How Great Internships Work
A simple tool to design internships that foster meaningful work for both students and companies.
The word “intern” carries a lot of baggage. For students, does it mean paper-pushing? Coffee grabbing? Unpaid-work with hopes of being “discovered”? And for companies, does it mean additional supervision with little return? Unfinished work? Onboarding someone that will just pick up and leave?
The answer includes some mix of yes, no, and I sure hope not.
But first, where does “intern” come from?
The word “intern” actually originated in the medical community before World War I. It was the term that described a doctor who had a medical degree but lacked a license. After the war, doctors-in-training became known as interns.
Later on, businesses adopted the term for their own programs. Internships as we know them began to grow in popularity in the late 1960s, as students enrolled in co-op programs in engineering schools to test out different careers and make money as college tuition began to rise.
Now, they’re a catch-all term for go-getter high school, college, or graduate students. But for many businesses and students, it has become a pain point. There is so little structure and so few shared norms around internships that the quality of experience varies drastically — from exploitative to life-changing.
For those reasons and more, I’ve never loved the term “intern.” But here at Experience Institute, we believe experience is a credible form of learning. So we research how different forms of experiential programming and how they can bridge the classroom and the workplace.
Projects vs Positions
Our challenge to any student or team is to begin considering projects rather than positions. Instead of seeking to just fill a position, a project starts with asking questions — What is the purpose of bringing someone in? What needs to be accomplished? When does it need to be completed? etc.
With this in mind, we’ve designed a prototype of a project-design process for creating an internship from either side, student or company. It’s called R.U.N — Research, Understand, Next Steps. If you’re a student, these are questions you can ask before and during your conversation(s) with a company. And if you’re part of a company, these are helpful questions to help you structure how you might work with short-term, project-based talent of any age.
Here’s how it works:
The Company: What is the company working to achieve? What are recent successes? Upcoming goals?
The Student: What knowledge and skills do you hope to develop through next? What experience(s) do you need to gain?
Aligned Goals: Where is there alignment between the student and team’s goals?
The Company: What are some of the company’s current challenges? Where is your team getting stuck?
The Student: What strengths and experiences do you bring? What characteristics make you a good teammate?
Aligned Direction: How do the company challenges align with the student’s strengths?
The Company: What are company norms around the work-week? Team communication? Onboarding young talent? Who are key decision-makers? When and how to get support? Is there room for personal projects on the side?
The Student: What do you need to make this engagement feasible and successful (timing, compensation, location)?
Aligned Environment: Where is there alignment between how the company operates and what the student’s reality?
At Ei, we’re testing this process with 40 students at Stanford in our Design Summer program and the 20 students who’ll be joining our newest program, Experience Lab at UC Berkeley.
Now it’s your turn. If you’re preparing to either be or work with an intern, download the worksheet below and let us know how it works for you!