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Internships have a role in graduate programs

Grad students should set our own goals.


In light of recent discussion on the role of internships in education and early career development, this is a useful time to also reevaluate the importance of internships for graduate students in research-based programs of study.

In recent years, a disconnect in how students, faculty and alumni define the goals of graduate studies has become more apparent (for example, in this report, PDF, from Dalhousie University). Students express a growing interest in professional development activities linked to preparing for and finding a job, such as communication skills (writing and public speaking), writing a CV, and preparing for an interview. Faculty, for the most part, continue to emphasize the importance of research, to the exclusion of other pursuits. Alumni express an even stronger emphasis than do students on skills not directly related to research, such as interpersonal communication, working in teams, and giving and receiving criticism. This disconnect reflects a growing concern among graduate students and recent graduates that completing high quality research won’t be sufficient to ensure (or perhaps even to make it likely) that they find a job upon graduation.

Students are seeking chances to augment their research experience with a range of other skills, whether through teaching experience, workshops on campus, or placements with industry or government. Many, eying employment inside or outside academia, see this as both practical and possibly necessary. Some Canadian universities have begun to offer training programs designed to provide these professional development opportunities (for example, the Graduate Pathways to Success program at the University of British Columbia). Which activities and what kind of training will most benefit graduate students and how to offer these opportunities is the topic of ongoing discussion. It is a discussion in which graduate students themselves should have a stronger voice.

The twin goals of producing high quality research and opening doors to future employment need not be in conflict. Opinions are evolving about the overlap of professional skills that will prove valuable for a career in either an academic or an industry setting. For instance, the tri-council of research funding agencies (NSERC, SSHRC, and CIHR) has defined key professional skills for researchers, including communication and interpersonal skills, leadership, and management. Many Canadian universities have also outlined professional development goals for their graduate study programs (for example, the University of Alberta, PDF). These approaches aim to augment the graduate student experience with competencies that will be directly applicable to future work either within or outside of academia.

Internships are a particularly useful example of a professional development opportunity available through some graduate programs. Particularly in the sciences, they generally combine on-the-job training with relevant networking opportunities. Students doing an internship typically have the chance to develop skills that are both specific to their discipline and highly transferable. The networking opportunities can significantly improve a student’s chance of finding relevant work in industry, and may enrich their research network if they choose to remain in academia. Some internships directly complement research objectives, and so can overlap with the goals of one’s thesis. Furthermore, most internships are short in duration, and so offer minimal disruption to the timeline for completion of a graduate program.

During the second year of my doctoral program I took a four-month internship with an oil and gas company. Based on my research background (as well as my expressed interest) I was assigned to a team applying a modeling technique to one of the company’s assets. I learned several new skills in manipulation and interpretation of geologic data. The skills and experience I acquired have improved my opportunities for work in this field upon graduation, and give me a more broad perspective on my current research.

The benefits of pursuing an internship have significant potential to outweigh concerns over an interruption to one’s research program. Unfortunately, supervising faculty have considerable power to dissuade graduate students from, or in some cases to outright forbid, taking advantage of such opportunities.

While I do not debate that research is the primary focus of many graduate programs in Canada, there is a need for flexibility and breadth of experience for Canadian graduate students. Graduate students pursue their studies for a variety of reasons, and should have greater control in shaping the course of their program. Pursuing professional development during graduate school does not represent a lack of respect for the fundamental requirements of a research-based program, but is rather a pragmatic approach to maximizing one’s chances of finding meaningful, relevant employment upon graduation.

In a job market where ever fewer doctoral graduates will continue into a career in academia, and where industry is increasingly keen to hire graduate-level qualified employees, we need to rethink the extent to which graduate students should have the power to define and pursue their own goals for their program of study. It’s time to stop viewing internships as a mere distraction from research; pursuing internships should be seen as a viable and vital component of a rewarding, successful program of study.

Janice Allen is a doctoral candidate in the earth sciences department at Dalhousie University.


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