By Luke Wilmshurst

Recently, the SPSP launched a new database for student members, providing a list of non-academic internship positions, across a wide range of industries and geographic regions. While this may be a path many graduate students have not given serious thought to yet, it may be worth considering, along with some pros and cons of working outside of academia.

A recent report[1] by a task force on perceptions of non-academic internships offers some interesting insight about how groups differ in their views and expectations. Surveys were administered to SPSP members from three groups: graduate students, faculty members, and people who have pursued non-academic careers. One highlight of this report was some common ground identified between students and faculty members. Both groups were in broad agreement that non-academic internships can be highly valuable, and especially important if a student ultimately pursues a career outside of academia. These groups also shared similar concerns that the internships could potentially become a distraction that may lead to reduced academic productivity. However, a more subtle point can be observed in how these roles were expected to impact academic performance and progression.

Faculty members expressed concern about attrition, fearing greater external exposure could encourage students to exit academia and put an early end to potentially promising academic careers. Meanwhile students envisioned a similar outcome, but felt this departure could be motivated by necessity, as they expressed fear that openly admitting to seek external internships could damage their reputation within their program. Interestingly, the divergence in views identified in the report helps to reveal some possible areas of misunderstanding between students and faculty. Responses suggested that faculty might be far more supportive than students believe. While this would be encouraging, the report is careful not to jump to conclusions, acknowledging the survey responses could also indicate “that faculty are over-reporting their support for students’ participation in an internship, or that students are overly cynical about faculty’s attitudes toward non-academic career paths.”

This raises an interesting question: must non-academic internships represent a source of conflict between students and faculty members? The answer is no, at least not necessarily. The report touches upon this by arguing that “more open dialogue about alternate career paths could go a long way toward correcting this discrepancy”, but stops short of mentioning any specific adjustments that are beneficial and realistic.

One idea for students, to help bridge this gap could be to seek ways to derive academic gains from the experience. Ideally, the right non-academic internship should serve multiple aims. Building relationships with external organizations can potentially be a way to access new data, obtain funding, and even find new ideas to lead future research. Faculty members may have valuable guidance about how to draw connections between industry and academic research, and which learning opportunities are most promising to focus on. If students are apprehensive about discussing this with their supervisor, asking a different faculty member could be helpful option. This is something I learned first hand recently, when I asked a professor for advice about an internship at a consultancy he had previously worked for. He suggested some questions I should ask, which benefitted me greatly be helping me determine that the role was not what I expected, enabling me to adjust quickly and forgo it for a better opportunity. Disclosing interest in these roles carefully, by taking the time to emphasize how this is motivated by a desire for additional development, and not just an interest in financial gain, could help reduce any tension that might otherwise occur.

On the other hand, if faculty members are worried about losing their best graduate students to outside opportunities, they should keep in mind that non-academic internships may provide students with information that makes an academic career seem even more attractive. While there is always a danger that students may shift time and focus away from academic work temporarily, and could be lured by financial and lifestyle benefits, the experience could just as easily transform a fleeting curiosity into a more realistic view, which increases enthusiasm to pursue a career in academia.

Interestingly, this idea that experience can be a valuable teacher is supported by the report in a small, easily overlooked, detail within one of the data tables. A close examination of the responses to questions about reasons for leaving academia reveals a larges gap between views of students and non-academic members regarding ‘work/life balance’. While students had high expectations, weighting this as a strong motivation, people who had extensive experience in external career paths rated this much lower. This might indicate that, given the benefit of hindsight, the grass may not be quite so green on the other side after all.