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Ways to get career-related experience during college

From the Post-Graduation Report | We survey graduates. | This is what the 2014-2015 grads told us.

There are many ways to get relevant experience.

92% of VT grads had more than one type of experience during college.

Even so, 1/3 wished they'd gotten more!

Employers comparing graduating seniors as job candidates expect you to have experience outside the classroom.

Freshman year is not too early to start! Look for volunteer work, a part-time or summer job that will be a stepping stone to something more competitive later.

Types of opportunities available vary by career field.


More below about:

Cooperative education = co-op

Field study
Undergraduate research
Part-time & summer jobs
Leadership, involvement in student organizations
Career Services internal work-learn programs



  • Externships, like shadowing, can be a bridge between exploring career options and getting a look at a real world environment. Externships may be short-term or long-term in duration: a few hours to a few days, or perhaps a few hours per week over a semester or year (similar to an internship). The extern would have a pre-arranged time to spend at a work environment to watch and learn from people in that career field or type of work environment.
  • Individuals and organizations who host externs are contributing their valuable time to give you a free learning experience; typically you neither receive compensation nor do you pay for the learning experience. Externships are mostly for the purpose of learning more about a career field or work environment, but if you make a very good impression on the people you meet, it could open the door to another experience (internship, co-op, summer job, etc.) later.
  • Some organizations specifically advertise externships. However, students may take the initiative to arrange an externship by contacting organizations and personnel.
  • There are similarities between externships and shadowing; so sometimes the terms are used interchangeably.
  • More about externships.


  • Shadowing, like externships, can be a bridge between exploring career options and getting a look at a real world environment. Shadowing refers to spending time with a professional on the job for the purpose of observing and learning.
  • Shadowing could be a one-time experience for a few hours or a day; or it could be a multiple-session experience over a span of time.
  • Shadowing does not involve doing work-related tasks because the shadower does not have the qualifications. Shadowing could involve being present during client or patient interactions, so requires a high level of professional behavior. Shadowing is often done by students who wish to enter a medical profession; the student would observe a physician or physical therapist or other health professional to learn how they interact with patients.
  • Shadowing could be done in any career setting in which the the professional would permit this, and in which rules of confidentiality would not be violated.
  • Students who wish to shadow must take the initiative to contact professionals and request to shadow. The professional is doing a favor to allow a student to shadow; the professional would have no need to advertise this and the professional receives no benefit other than the satisfaction of helping to educate a potential future professional.
  • There are similarities between externships and shadowing; so sometimes the terms are used interchangeably.


  • Internships are usually one-term experiences and are often in the summer, though not always.
  • Internships can be paid or unpaid, full-time or part-time, and are sometimes for academic credit; these factors vary by career field and employer.
  • Internship eligibility varies by employer; some offer internships to students who are freshmen; others require a higher academic level.
  • Note that academic credit can only be granted by an academic department, and involves paying tuition. You should make yourself aware of opportunities and requirements in your academic department.
  • Learn more about internships.
  • If your internship is at least 32 hours per week (paid or unpaid), and meets other criteria, and you are an undergraduate, you may be eligible to enroll in the Cooperative Education & Internship Program; this maintains your student status; you do not earn academic credit, but you do not pay tuition for credit hours; you pay only $75 to the university in lieu of tuition (other university fees may be applicable). See Undergraduate Cooperative Education & Internship Program (CEIP) at Virginia Tech.
  • In Career Services, we walk the talk. Work and learn in Career Services
    Undergraduates may apply for our Peer Career Advisor program (replaces our former Internship Program and Career Associates Program).
    Qualified graduate students may gain experience through graduate practica and internships or through our graduate assistantship.

Cooperative Education

  • Co-ops are typically full-time, multi-term work agreements with one organization. For example you might work for your employer the summer after your sophomore year, and the following spring and fall semesters. You might change departments or projects within your organization. Note that some employers use the term co-op to refer to other kinds of work arrangements. Read and listen carefully for these details as you search for co-op positions. At Virginia Tech, from 2003 to 2015, co-op program enrollment by major/college has been comprised of 82% to 92% engineering majors and 3% to 11% business majors. Students in other majors do occasionally enroll in co-op, but most get their experience in other ways.
  • Undergraduate Cooperative Education & Internship Program (CEIP) at Virginia Tech.
  • The Graduate School administers Graduate Student Cooperative Education Program.


  • This is sometimes a first way to get a foot in the door of an organization or career field. Volunteer work can be something you do as an individual, or as part of club or organization involvement.
  • Volunteering can develop skills and experience that you can list on your resume and thus can be a stepping stone to help you get other kinds of experience. Volunteering shows initiative; always a good thing.
  • Volunteering has intrinsic value and can be a source of personal reward. It is also viewed positively by future employers. Consider both the amount of time and your responsibilities in your volunteer work. A volunteer position that spans a semester or a year or longer, involves several hours per week, and allows for increasing responsibility may be just as beneficial as another experience that is labelled as an internship. This will depend on the career field and the nature and scope of your work.

Field study

  • These are typically done through your academic department, for academic credit, and are sometimes required for certain majors. Consult your academic department to see if field studies are offered or required.
  • Field studies typically involve direct hands-on experience in a work environment related to your major. There may be structured academic assignments in addition to the hands-on work.
  • Google "field study" on the Virginia Tech website and you'll find links to field study information in majors including: human development; hospitality and tourism managment; interior design; human nutrition, foods, and exercise; English; geography; political science; residential environment and design; sociology; fashion merchandising; forestry and other majors in the College of Natural Resources and Environment; etc.

Undergraduate research

  • What: Frequently a one-on-one arrangement between you and a faculty member, usually in your academic department, that may be for academic credit. Increasingly there are formal, ongoing, publicized opportunties within the university that you can find described on your department or college web sites. Additionally, organizations external to the university, such as research centers, offer undergraduate research opportunities.
    How to find opportunties:
    • Professors may advertise undergraduate research opportunities, but don't wait for this to happen. Approach professors whose research topics interest you.
    • Read the web sites of your college and your academic department.
      Many opportunities are formalized and explained online.
      These opportunities are continuously expanding within the university.
    • The Office of Undergraduate Research at Virginia Tech is a comprehensive resource for VT students and lists both on- and beyond-campus programs.
    • External to the university: Research centers (which may be independent or affiliated with other universities, government, nonprofit, and/or for profit organizations) also offer undergraduate research opportunities. Watch for information in your academic department and take initiative to research opportunties related to your interests.
  • Why it's important: Undergraduate research is strongly recommended for students who are thinking about applying to graduate school. It is also excellent experience for students who are not considering graduate school.

Part-time and summer jobs

  • Part-time and summer jobs can be important ways to get experience; a job does not have to be labelled as an internship or a co-op to be valuable. The value hinges on the job's relevance to your career field or industry, the skills you develop, and the level of responsibility you earn.
  • These can be a stepping stone to getting a competitive internship later.

Leadership and involvement in student and community organizations

  • Leadership in student and community organizations is viewed very favorably by employers, and can be an essential qualification for certain types of work and career paths.
  • You don't have to be president to be a leader. You could be the volunteer recruiter, the fundraising chair, an event planner or budget manager. The important things are what you accomplish and the skills you use and develop.
  • Look for depth. Get involved and take on a role, serve on a committee, run a project or event, or be an officer. Avoid just joining. Having "member of...," "member of..." on your resume won't look substantive.

Career Services internal work-learn programs


VT grads' experience

92% of 2014-2015 VT grads who responded to the Post-Grad Survey had one or more career-related experiences during their undergraduate.
Percent who did:

52% paid internship
48% summer job
44% part-time job
43% volunteer work
26% u-grad research
22% unpaid internship
13% field study
6% co-op
4% other


Even with all that experience, for the last 12 years, 26% to 35% of the grads said they wished they'd gotten more experience!

By major:

Of course this varies by major! This and more:
Latest Post-Grad Report
All P-G reports & multi-year summaries


Student experience in Career Services

Yes; we walk the talk!
We expect employers to offer opportunties for students to learn through experience. We offer this too!


For undergraduates:

Peer Career Advisors

For graduate students:


Practica & internships