Zhixuan Wu and Vivien Ahrens are Ph.D. students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and project assistants for the “The College Internship Study” (conducted by the Center for College-Workforce Transitions). Here, they give insight into their explorations of an increasingly emerging, yet scarcely researched trend in higher education: college students’ multiple internships.
In a small office at UW-Madison, we poured over the survey responses for The College Internship Study, which highlighted a puzzling phenomenon: Multiple internships. Our data (1549 students surveys from 5 campuses) show that 45 % of college students who participated in an internship, took more than just one (327 took one internship; 147 took multiple internships) .
We have read about the motivations for and benefits of internships. And we have been analyzing focus groups to better understand student experiences. Internships are being promoted as a “high-impact practice” (HIP) to enhance students’ employability . The number of students taking internships while in college has skyrocketed. In 2019, 48% of all seniors completed an internship . As their main motivations, students often describe wanting to gain more “real–world experience”, growing their professional network and gaining “soft skills”, like professional communication . But why do so many students seek more than one internship? Is one not enough?
Townsley and colleagues’ study at Mount Holyoke College suggests that the number of internships a student completes during their undergraduate career is key to their career success after graduation. According to the team’s findings: “Participation in multiple internships in college helps students to secure employment or enter graduate school within six months of graduation” . Silva et al. (2016) studied what they called a “thin sandwich” approach to internships—taking multiple short ones—and found that the approach leads to better employment outcomes than a single long internships . But little research exists on the motivations, experiences, and barriers for students taking multiple internships; our interviews tell more varied stories than the literature captures so far.
We spoke to a finance student, who after a first negative internship experience, went on to intern at 4 different sites, finally finding a business where he expects to be offered full-time employment after graduating. Similarly, an IT programming student experienced discrimination at her first internship at an insurance company but was able to move on to a second positive international internship experience. Another IT student hopes to gain clarity about his career goals in his second unpaid full-time internship, where he’s “just trying things out before [he] commit[s]”. In contrast, a theater major says multiple internships, mostly unpaid, are considered essential for finding employment in her field. Yet, she cannot afford to accept an unpaid position: “For the most part, the – like the first internships that you can get, and oftentimes, like the best internships you can get are not paid… I wasn’t going to be able to come to school because of financials if I had taken any internships.”
We think back to our own experiences in college. While Wu studied environmental engineering in Beijing, Vivien did her BA in cultural anthropology in Munich. Yet, we find surprising similarities: We both completed five internships during college. “You need a ‘bad’ internship before you can get a ‘good’ one”, Wu states matter-of-factly. We are struck by this seemingly paradoxical observation. It seems to match many of our interviewees’ descriptions. The more interesting internships are hard to get, Wu explains. You need to demonstrate “motivation and determination” first, before moving up the internship ladder to more interesting tasks. Vivien finds this to ring true for her own internship “career”, which took her from volunteering, several unpaid internships to accessing more challenging and highly sought-after museum internships with a stipend.
Troubled by this new twist to our inquiry, Wu and I turn back to The College Internship Study data to take a closer look at which students are taking multiple internships. While most student characteristics do not seem to influence internship participation (e.g. ethnicity or income), several facts do stand out to us: Working fulltime jobs decreases students’ odds to take multiple internships by 72%. Furthermore, being one year older decreases the odds to take internships by 2% .
These findings may seem obvious. For multiple internships, you need time. Older, full-time working students are less likely to have the necessary flexibility to take internships. Yet, this brings up several important questions: Is it not actually “an” internship that has “high impact”, but rather multiple? Who has access to multiple, and subsequently, high-quality, internships? Are we actually increasing the achievement gap between non-traditional working students and young full-time students, by promoting internships as a high-impact practice? In summary: For whom are multiple internships truly a ladder, and for whom just a treadmill?
 For students who have taken internships, the average internship number is 1.4.
 Kuh, G. D. (2008). High-impact educational practices: What they are, who has access to them, and why they matter. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.
 National Survey of Student Engagement. (2019). NSSE 2019 High-Impact Practices: US Summary Percentages by Student Characteristics. Retrieved from: http://nsse.indiana.edu/2019_institutional_report/pdf/HIPTables/HIP.pdf
 Knemeyer, A. M., & Murphy, P. R. (2002). Logistics internships: Employer and student perspectives. International Journal of Physical Distribution & Logistics Management, 32(2), 135-152.
 Townsley, E., Lierman, L., Watermill, J., & Rousseau, D. (2017). The impact of undergraduate internships on Post-Graduate Outcomes for the Liberal Arts. NACE Center for Career Development and Talent Acquisition. Retrieved from: https://www.naceweb.org/job-market/internships/study-shows-impact-of-internships-on-career-outcomes/
 Silva, P., Lopes, B., Costa, M., Seabra, D., Melo, A. I., Brito, E., & Dias, G. P. (2016). Stairway to employment? Internships in higher education. Higher Education, 72(6), 703-721.
 A multinomial logistic regression was applied to find the influence of academic, demographic, and socio-economic factors on internship participation status (no internship, one internship, or multiple internships). The p value for age’s influence on internship participation is less than 0.05 and the p value for full time employment’s influence on multiple internship participation is less than 0.01.