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  • First Steps to Improving Internship Participation

    August 01, 2019 | By Rachel V. Smydra, Amy Ring Cebelak, and Noah Pollock

    A man ascends a staircase.

    TAGS: internships, faculty, student attitudes, surveys, journal

    NACE Journal, August 2019

    Oakland University found that its English majors were less likely to engage in internships than their peers in other majors. To boost participation, career services took the first step: figuring out why that’s the case and developing ways to counter it.

    Critics of higher education have attacked institutions for high tuition and degrees that leave college graduates underemployed and unprepared to enter professional jobs. These charges are particularly relevant with regard to students in the humanities, including English majors. In response, many institutions are stepping up their efforts to improve students’ employability by increasing participation in career exploration opportunities such as internships. However, connecting students to internships means identifying barriers inhibiting students from considering completing an internship,

    Internships at Oakland University

    Oakland University, a high research activity doctoral institution located in Rochester, Michigan, is situated minutes away from Automation Alley, where several automotive-related companies reside. Oakland University has approximately 20,000 students who represent a mix of ethnic and financial backgrounds. The typical incoming freshman has an average ACT composite score of 24.6 and an average high school GPA of 3.5. 

    To qualify and quantify post-graduation outcomes, Oakland University’s career services office leverages the First-Destination Survey Standards and Protocols published by NACE as well as customized methodology to survey graduates about employment, experiences as undergraduates, future plans, and internships. The internship metrics yield insight into the percent of graduates completing internships by school/college and department.

    As Figure 1 illustrates, a smaller portion of English majors complete internships compared to graduates within the same college or graduates across the university as a whole year after year.

    A similar story unfolds when we investigate internship completion rates for juniors and seniors. In an author-designed, IRB-approved questionnaire distributed in upper-level English courses in the winter semester of 2017, only 18 percent of the 118 student respondents reported having completed an internship. (See Figure 2.)

    Moreover, for many majors, e.g., accounting, engineering, and nursing, clear career trajectories are apparent. However, for many humanities majors, career options are less defined. This proves true for Oakland’s English majors. In a survey given to upper-level English majors, they noted that they are interested in a wide variety of careers paths; however, 20 percent reported that they didn’t know which career path they would take. (See Figure 3.)

    Key Barriers to Participation

    Identifying the key barriers that prevent students from contemplating or completing internships serves as a natural first step for improving internship participation. Oakland University upper-level English majors noted that they did not consider or take part in an internship because they did not see the value in doing an internship, did not have access to internship resources, and/or could not afford to quit working paid jobs to take part in an unpaid internship.

    To address the misperception about the value of internships, the career services staff examined the impact internships have on outcomes for English majors. The staff measured whether English graduates’ employment was related to their career plans and interests and compared outcomes between those who completed an internship and those who did not. Data were collected from first-destination surveys and included five graduation cohorts, ranging from 2013-14 through 2017-18 (n = 97). A chi-square test of independence indicated that the proportion of employed English graduates who reported that their employment was related to their career plans and interests was higher for those who completed an internship than it was for those who did not complete an internship (X2 = 5.97, p < 0.02). (See Figure 4.) Specifically, the analysis shows that the odds of employment being related to career plans and interests is nearly three times higher for employed English graduates with an internship than it is for employed English graduates without an internship (OR = 2.88).

    Shaping Student Attitudes: Collaborating With Faculty

    Not surprisingly, career services staff identified collaborating with faculty as a key strategy for shaping student attitudes about the value of internships. A good place to start talking about career readiness and competency is in the college classroom.

    In the fall of 2019, Oakland University career services, in collaboration with the College of Arts & Sciences advising office, will roll out a program centered on NACE’s career competencies. Each department within the College of Arts & Sciences has a faculty liaison who will be responsible for supporting this initiative. The liaison will serve as mentor in his or her department and  assist other faculty by providing competency-related resources such as syllabus language, assignment ideas, and/or teaching tips.

    Additionally, career services is currently collaborating with faculty internship coordinators to track internship experiences that are for-credit through an online career platform. The English department was one of the first departments to move its internship tracking online through this method. Moving forward, career services plans to survey the students in these internship courses and incorporate career competencies into survey questions, so students can identify and articulate the skills they gained or improved in their internship experiences.

    The career services staff also hopes to leverage existing events to help build a culture that embraces internships. For example, the English department hosts a career and internship night each semester; unfortunately, to date, attendance has been relatively low. Consequently internship coordinators have discussed how the department can add more cluster-type events that target specific industries. For instance, these might include a workshop on how to market an English major in the job search, panels featuring alumni talking about their job searches and career paths, or a mini-career fair/niche event with employers for English majors. Career services staff hope to launch these types of events over the next year and are considering how to foster attendance; for example, holding them on different days and at different times may target individuals who can’t come back on campus at night or on a particular day to attend.

    Improving Access to Internship Resources

    Career services uses an online platform to post internships and jobs, and the office’s website includes resources about job fairs, visiting companies, workshops, and other job-related materials. The English department maintains its own webpage that provides information about current internships and information related to taking part in internships for credit.

    With these access points, it would appear that students have two viable spaces for finding information about internship options; however, survey responses from upper-level English majors indicated that more than 38 percent (45 of 118 respondents) did not know the English department had resources about internships or where to find information about internships.

    Moreover, out of 100 students who did not take part in an internship, 22 percent reported that this was because they had not been presented with the opportunity to do so; a significant portion claimed that there has not been enough promotion of the internships available through the English department.

    The idea that many students will not pursue internships unless an opportunity presents itself is important in thinking about how to provide access to experiences. One option could be to require an internship; alternatively, a department could go to extremes by matching students up with internships that fit their individual interests and needs. Obviously, such strategies would require an extensive amount of time and resources that would make implementation and sustainability relatively unrealistic. Instead, those involved in promoting internships among students must improve pathways to internship resources for those students interested in pursuing these opportunities.

    The English department has begun to address access to resources. In the past, the department relied mostly on flyers and traditional email messages to inform and update students about career events and resources. However, students’ email accounts are bombarded with messages; as a result, students have become savvy about what they need to read and what they do not. Consequently, the English department coordinator plans to encourage faculty to embed more discussion about career readiness into the classroom and their curriculum. Because faculty interact with students either face-to-face or online, discussing career readiness and internships a few times a semester may assist in steering students toward available resources and experiences.

    Acknowledging and Addressing Financial Barriers

    NACE research indicates that 56.3 percent of students respondents who interned reported receiving compensation for their internships.1 However, another study found that “the industries with the highest percentage of unpaid internships include arts and entertainment, government, nonprofits, health fields, and social services.”2

    In fact, in January 2018, the U.S. Department of Labor revised its rules about paying interns, giving organizations some leeway with regard to compensation. Unfortunately, knowing that they may not be compensated as interns, many students forgo the idea of doing an internship simply because they cannot afford it.

    Upper-level English majors identified financial barriers as a key impediment for not considering internships. Out of the 100 students who indicated that they had not taken part in an internship, 35 reported that this was because they had to work either full or part time to meet their financial obligations. This insight into financial barriers with regard to internships is important on two major premises. First, the data indicate that many students equate internships to unpaid work. This mindset then leads to the second assumption held by students that because the internships are unpaid, they are better off working a job in an unrelated field so they can pay their bills.

    Acknowledging that unpaid internships serve as barriers for many students is an important first step for universities to improve their internship programs, especially with regards to many first-generation or lower-income students. With limited access and little to no knowledge of interviewing or professional etiquette, many first-generation and lower-income students struggle to navigate the internship process and issues related to financial aid. Receiving financial aid prevents some students from obtaining internships because the income from an internship could alter their standing to receive financial aid.

    Oakland University continues to seek solutions to overcome the financial challenges unpaid internships create for students and is looking at a variety of options used by other universities,  e.g., encouraging employers to consider alternatives to an hourly wage, such as a lump sum stipend, or paying for housing or a professional membership; creating an endowment to fund unpaid internships; and charging only administrative fees instead of full tuition for internship credit. But Oakland is also looking at other options. For example, some departments are discussing the idea of offering students options with regard to internship duration and/or modules for credit. This is one area faculty, staff, and administrators must address to remove barriers that inhibit participation.


    It is important for universities to identify key barriers that impede students from interning. Oakland University has taken this first step so that .


    1 NACE 2018 Student Survey, National Association of Colleges and Employers.

    2 Mason-Draffen, C. (March 9, 2018). More unpaid internships likely after revised federal rules. Newsday.


    Day, L. (2016) Internships: The ultimate return on investment for today’s college student.  Forbes.

    Durack, K. (2013). Sweating employment: Ethical and legal issues with unpaid student
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    Stirling, A., Kerr, G., MacPherson, E., Banwell, J., Bandealy, A., & Battaglia, A. (2017). Do
    postsecondary internships address the four learning modes of experiential learning
    theory? An exploration through document analysis. Canadian Journal of Higher
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    Rachel V. SmydraRachel V. Smydra is a special instructor and the internship coordinator for the Department of English at Oakland University. Smydra is working on her Ph.D. in educational leadership at Oakland University. She has published articles on student self-efficacy, online teaching, literary self-narrative, and plagiarism.

    Amy Ring CebelakAmy Ring Cebelak is a career consultant for the College of Arts & Sciences at Oakland University. She has more than seven years of experience in career services at a variety of institutions. Cebelak is passionate about career readiness and career exploration and supports her students in making informed career decisions through experiential education. An alumna of Oakland University, Cebelak earned her master’s in higher education administration from Kent State University. While in graduate school, she got her start in career services, serving as a graduate assistant for career services and residence life at Ashland University.

    Noah PollockNoah Pollock has more than five years of experience extracting, analyzing, and reporting higher education data. He is also an established researcher and has presented on his academic work and higher education at regional, national, and international conferences. Pollock currently serves as the senior systems and data analyst for the Division of Student Affairs and Diversity at Oakland University where he supports the data and technology needs of multiple departments. He is the chair-elect for the Michigan Association of Institutional Research. Pollock earned both his Bachelor of Arts and his Master of Science in psychology from Oakland University and is pursuing a Master of Science in information technology management.