Internships: Reality vs. Expectations

Student interns want challenges and responsibilities at their jobs, but they are often disappointed by the tasks they are given

Gone are the days where internships consisted solely of fetching coffee and making copies. Today undergraduates expect a lot more than mindless tasks when they sign on the dotted line and become interns for a few months over a summer or a semester during the academic year.

Members of the "millennial" generation, which includes current college students, want to feel valued and make a difference in the world (see, 2/15/07, "Millennials on a Mission"). Doing unfulfilling work at an internship doesn't fit in with those goals.

Reality, however, sometimes does not match expectations. The disconnect can be problematic for both the intern and the sponsoring company, says Mary Scott, president of West Hartford (Conn.)-based Scott Resource Group, whose firm surveyed interns for a 2006 survey, "Benchmarking Internship Expectations vs. Reality." That's because most companies design their internship programs as a source for full-time talent.

Students' No. 1 factor when deciding whether to take an internship is job content, which can strongly influence whether a student accepts a full-time offer with the company, according to the survey, which questioned 381 undergraduate students from 13 universities and compared the gap between their expectations and the reality of the internship experience.

Reality fell short of expectations in key areas, including manager preparation and having a mentor who was a valuable resource. "A make-or-break factor is a student's manager," Scott says.

On the other hand, all four survey questions related to company culture and work environment disclosed that reality exceeded interns' expectations. For instance, on the question of being "treated like a full-time employee," interns rated the reality higher than their expecations going into the job.

Role Models

The survey also looked at the expectation gaps between interns who accepted offers of jobs after graduation and those who did not. Students who accepted offers had their expectations exceeded on 20 of 24 surveyed areas. Expectations were exceeded in only 8 out of 20 categories for job decliners.

The largest areas of disappointment for "decliners" were related to job content and manager behavior, Scott says. The study's conclusion is that interns' assignment managers are the "deal makers/breakers" in whether a student will accept a full-time job, "because they themselves model 'what's it's really like' to work for the company."

Conversations with recent student interns reinforce the idea that they come into interships with high expectations. "I want to feel worthy, that I'm not just an intern. I want to show what I can do, what I've learned over the past four years," says Chelsea Culver, a senior at the University of Washington Business School and an intern at H2 Marketing in Seattle. (For more students' views of internship expectations and reality, see the slide show.)

In Culver's case, "meaningful" work is sprinkled in with mundane, office-type tasks—filing, faxing, and the like. Now in week seven of her job at the home health care marketing firm, Culver has proven herself to the company's staff and has started conducting client work. Hence, she is using what she learned at UW's business school.

Looking for Challenges

Finding an internship that provides thought-provoking assignments isn't always easy. According to the benchmark survey, interns were often let down by the unchallenging nature of the work they were assigned.

"More students had the expectation that they would have a clearly defined project over the course of the summer. Or assignments," says Scott.

To feel as though their work is contributing to the company's growth, students need to be treated like actual members of their divisions, interns and school administrators say. Interns want exposure to high-ranking officials and other interns through meetings, small get-togethers, and activities. Inclusion in departmental meetings, sufficient training, and at least one in-depth performance review can also give students a reason to go back to the company after graduation.

"They really like feedback," says Kitty McGrath, executive director of graduate and undergraduate career management at Arizona State University's W.P. Carey School of Business. "They want to be included."

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