What do you imagine when you think about a university education? Sitting in large lecture halls, listening to experts at the front of the room? Working hard on lab experiments or participating in discussion groups? Spending hours in front of books at the university’s library?
While all of these activities are likely to be part of most students’ experience at Canadian universities, increasingly students are also being encouraged to participate in activities that take them outside the classroom and into the community. Look at the web sites of most major Canadian universities and you’ll see that “hands-on” learning that allows students to integrate theories with practice is increasingly viewed as central to the university experience.
This focus on Work Integrated Learning (WIL)—programs that combine work with formal education—is the result of several factors. First, studies, including a series from the Higher Education and Quality Council of Ontario, show that students who complement classroom learning with learning in the community usually feel they learn more deeply and are more confident about themselves and their academic choices direction
As the changing global labour market makes getting a job or getting into graduate school a lot more difficult, having work experience on your resume prior to graduation helps students differentiate themselves from their fellow students. WIL gives graduates a competitive advantage in the labour market, for graduate school, and for professional schools.
So what is WIL and what do students need to know about the different types of programs available to them at most Canadian universities? Most forms of WIL are optional, not required elements of a university degree, and some forms will be better suited to some students than others. Some of the most common types of WIL in Canada include:
Internships: Probably the most commonly used term to describe work experience in industry, Internships can mean paid or unpaid work of varying durations. Unpaid internships have come under scrutiny in North America in the past 2-3 years as stories of large, profitable organizations exploiting unpaid interns have captured headlines. As a result, practices around unpaid internships are changing, and more organizations are looking at bringing on interns either in paid roles, or from university programs that give students’ credit for their internships towards their degree program. Sometimes internship programs are part of a formal university program integrated with the degree, but more often they are opportunities that an employer posts and students apply for, completing them on their own time.
In assessing an internship opportunity, consider: Is it paid? If not, are the volunteer hours reasonable given my other commitments? Will the experience count for credit towards my degree? Has the employer hired interns before? If so, what do past interns say about their experience? Will I be asked to do substantial work related to my degree and career goals, or will I be doing more menial work around the office? If I’m an international student, do I need a work visa for an internship?