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Graduate Matters

Learn by working: experiential pathways in graduate studies

Internships provide students with a broader view of the world and professional skills development, which can transcend their in-class knowledge.


Previously found almost exclusively in undergraduate programs, there is now growing support for developing experiential learning (i.e. work experience) at the graduate level. Students across disciplines are hungry for alternative ways to learn, but also to be remunerated for their skills. Institutions are responding by making space for EL within a busy curriculum. EL bridges the gap between theory and practice by giving students the opportunity to apply the knowledge and skills they’ve gained through their program of study. For example, you may have learned about the best practices for marketing a product in your introduction to marketing course, but when your professor invites a small business into the classroom and you get to develop a strategy to bring their product to market, your textbook comes to life.

The applied work experience might be attached to different names. You might hear it called “co-op,” “internship,” “work-integrated learning” or others. These programs are different in how they are administered and count towards a degree, but they all lead to the same thing – learn by working. For simplicity, these hands-on learn-by-work experiences will be called an “internship.”

Graduate students dive into a narrow specialty within a discipline. The internship brings them back to a broader view of the world and professional skills development, which includes and transcends their in-class knowledge. Here are some ways for you to use the internship to reach your priorities and make learning meaningful:

Play in the sandbox, look at the clouds

The internship is a short commitment, usually a maximum of 16 weeks. The beauty of this work arrangement is that you can test the waters without taking too many risks. Look at the internship as a sandbox, have fun while you are building, dreaming up great things… but know that it is not permanent. If the fit or spark is not there, you can move on to something else. You might also have imagined a profession in a way that doesn’t exactly translate into reality, or discover that it’s so much more than what you expected: there is no way to know for sure until you try it! At the same time, employers are also using an internship as a way to evaluate your long-term future with the team and how or whether to bridge you into a contract or long-term work arrangement. Seeing you interact with your team in the workplace gives an employer information beyond the academic excellence shown on your transcript.

Resources for graduate students building professional toolkits


An internship gives you great insight into a specific field through observing senior staff and supervisors actively contributing to their projects. You get plugged into a whole network of professionals who have come to this same place and time but likely through different avenues: a personal referral, an internship-turned job, many years of related volunteer experience, a personal interest or alignment with values, etc.

Another very desirable element of an internship is that you learn about yourself: how you function in a professional workplace, your preferences, what your values are, etc. Use this time to imagine and see the possibilities that you can bring to this job and vice versa. Get to know yourself through your internship by finding the answers to these questions:

  • What do I enjoy most about the work/culture/environment/personal growth?
  • How do my values and desires align with those of the tasks/team/organization?
  • Do I have enough information about this role to decide if it’s for me?
  • What additional skills and knowledge can I enhance working here?
  • What skillset am I bringing that is unique to me and valuable to them?
  • Which career pathways will open up to me through this experience?
  • How will this work inform my studies/research directions?

Use the internship as a launch pad

Internships provide training and support, as students are not on their own: the supervision provided throughout gives the intern plenty of time to research and develop ways that they can efficiently respond to an assigned task. Interns learn what to do as much as they develop the skills for how to do it. Learning by watching, by trial, and by error: these are the building blocks to honing an intern’s methodology and attaining the best way to move forward.

What is often not shared, but is so particularly valuable, is the intern’s bad experience: this often turns into a blessing in disguise. Interns can often believe that they have chosen what they want to do, when in fact while doing it they discover that it is not what they want at all. This eye-opening experience resets the student’s goals and realigns their career trajectory more accurately: this is why it is so valuable. As mentioned previously, this is a low-stakes decision within an internship setting, since the contract ends after a short period.

When we look at professionals, it may be tempting to see their talents as natural gifts, but what’s less visible is the list of mistakes and failures they’ve made on their own learning paths. They were once students and junior staff before they became the experienced folks you see today. We’re not so quick to discuss our mistakes but they are excellent opportunities to play, learn and ultimately grow.

Below is a list of obvious benefits and hidden gems embedded in an internship:

  • Add credentials or hours of experience of value for future professional recognition;
  • Gain work experience even if it is not a requirement of your graduate degree;
  • Create new relationships with peers and supervisors who provide references or network on the intern’s behalf;
  • Learn new technical skills with employer tools;
  • Integrate into society and learn from peers as well as from supervisors;
  • Mingle with people who can share work experience, lessons, and advice;
  • Develop networks, because who you know, or better yet who knows you, is important to connecting you to opportunities;
  • Provide local experience for students from outside of Canada or Quebec

Every experience, good or bad, brings us closer to understanding ourselves, the world, and how we fit into it. As you prepare for your life post-studies, we hope that encouraging you to think about experiential learning and internships during your graduate studies will be the spark that leads you to personal growth, some form of epiphany… and a great and fulfilling career.

Alice Isac creates new experiential learning programs for students in all programs and levels of study at Concordia University. Emilie Martel accompanies economics students through the transition between studies and the workforce as program coordinator of internships and experiential learning at Concordia. Eve Pankovitch manages the internship and experiential opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students in political science at Concordia. Niem Huynh is an internship matchmaker and supports graduate students in the master’s of environmental assessment program at Concordia.
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