Initial Publication Date: April 13, 2015

Designing Successful Internship Programs

Designing a successful internship program requires thoughtful planning, just like any other learning exercise. As with other learning situations, internships work best when all parties involved are clear about the goals and expectations, when the work is meaningful and relevant for the student, when the 'instructor' provides sufficient explanations about how to do the work and is available to answer questions, and when the student is motivated.
Jump Down To: Laying the groundwork | Goals and expectations | Meaningful work | Training and supervision | Student motivation | Resources

Laying the groundwork

The first steps in setting up an internship program are lining up potential employers and recruiting potential interns. You'll probably want to make initial contact with potential employers by phone, to introduce yourself and answer any questions they may have. It's a good idea to follow this up with a letter describing your internship program and what you need from employers if they'd like to participate. Here's an example internship letter (Microsoft Word 47kB Dec15 08) from the Department of Geological Sciences at California State University - Fullerton.

Recruiting employers is only half the job, however. You also want to let your students know about the internship possibilities. After a few successful years, students will probably do your advertising for you via word of mouth. Until then, however, you'll need to talk it up through individual advising, visiting classes, meetings with the Geology Club, or whatever method seems most effective in your department. The Department of Geological Sciences at California State University - Fullerton has used this presentation describing their internship program to students (Acrobat (PDF) 5.6MB Dec15 08).

Goals and expectations

In an internship, having mutually agreeable goals is essential. The student and the organization can work together to articulate clear, measurable goals, or students can choose suitable internships on the basis of an organization's pre-established goals. If the goals of the student do not match those of the sponsoring organization, the internship is highly unlikely to be successful from either party's perspective. Faculty advisors can help students to articulate learning goals, and then select potential internships on the basis of those goals.

Once an internship has been selected, the sponsoring organization needs to communicate their expectations to the student. However, if they do not immediately do so, the student can be proactive and ask. At the very least, he or she needs to know what the organization's expectations are with regard to the responsibilities of the position, work schedule (including punctuality), and attire. Once again, if the expectations of the student do not match those of the organization, the internship is unlikely to be successful. Faculty advisors can check with students to make sure they understand and will meet the organization's expectations.

One way to formalize goals and expectations is to create an internship contract, (Acrobat (PDF) 178kB Jan26 07) like this one (courtesy of Sean Cornell at Shippensburg University).

Meaningful work

A student seeking an internship is looking for an opportunity to apply ideas learned on campus to real situations. Students (and their faculty advisors) should therefore make sure that the work they will be doing will be more than busywork, that it will provide opportunities for the student to apply learning in new ways. While some work may be tedious, ideally it will lead to significant, or at least interesting, results. A student who is unclear about the relevance of the work he or she is doing should ask about it. Faculty advisors can check in regularly with student interns to ensure that they understand why they are doing what they are doing.

Training and supervision

A well-organized internship includes plenty of training and supervision. On-the-job training should include the same orientation all new employees get. The internship work itself should be structured, and the intern should be assigned an employee supervisor/mentor whom he or she can consult as needed. The student's faculty advisor can also help to supervise the student's work, by meeting with him or her on a regular basis to monitor progress.

Student motivation

Ideally, a student intern's primary motivation is intrinsic; that is, he or she simply wants to get some hands-on learning experience. However, internships may also be required to provide additional motivation, in the form of salary or course credit. (See the Department of Labor website on the Fair Labor Standards Act or consult your legal counsel or Human Resources department for details.) In any case, faculty members can help make internship programs successful by restricting participation to motivated students.


Here are some links to pages about making internship programs successful. Although they are written for employers and students, faculty members may also find them helpful.

For employers

For students