumes were sent to internship openings) received far fewer call-backs than White applicants with the same qualifications, and basically spent 2 hours realizing that empirical research on college internships is alive and well, rigorous, and spread across the disciplines.  And this was even without our own team of cultural anthropologists and learning scientists discussing our own early findings from our mixed methods study!  The consensus at the end of the day was that we need more venues like this Symposium to keep the conversation going, and also to create more networking opportunities for this nascent group of scholars.

2. Equity, compensation, and access remain problems

The problems associated with unpaid internships have long been acknowledged by observers of college internships in the US.  From Ross Perlin‘s expose of borderline exploitative un- or underpaid internships, to lawsuits against film studios, non-profits and other organizations for using unpaid interns to do the work of regular employees, and a growing backlash against unpaid internships in our nation’s capitol, many are questioning the common practice of not paying interns.

However, another problem that is receiving less attention is problems with access to internship experiences – which can potentially be transformative and positively impact a students’ life and career – for student of color and/or low-income students.  For students of color, discrimination (whether explicit or due to implicit bias) is an issue that needs more attention, given the evidence that hiring discrimination persists and is widespread throughout the labor market.  Then, for students lacking financial or social resources, have family obligations, lack transportation, or otherwise cannot add yet another co-curricular experience on top their everyday work, school and family obligations, an internship simply may be inaccessible and untenable.  While some in higher education are talking about this problem, not enough are paying attention to or dealing with this critical issue.

This issue was addressed a bit at our symposium, but many attendees felt that far more discussion needed and needs to happen.  We’re already talking about next year having an entire program strand, keynotes, or panels on this topic so that it is no longer ignored (or ignorable).

3. Gathering a variety of stakeholders together is important and challenging

Finally, perhaps the best part of the event was the simple fact that in the same room we had together almost all of the parties implicated in (and affected by) the college internship: employers, faculty, researchers, career services directors, legislators, and most important – the students themselves.  Having researchers and practitioners talking to one another was fun and enlightening to watch, but having students discuss their experiences and pose questions to panelists reminded me of the reason why we held the symposium in the first place, to put students back at the center of discussions about college-workforce pathways.

So next time you’re tapped to organize a meeting or conference like this, consider bringing together different stakeholders who rarely have the opportunity to engage in fruitful discussion.  It is something that many people want, and when it’s about topics like internships that necessarily implicate a wide array of people and interests, I’d argue that it’s essential.

And don’t forget the students. It should go without saying, but unfortunately it has to be said.

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