Internships vs Part-Time Work

Internships can be paid or unpaid. They can be for credit or not for credit. And they can even be one-time-only or repeated experiences (such as summer internships done during consecutive summer breaks).

Because of this, there is often confusion among students and supervisors alike: "What makes an internship different from a part-time student job, or just volunteering to work for free?"

In reality, there is one primary identifying element that distinguishes an internship from all other types of employment: An internship, by definition, must include a specific learning objective.

In other words, the student deliberately sets out to gain knowledge, skill, and/or further understanding of a particular industry. Unlike classroom learning, the student gains this knowledge not from lectures, reading, and exams, but rather from on-the-job experience. For this reason, internships are often referred to as "experiential learning."

In general, there are three aspects necessary for an internship to constitute a learning experience:

  1. The internship is within the student's area of study; and they bring to the internship the knowledge they've acquired through their academic education.

  2. The internship supervisor provides guidance, evaluation, and feedback to facilitate the learning process. (Evaluations and feedback, however, can be written or verbal.)

  3. The student engages in ongoing contemplation of learning objectives throughout the course of the internship.

So what does this mean for employers and site supervisors? Make sure the learning component is primary when planning and managing your internship program.