For many, the allure of online education is simple. You can get a higher education at your convenience, fitting courses in around work, family, or other commitments. But, just like at brick-and-mortar schools, coursework sometimes isn’t enough, and hands-on experiences need to be factored into the equation, too. Whether it’s required hours in a clinical, or an internship recommended by your advisor, in-the-field learning experiences are invaluable. According to a piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education, internships “have an irreplaceable role in the liberal arts by providing hands-on learning opportunities, allowing students to collaborate closely with faculty, and strengthening ties between the college and community.”
Employers place a strong emphasis on such experiences. A 2010 survey by the Association of American Colleges and Universities found that 79% of employers desired that higher education put more emphasis on integrative learning, or “the ability to apply knowledge and skills to real-world settings through internships or other hands-on experiences” up 6% from a similar survey conducted four years earlier.
Make no mistake, there are a few cons for students in internships, as field work for school credit is often unpaid, and may be difficult to fit into an already busy schedule. An overwhelming majority of students at Strayer University, for instance, work full time in addition to taking classes, and internships simply aren’t factored into the equation. But if you have the time, the advantages are plentiful.
“An internship in a field or profession of interest will give you first-hand experience that can help you make smarter investments in education, get a leg up in the job market, and learn critical workplace skills,” said Cindy Morgan-Jaffe, an executive director of the Internship Institute in Washington, D.C. and also known as The Intern Lady. They can also help students build up a resume and make connections, and could lead to a permanent placement. Conversely, they can give students an idea if a certain career is a good fit or not before they graduate and enter the field professionally.
Depending on the degree, field work may even be mandatory, with credits earned by clocking in hours in a lab or clinic. An online bachelor’s in nursing, for instance, may require a 45-hour practicum mentored by a nurse leader in a selected clinical setting, and education students may need to complete more than 100 hours of field experience prior to student teaching.
“In order for students to graduate and hit the ground running with the necessary skills and intelligence to do the job, internships help tremendously,” said Grand Canyon University President Kathy Player (GCU). “It also gives the employer an opportunity to test the intern so you can see if it’s a good match, increasing the likelihood of job placement.”
Other degree programs may provide credit for a field-based, supervised internship, where you can apply the theory you gained in your course work to a real-world setting. At AIU Online, internships are only an option for bachelors-level students. Internships are not required at American InterContinental University Online, but internship coordinator Josh Feinberg highly encourages them for students going into any vocation, especially for those who may be changing careers quickly or those reentering the workforce after some time and are getting a degree to help them learn new skills. Students must locate their internship, and seek approval of the appropriate campus-level person at AIU.
“Once they have achieved their degree there is one component of marketability usually missing: job experience,” said Feinberg. “Our internship program can allow these students to not only have an opportunity to have valuable job experience on their resume but also the ability to network, make contacts and to take advantage of the old adage ‘It’s not just what you know, but who you know.’”
For students who want less of a commitment, there’s also volunteering, which can allow you to explore an area you’re studying in a more flexible, less-demanding way while still building up your resume and skills.
When looking for internships or a practicum site, your school’s career services office or your department may have information on opportunities that are available in your area. At GCU, for example, field experience specialists assist online students in securing appropriate placement and making sure theyíre getting the best out of their internships and on-the-job experiences.
“To have that connection as a student and be able to reach out to an individual in case something came up was good to know,” said Christina James, who obtained her master’s degree in elementary education online at GCU. She recently started work as a field experience specialist. “Now, I’m on the other end, providing teachers with insight and making sure they are given everything they need to have the best experience out there,” she said.
There are also a number of Web resources where you can search for internships in a variety of fields and locations, including, AfterCollege, CollegeGrad, CollegeRecruiter, Idealist, Indeed, Intern Queen, InternJobs, Internship Programs, Internships, Internweb, LinkedIn, UrbanInterns, and YouTern.
For the same reasons a student may be drawn to online education, a virtual internship may also be a good fit. Though virtual internships are somewhat rare, they have become more common in the past few years among small to midsize companies and online businesses, according to the Wall Street Journal, thanks to improving technology and the growth of social media. Enhanced technology has also allowed students to experience work situations in a completely virtual environment. Simulations of a restaurant, for example, allow students to run a “business,” while a simulation of a hospital clinic allows students to treat “patients,” without compromising anyone’s health.
Of course, there’s still nothing like the real thing. And once you land an internship, there are several things to keep in mind to make it a fruitful experience for both you and your employer. Morgan-Jaffe recommends making a detailed list of what you want to come away with, such as an understanding of the best practices of the profession you are exploring, how the profession fits inside the organization and industry you’re working in, and what school work might be useful in pursuing the profession, as well as a “portfolio” piece (something you can show for your time spent), and a letter of recommendation. And one of the most-important tasks you can do in any learning environment is ask questions.
“You are an intern and learning is part of the deal,” said Morgan-Jaffe, who suggests collecting a list of your questions in one place and then asking for a short meeting with your supervisor to get them answered. And when your internship is over, don’t lose touch. Maintain connections with your coworkers and supervisors, as once you’re ready to graduate, they can offer advice, serve as references, and most importantly, provide you with connections on who’s hiring in your field or within the company. This way, you’ll already have your foot in the door.