The widespread benefits of internships are well established – they bridge the gap between the academic learning process and everyday working reality by providing practical experience and a sample of work in a chosen employment sector. They also allow increased networking opportunities, instil confidence in the workplace, and quickly enhance specialist skills through real time interaction with real world colleagues and clients.
Putting theory to practice
An increasing number of employers prefer to appoint candidates who have complimented their academic achievements with such practical experience. And internships offer the perfect opportunity to ‘get your foot in the door,’ with prestigious or desirable companies.
In an interview with BQ Magazine, Nada Asadollah Al-Emadi, section head of Career Development at Qatar University, states that internships help students to not only practice their skills in the real work environment, but to develop other useful skills, such as time management, leadership, organizational communication, teamwork and interpersonal communication. She states: “We do believe that all this experience develops our students and helps them to acquire the professional knowledge that is necessary to enable them to compete successfully in the world of work after graduation.”
Missy Hernandez, senior director of Academic and Career Advising at Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar, identifies similar importance of internships. She says internships provide students with the opportunity to graduate with a “real world” working experience under their belt, which is necessary because many students have never worked before, and only have limited training or ‘soft’ professional skills. She goes on to add: “Internships also give students the opportunity to network with professionals in the field which can be very beneficial when students graduate and begin job hunting.”
According to Marie C. Newkirk, career services manager at Northwestern University in Qatar, an internship opportunity for a young undergraduate is often a transformative experience. She says: “It allows students to adapt the skills they have acquired in the classroom to a workplace environment while simultaneously exposing them to a broad array of new experiences that are not readily available in a classroom setting. As students have the opportunity to put theory to practice, they quickly gain confidence in their abilities. Also, by networking with colleagues, students are able to build their CVs and also acquire references.”
To provide students with this real world experience, many universities have now made internships mandatory. Al-Emadi says: “We do offer internship opportunities for all enrolled students at Qatar University. Qatar University has two types of internship. One of them is mandatory for some college majors, as part of their programme requirements for graduation. The other is optional for students who are seeking additional practical training and this goes under the remit of the Career Services Centre.” She further notes that, for example, the College of Business and Economics mandates students to register for an Internship in Business course (MAGT 307), which is a graduation requirement. Registered students must undertake practical training for at least 120 working hours over a four week period in different public or private institutions.
Newkirk says Northwestern University in Qatar offers a wide variety of unique internship opportunities to the students: “The University recognizes the value of hands-on work experience for its students and provides students with opportunities to intern at prominent and prestigious institutions in Qatar, the GCC, Europe and the United States.”
Hernandez also says that students at VCUQatar are required to complete an internship experience as part of their degree requirements: “Our students complete their internships off-site at various organizations, both in Qatar and around the world.” She also believes it is useful when students complete their internships prior to their senior year, so that they can utilize what they have discovered about their strengths and weaknesses and develop them prior to graduating.
The Career Services Centre
Universities are increasingly paying attention to preparing their students to face an ever changing work environment. Many universities have a Career Services Centre (CSC) or division. The aim of this division is to connect students, faculty, and alumni with job and internship opportunities through strategic engagement with internal and external partners. Additionally, they provide counselling for career success by assisting students in determining their career goals, selecting the appropriate major for their career needs, developing career related skills, acquiring a useful and relative internship, and developing a successful job-search plan to develop the competent professionals of the future.
Al-Emadi states: “The Career Services Centre offers Student Employment Programme, which provides university students from all disciplines with the opportunity to work and gain practical experience through working in the different university sections , departments and colleges to empower them with the needed practical skills and enrich them with the experience.” She goes on to add that the centre facilitates a more effective communication process between labour market employers and university students by connecting career opportunities to students, and vice versa.
Hernandez adds that VCUQatar has recently launched a Career Services department on the campus: “The aim of this department is to provide students with more opportunities to be exposed to a work environment. Students participate in service learning opportunities and also often participate in field trips which expose them to their future respective industries.”
Corporate partners within companies, organizations, and non-profits provide wide and varied opportunities to host students in an internship. Al-Emadi reveals that Qatar University and colleges sign many annual agreements with different employers from different labour market sectors in order to connect different career opportunities to their students: »We have long lasting cooperative agreements with several government and nongovernmental organizations and agencies, for example, QAPCO, Exxon Mobil, Maersk, Total, Anti-Doping Lab, Shell, Ras Gas, QP , Qatar Gas, Environmental Studies Center (ESC), The Supreme Council for Health, Qatar Environment and the Research Institute/Qatar Foundation.”
She goes on to add that Qatar University is currently working unofficially with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Interior to accommodate their internship student needs: “With increased enrollment of students at the College of Business and Economics (CBE) at QU, we now have 562 students undertaking internship practice in 135 institutions. I confess that it was challenging to fit all these students in, but we managed to do so. However, we need to reach out to more organizations and institutions, both locally and regionally.”
Newkirk also believes the development of excellent, long lasting relationships with private industry, policymakers and other professional organizations is extremely important to future student success in the wider workplace. She notes: “One of the main reasons we spend time cultivating these relationships is that they very often create real opportunities for student internships, and consequently for jobs after graduation. We witness such results not only with our official institutional partners such as Al Jazeera and Doha Film Institute, but also with the many other contacts at leading institutions that our faculty attract from throughout the region and the wider world, in particular Europe and the United States.”
Hernandez says most internship placements at VCUQatar emerge via departments on campus (for example, Graphic Design and Fashion Design). She further notes: “In the future, hopefully my department will play a more active role in developing relationships with companies that could result in more formal internship agreements.”
Paid or unpaid
An intern is usually expected to do similar work to that of an employee, but in most cases, internships are unpaid. Some employers can donate a small amount of recompense as a thank you, but, ultimately, this is a decision that is made by the employer. Abdulla Al Kuwari, a student at Qatar University says: “I was an intern at Qapco. I had to work four hours a day, unpaid. However, I did gain a lot of experience, especially as I discovered that work life is very different from studying at the university.”
Sometimes, internship periods are too short, and some interns think the most appropriate internship period should be six months.
An internship could address lack of experience, but what about other opportunities in the job market? Al Kuwari remarks: “Many students are looking for opportunities to harness their skills, however, getting an internship depends on your situation. Some students find it is easier to get an opportunity, but others find it challenging. Internships can be great, but can also disappoint, usually due to lack of openings in the job market.”
According to Al-Emadi, for the time being there are enough internship opportunities in the local market, but in the future, with the ever growing number of students, problems may arise. “To solve this, more cooperative efforts with the local market are essential, and can be overcome by signing memorandums of understanding with more companies.”
Perhaps the most important overall effect of internship programmes worldwide is that they afford graduates a unique opportunity to access internal hiring queues within organizations and companies. This endows them or potential workers with one vitally powerful advantage. Instead of hiring externally, companies in the 21st century tend to hire from within their own ranks, because the process takes less time, has a positive effect on company ‘togetherness’, is less of a risk, and far more economical. It seems that, on balance, good internships can help to shape the future of education.