Thomasena Shaw, Bridgewater State University
Internships have significant early career advantages for undergraduates including less time finding a first employment position, increased monetary compensation and greater overall job satisfaction. Considerable professional and scholarly evidence highlights the important role of undergraduate internships, as well as gaps that exist between students and supervisors regarding the relative importance of specific job skills and professional characteristics. While previous studies have explored the underlying feelings and expectations of the two groups in professional and academic contexts, this exploratory case study uses coorientation as the theoretical framework to examine the levels of agreement, congruency and accuracy that exist between them in relation to key jobs skills and professional characteristics linked with career success; it also provides insight into the extent to which respondents perceive that the internship improved students’ college-learning outcomes. The key findings of this study indicate that the majority of respondents believed that the experience improved performance in relation to college learning outcomes. The study also found that students and supervisors are accurately cooriented with one another in relation to job skills items, but less so when it comes to professional characteristics. This could be particularly problematic for student interns as misperceptions and misunderstanding can potentially lead to missed opportunities for collaboration and integration, and/or a self-fulfilling prophecy where supervisors’ lack of coorientation damages the possibility of a cooperative relationship with current and future student interns, and the academic programs that bring them together.
Mind The Gap: An Exploratory Case Study Analysis of Public Relations Student Intern and On-Site Supervisors’ Perceptions of Job Skills and Professional Characteristics
The internship experience is broadly regarded by practitioners and educators as a critical event that often serves as a transition to an entry-level position (Gault, Redington, & Schlager, 2000; Gibson, 2001) and better employment opportunities for students (Knouse & Fontenot, 2008; Knouse, Tanner, & Harris, 1999; Redeker, 1992; Taylor, 1988). Internships improve college performance via experiential learning (Cantor, 1997; Ciofalo, 1989; McCarthy, 2006), improve personal habits such as time management and dependability (Sapp & Zhang, 2009; Taylor, 1988), have the potential to strengthen academic programs via service learning and citizenship (Fall, 2006; Mendel-Reyes, 1998), and help students make valuable connections with industry (Tovey, 2001) and community partners (Bringle, 2002; Soska & Butterfield, 2013). Internships provide students with a unique opportunity to gain valuable interpersonal, social, and contextual attitudes necessary for entry into non-academic settings (Anson & Forsberg, 1992), and crystallize personal interests and career ambitions (Coco, 2000).
Professional and scholarly evidence suggests a gap exists between students and supervisors regarding the relative importance of specific job skills and professional characteristics (CPRE, 1999; CPRE, 2006; Daugherty, 2011; Neff, Walker, Smith, & Creedon, 1999; Todd, 2014). While these and other studies have explored the underlying feelings and expectations of the two groups in professional and academic contexts, this study uses coorientation as the theoretical framework. Specifically, the researcher examines the levels of accuracy, congruency and agreement that exist between the two groups in relation to a number of job skills and professional characteristics considered necessary for a positive internship experience and future career success. The results are intended to extend existing understanding of the topic and suggest intentional changes to course design and dialogue regarding teaching practices that could improve student learning outcomes – ultimately laying the groundwork for the two groups to “coorient” toward one another accurately.
In the next section of this paper, a review of literature defines and examines the benefits of the internship experience, explores it in a public relations program context, and outlines the study’s theoretical framework: coorientation. Next, the researcher outlines the survey methodology employed, describes results, and discusses implications of the findings.
Benefits of the Internship Experience
Internships help students transition to entry-level positions (Gault, Redington, & Schlager, 2000; Gibson, 2001), improve interconnections between service learning and citizenship education (Fall, 2006; Mendel-Reyes, 1998), and have the potential to strengthen relationships between the academy and business and community partners (Tovey, 2001). An article in The Chronicle of Higher Education states that academic internships are valuable partnerships that allow students to collaborate closely with faculty, and strengthen ties between the academy and the community—whether students are paid or not (Westerberg & Wickersham, 2011). Regarding the benefits to the organization, internships provide direct business contact for students in an employment setting (Gupta, Burns, & Schiferl, 2010), prepare students with realistic expectations of their future careers, and an opportunity to gain on-the-job experience (Paulins, 2008). They provide additional well-educated, talented labor capacity (Brindley & Ritchie, 2000; Callanan & Benzing, 2004; Mihail, 2006), “compensation efficiencies” (Maertz, Stoeberl, & Marks, 2014), and an opportunity to see how much potential a student has in the field before hiring them (Coco, 2000). Indeed, Watson (1995) estimated that it is $15,000 per person less expensive to hire interns than to recruit and select candidates from an at-large pool. Maertz, Stoeberl, and Marks (2014) assert that interns are often more loyal toward the company and stay longer than the average non-intern hire.
College Internship Experiences Defined
The earliest recorded college-endorsed employment program was established in 1906 at the University of Cincinnati’s Cooperative Education Program (Thiel & Hartley, 1997). Typical contemporary internship programs have the following attributes: they offer a specific number of work hours, paid or unpaid employment, credit for college classes, supervision by a faculty coordinator or other university contact, and supervision by an organization mentor (DiLorenzo-Aiss & Mathisen, 1996; Gault, Redington, & Schlager, 2000; Roznowski & Wrigley, 2003). To maximize the internship experience, Coco (2000) asserts that students should be held accountable for projects and deadlines. Lubbers and Bourland-Davis (2012) suggest that on-site supervisors should provide incoming interns with some kind of orientation, where goals are clearly articulated, and with access to regular meaningful feedback. This type of internship experience resembles what Kuh (2008) describes as high-impact practices when they are effortful, help students build substantive relationships, help students engage across differences, provide students with rich feedback, help students apply and test what they are learning in new situations, and provide opportunities for students to reflect on the people they are becoming.
Divine, Linrud, Miller, and Wilson (2007) indicate that approximately 90% of U.S. colleges offer internships or similar experiential opportunities. In 2016, a US News and World Report survey of 324 ranked colleges and universities found that on average 40% of the undergraduate class of 2014 had internship experience. At the eight schools with the highest rates of participation, 100% of undergraduates completed an internship (Smith-Barrow, 2016). A National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE, 2016) report found that more than 56% of students from the class of 2015 who participated in an internship had received at least one job offer by April of that year (compared to only 36.5% of undergrads who did not have an internship) and that the intern conversion rate was 51.7%.
The Internship Experience in a Public Relations Program Context
Internships are strongly encouraged and valued among both public relations educators and employers; the experience lends credibility to university public relations programs (Van Leuven, 1989a), and allows students to observe public relations practitioners in the roles of manager, strategist, planner, problem solver and counselor to management (Baxter, 1993). Lubbers, Bourland-Davis and Rawlins (2008) describe it as a process of socialization through which interns learn the values associated with the profession.
The industry’s largest organization of public relations professionals, the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), encourages internships as a key way for students to enhance their education, résumé, portfolio, networking, and technical skills (Beebe, Blaylock, & Sweetser, 2009). A national study conducted by the Commission on Public Relations Education entitled “A Port of Entry” recommends a supervised work experience as one of the core courses for students majoring or pursuing an emphasis in public relations (CPRE, 1999); the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications (ACEJMC) also advocates and encourages opportunities for internship and other professional experiences outside the classroom (ACEJMC, 2013).
Research also supports the notion that a quality public relations internship increases job satisfaction after graduation (Horowitz, 1997), is a necessity for mass communication students making the transition from college to career (Beard & Morton, 1999), and is typically favored by students to seek mentoring and to make contacts (Basow & Byrne, 1993).
With regard to discipline-specific skills supervisors believed most necessary for public relations interns, Beard and Morton (1999) identify six predictors for internship success in a public relations context: (1) academic preparedness, (2) proactivity/aggressiveness, (3) positive attitude, (4) quality of worksite supervision, (5) organizational practices and policies, and (6) compensation. Brown and Fall (2005) identified writing, oral, and organizational skills, and note that the most valued professional characteristics were intangible: motivation and “healthy, upbeat attitudes” (p. 303). The aforementioned “Port of Entry” report (1999, p. 12) identified the following as core skills: mastery of language in written/oral communication; community relations, consumer relations, employee relations and other practice areas; research methods and analysis; problem solving and negotiation; and informative and persuasive writing.
Disparities Regarding Learning Outcomes
Despite the obvious benefits of the internship experience, research does indicate that disparities exist between how public relations practitioners, academic programs, and students perceive the importance of job skills and professional characteristics, which has the potential to lead to missed opportunities for all parties.
A study conducted on behalf of the Association of American Colleges and Universities (Hart, 2016) indicated that the college learning outcomes employers considered top priorities include demonstration in “cross-cutting skills” related to communication, teamwork, ethical decision-making, critical thinking, and applying knowledge in real-world settings (p.1). Sixty percent of employers indicated that they would be much more likely to consider a candidate that had recently completed an internship. However, 44% felt that recent college graduates were not well-prepared to apply their knowledge in real-world settings, and gave students low scores for preparedness across a range of college learning outcomes including ability to communicate orally, working effectively with others in teams, and critical thinking and analytical reasoning skills. There was alignment in the category referred to as staying current with new technologies; however, students were more than twice as likely as employers to think they were prepared in terms of oral communication, written communication, critical thinking, and creativity.
Two separate Commission on Public Relations Education reports (CPRE, 1999; CPRE, 2006) indicate that a number of key competencies and skills were weak or missing among entry-level public relations graduates, including: writing skills, understanding of business practices, and critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Neff, Walker, Smith, and Creedon (1999) assert that gaps exist between the outcomes educators and employers desire and those presently achieved in public relations education. They found that public relations graduates don’t always meet entry-level outcome competencies expected by employers, and recommended changes in curriculum, pedagogy and assessment.
It would appear that these disparities also spill over into the internship experience. Meng (2013) found differences between students and practitioners; practitioners ranked strategic decision-making capability, ability to solve problems and produce desired results, and communication knowledge and expertise highest. Meanwhile, public relations students rated ability to solve problems and produce desired results, being trustworthy and dependable, and relationship-building abilities highest. Sapp and Zhang (2009) found that industry supervisors rated students’ performance in the categories of attitude and interaction the highest, and skills related to the students’ writing skills, ability to take initiative, professional skills, spoken communication skills, and time management skills among the lowest. In Daugherty’s (2011) study, students indicated that they wanted more skill development and hands-on training, while on-site supervisors saw their role as more holistic. Todd (2014) found that public relations managers rated the job skills and professional characteristics of their entry-level millennial charges significantly lower than the latter group rated themselves.
Many of the research articles, studies and reports detailed above explore the public relations internship experience from a variety of perspectives, including that of student interns and their on-site supervisors, but none have explored the degree of coorientation—agreement, congruence and accuracy—each group perceives the other to have with his/her own evaluations in relation to recognized job skills and professional characteristics. Coorientation rests on the assumption that a person’s behavior is based on a combination of his/her personal construction of the world and the perception of orientations of those around them (Heider, 1946; Newcomb, 1953). As such, the theory suggests methods for measuring the degree of mutual orientation of individuals, groups or organizations toward an object, or the consensus among them about an object (Pearson, 1989). In this study, coorientation theory will be used to explore if perceptions regarding the job skills/professional characteristics necessary for a successful public relations internship experience are accurate or not. This will identify underlying disparities (if they exist), and facilitate discussion of implications for public relations educators, student interns, and on-site supervisors.
Theoretical Framework: Coorientation
Coorientation theory stems from the study of social psychology. Essentially, the term coorientation refers to simultaneous orientations, so if person A (on-site supervisor) feels negatively toward B (student intern) and positively about X (job skills and/or professional characteristics), and finds out that B feels positively about X as well, then the system can be said to be imbalanced, or asymmetrical. Ultimately, this imbalance can impede any moves toward balance or improvement of the relationship between the two parties. Therefore, coorientation can be seen as a relational term, and it is via communication that it is achieved. According to Johnson (1989), from this perspective, it is imperative that consensus is examined as an interaction between people rather than being the property of a single individual.
Perhaps the most recognizable names in this research stream are McLeod and Chaffee (1973) who developed a coorientation measurement model with three variables: agreement, congruency and accuracy. Perfect communication between the two groups (A and B), totally free of constraints, would not necessarily improve agreement, and it might even reduce congruency. Indeed, if the two are motivated to coorient, it can actually facilitate understanding, but it should always improve accuracy, even to the point where each person knows exactly what the other is thinking; this would be perfect communication in a quite literal sense.
The model, outlined in Figure 1, provides a visual representation of coorientation in relation to this study, which explores the relationship between the two groups’ (on-site supervisors and student interns) self-reported attitudes toward an object (rating of job skills and professional characteristics) as well as their perceptions of each other’s self-report. This produces three coorientation variables: agreement, congruency and accuracy.
Figure 1 Coorientation model representation of supervisors’ and interns’ ranking of job skills and professional characteristics. (Adapted from: The coorientation model of measurement. (From McLeod, J.M. & Chaffee, S.H. (1973). Interpersonal approaches to communication research. American Behavioral Scientist, 16, 484. Sage.)
Coorientation Variables Defined: Agreement, Congruency and Accuracy
Agreement indicates the degree to which the two groups’ beliefs on the issue (rating of job skills and professional characteristics) are similar. Perceived disagreement/agreement on the issue by the two groups is described as congruency. Accuracy is the extent to which one group’s cognition (e.g., interns’ perception of supervisors’ ranking of job skills and professional characteristics) equals what the other group actually reported.
According to Kim (1986), of the three measurements, accuracy is considered to be the most important because it can provide a clear picture of the effects of communication. For example, in terms of this study, agreement on the focal point—what job skills and professional characteristics are most important—must take place before true understanding can occur. Although communication may often produce some increase in accuracy, it rarely produces total agreement because each person arrives at his/her beliefs through personal experiences. Communication can produce marked increases in accuracy between the two groups because the more two parties coorient by communicating private values to each other, the more accurate perceptions of those values have the potential to become (Chaffee & McLeod, 1968).
It is important to note at this point that the coorientation variables—agreement, congruency and accuracy—are not functionally independent of one another, since each is based on two measures. Thus, if agreement is low and congruency is high, accuracy is necessarily low; if agreement and congruency are both high (or low), accuracy is high. A change in one of these variables will affect change in another if the third is held constant (Chaffee & McLeod, 1968). For example, if a public relations program makes student interns more accurate in their perceptions of the rigors and demands of actual public relations practice, then congruency for that public will also change. The direction of the change, higher or lower congruency, depends on the degree to which the initial supervisors’ definition of the issue was similar to student interns’ views.
Examples of the theory being used by public relations researchers include use in the exploration of public issues (Broom, 1977), media relations (Kopenhaver, Martinson, & Ryan, 1977), understanding between government organizations and interest groups (Grunig, 1972), non-profit organizations and donors (Waters, 2009), journalist and practitioner attitudes toward social media (Avery, Lariscy, & Sweetser, 2011), and international relations (Verčič & Verčič, 2007).
There can be no doubt that student interns are operating in more competitive and dynamic environments than ever before, and it is therefore imperative that both groups identify issues that may help or hinder their relationship. Expanding knowledge of the role and importance of the relationship that exists between them, as well as how each group reacts to similar stimuli/events (i.e., improving the level of coorientation), will potentially lead to improved student effectiveness and success, and more fruitful collaborations between academic programs and real-world industry/organizations.
This study will address the following research questions:
RQ1a: How do respondents’ rate/score specific job skills (JS) and professional characteristics (PC)?
RQ1b: Is there a significant difference in the levels of coorientation (agreement, congruency and accuracy) regarding JS and PC between the two groups?
RQ2: Do respondents perceive that the internship experience improves students’ learning outcomes?
The researcher secured IRB approval, and pre-tested the survey with a small sample of faculty and students to verify categorical representation, and assess validity and comprehension. A Qualtrics survey link was then distributed to all students listed as belonging to the Strategic Communication/Public Relations concentration in the final three weeks of a traditional 15-week fall (2015) semester (N = 135) at a mid-sized public Northeastern regional university. All of the students who participated had completed (or were currently taking) a public relations practicum class, which uses a 120-hour required field experience as a focal point (course prerequisites include Introduction to Public Relations and Strategic Writing). Students worked at the job site 6-8 hours per week with an on-site supervisor (who is employed in a public relations capacity at the job site) and engaged in similar types of activities—event planning and coordination, strategic writing, preparing strategic awareness/promotion materials, etc. The on-site supervisor survey was emailed to students’ supervisors (students provided contact information in their survey). An initial solicitation email with a web-link to the survey was distributed to both groups and followed up with one reminder email; this yielded 32 completed student surveys (n = 32; response rate = 22%) and 15 supervisor surveys (n = 15, response rate = 50%).
The survey was comprised of three sections. The first gathered relevant demographic data from respondents, the second section asked respondents to rate/score eight job skills and 12 professional characteristics according to (1) his/her own perceptions, and (2) how they predict the other group would rank them (1 being most important, 12 least important).
This section has preliminary convergent validity as it adapts criteria presented in a study conducted by Todd (2014) that also divided tasks and responsibilities into two of these constructs. The third section of the survey explored the extent to which the internship experience improved students’ abilities related to a number of college learning outcomes (5-point Likert scale; 1 = no improvement, 2 = slight improvement, 3 = moderate improvement, 4 = significant improvement, 5 = not applicable). This section has preliminary convergent validity because it uses several of the same constructs presented in a study conducted on behalf of the Association of American Colleges and Universities that identified college learning outcomes employers considered top priorities. The Cronbach’s α score was 0.86, which demonstrates acceptable internal reliability. The final section of the survey asked respondents to answer open-ended questions related to the overall experience, and challenges/suggestions. The convenience nature of the survey and small sample size mean that external validity for both the quantitative and qualitative parts of the study are low; therefore, only face validity can be assumed.
Description of Respondents
Of the 47 respondents participating in the study, 68% (n = 32) were student interns and 32% (n = 15) were on-site supervisors. Sixty-eight percent (n = 24) of the interns were female and 32% (n = 8) were male; on-site supervisors were 53% female (n = 8) and 47% male (n = 7). Student respondents were mostly aged 21-25 (93% of students; n = 28); on-site supervisors’ ages ranged from 26-65, the median age being 39. The majority of both student and on-site supervisors identified as Caucasian (81%; students n = 26 and supervisors n = 13). The student respondents were mostly seniors (93%; n = 28), 19 % (n = 6) were juniors. All on-site supervisors (n = 15) reported having a 4-year college degree, two of them (20%) have a master’s degree. In the on-site supervisor group, 67% (n = 10) work in private not-for profit (charitable organization), the remainder work in other non-profit settings (local government n = 2; state government n = 2). Just over half of the students (53%; n = 17) reported that this was their first internship; 22% (n = 7) have had two; 19% (n = 6) have had three internships. In terms of how many hours students have worked at their internships, 66% (n = 21) worked under 10 hours; 19% (n = 6) worked over 15 hours. On-site supervisors indicated that 47% (n = 7) have had just one student intern, 33% (n = 5) have had more than three, and 20% (n = 3) had two interns. The majority of supervisors indicated that interns worked fewer than 10 hours per week (80%; n = 12).
RQ1a: How do respondents rate/score the importance of related job skills and professional characteristics?
Job skills: student interns. With regard to the eight job skills (see Table 1), student interns reported their top four (in order of preference) as, quality of work (M = 6.28, SD = 1.37), overall performance (M = 5.72, SD = 2.55), writing skills (M = 5.56, SD = 1.62), and job task preparation (M = 5.06, SD = 2.15). Their bottom four were oral communication skills (M = 4.81, SD = 1.92), knowledge of social media (M = 3.19, SD = 2.07), computer skills (M = 3.0, SD = 1.66), and research skills (M = 2.4, SD = 1.38).
Job skills – Students’ and Supervisors’ Self Mean
|Job Skill||Student self-mean||Supervisor self-mean||Difference in means|
|Knowledge of social media||3.19||3.14||.05|
|Oral communication skills||4.81||5.48||-.67|
|Job task preparation||5.06||5.13||-.07|
|Quality of work||6.28||6.5||.22|
Job skills: on-site supervisors. On-site supervisors reported their top four job skills (see Table 1) in order of preference as, quality of work (M = 6.5, SD = 1.50), writing skills (M = 5.91, SD = 1.22), oral communication skills (M = 5.48, SD = 1.84), and job task preparation (M = 5.13, SD = 2.40). Their bottom four were research skills (M = 3.84, SD = 2.54), overall performance (M = 3.31, SD = 2.84), knowledge of social media (M = 3.14, SD = 1.33), and computer skills (M = 2.9, SD = 1.03).
Professional characteristics: students. As there are 12 professional characteristics (PC), the researcher divided them into two groups—top and bottom (see Table 2). Student interns reported the top PC needed by interns as, willingness to learn (M = 9.75, SD = 2.47), time management (M = 9.12, SD = 1.69), attention to details (M = 9.03, SD = 2.54), accept responsibility (M = 7.87, SD = 2.54), follow instructions (M = 7.84, SD = 2.7), and punctuality (M = 6.34, SD = 3.17). The bottom lower ranked were, take on new tasks (M = 6.12, SD = 2.98), cooperation (M = 5.96, SD = 2.23), accept criticism (M = 5.65, SD = 2.71), work independently (M = 5.25, SD = 3.3), aware of ethics (M = 2.65, SD = 2.85), and understand diversity (M = 2.37, SD = 1.94).
Professional Characteristics – Students’ and Supervisors’ Self Mean
|Professional Characteristics||Student self-mean||Supervisor self-mean||Difference in means|
|Aware of ethics||2.66||3.07||-.41|
|Take on new tasks||6.12||5.20||.92|
|Attention to details||9.03||10.13||-1.10|
|Willingness to learn||9.75||11.87||-2.12|
Professional characteristics: on-site supervisors. On-site supervisors reported their top PC as (see Table 2), willingness to learn (M = 11.87, SD = 0.516), attention to details (M = 10.13, SD = 1.55), follow instructions (M = 7.93, SD = 2.54), time management (M = 7.4, SD = 2.13), accept responsibility (M = 7.27, SD = 1.94), and work independently (M = 6.93, SD = 3.47). The bottom ranked PCs were, cooperation (M = 6.07, SD = 1.86), accept criticism (M = 5.93, SD = 1.94), take on new tasks (M = 5.2, SD = 1.78), punctuality (M = 3.93, SD = 2.78), aware of ethics (M = 3.07, SD = 3.49), and understand diversity (M = 2.27, SD = .88).
RQ1b: Is there a significant difference in the levels of coorientation (agreement, accuracy, congruence) between the two groups?
Agreement. When respondents’ self–reports are compared to the self-reports of members of the other group, a coorientational insight into the level of agreement that exists between the two groups was obtained by utilizing a non-parametric statistical measure: the Mann-Whitney U test. The central question here is: Do students and supervisors agree on the rating/scoring of the items (student self vs supervisor self)?
Mann-Whitney U-tests indicated that, for the most part, the two groups agreed with one another on the ratings/scores of the eight JS presented in the survey. The only exception relates to the item overall performance (z = -2.813, p = 0.005). Here, students’ mean scores were higher than supervisors’ self-reports (student mean = 5.7; supervisor mean = 3.30).
Regarding the 12 PCs, respondents’ scores were similar on the majority of the items except for three items: (1) willingness to learn (z = -3.474, p = 0.001)—supervisors rated it higher than students (supervisor mean = 11.80; student mean = 9.70); (2) time management (z = -2.601, p = 0.009)—students rated it higher than supervisors (student mean = 9.1; supervisor mean =7.40); and (3) punctuality (z = -2.503, p = 0.012)—students rated it higher that their on-site counterparts (student mean = 6.3; supervisor mean = 3.9).
Congruency. To achieve coorientational insight into the level of congruency, respondents’ self–reports are compared to their projections of “other group” responses. Mann-Whitney U-tests compared respondents’ selections. The central question here is: How similar are respondents’ ratings/scores of job skills and professional characteristics to how they perceive their counterparts will rate/score the items (student self vs. student other; supervisor self vs. supervisor other)?
Student interns. Student intern ratings/scores were congruent with their perceptions of how supervisors would rate/score the items. No significant differences occurred in the JS category. Regarding professional characteristics, congruence also exists across all items; students’ ratings/scores were similar to their perceptions of how supervisors’ would rate/score the items across all items.
Professional Characteristics – Supervisor Congruency
|Professional Characteristics||z score||p value|
|Willingness to learn||-4.670||.000|
|Attention to details||-2.585||.010|
|Take on new tasks||-4.648||.000|
|Aware of ethics||-3.656||.000|
On-site supervisors. Supervisors’ ratings/scores of job skills were congruent with their perceptions of how students would rate/score all JS items except for social media (z = -1.900, p = 0.050). However, in the PC category, there was a distinct lack of congruency across all items except work independently (z = -1.827, p = 0.068; see Table 3); supervisors’ ratings/scores were significantly different to their perceptions of how students would rate/score the items.
The central question was: How similar are respondents’ ratings/scores of job skills and professional characteristics to how they perceive their counterparts will rate/score the items (student self vs. student other; supervisor self vs. supervisor other)? Students displayed high levels of congruency—how they ranked all items in the job skills and professional characteristics categories matched how they perceived their supervisor counterparts would rank the items. On-site supervisors also displayed high levels of congruency in the job skills section; however, in the professional characteristics category, supervisors perceived that students’ selections would be different to their choices.
Accuracy. Finally, when student intern self-reports (or on-site supervisors) were compared to their projections of how the other group would respond, a coorientational insight into the level of accuracy that exists between the two groups is obtained. Mann-Whitney U-tests calculated accuracy within the student intern and on-site supervisor groups respectively. The central question here is: How do respondents’ (self) ratings/scores compare with their counterparts’ perceptions (other) of how they will rate/score the items (student self vs. supervisor other; supervisor self vs. student other)?
Student interns. Regarding JS, student interns’ ratings/scores compared with on-site supervisors’ perceptions of how they would respond was mostly accurate, except in relation to the item overall performance (z = -2.447, p = 0.014). Regarding the PC items listed in the survey, student interns’ ratings/scores compared with supervisors’ perceptions of how they would respond was accurate for just three items: willingness to learn, attention to details, and time management. Inaccuracy existed in relation to the ratings/scores of nine items: following instructions (z = -2.338, p = 0.019), taking responsibility (z = -2.453, p = 0.014), punctuality (z = -3.320, p = 0.001), cooperation (z = -4.197, p = 0.000), accept criticism (z = -4.197, p = 0.000), taking on new tasks (z = -3.680, p = 0.000), working independently (z = -3.982, p = 0.000), diversity (z = -5.362, p = 0.000), and ethics (z = -4.801, p = 0.00).
On-site supervisors: Regarding JS items, supervisor’ ratings/scores compared with student interns’ perceptions of how they would respond was mostly accurate. The only exception was regarding the items oral communication (z = -2.754, p = 0.006) and overall performance (z = -2.716, p = 0.007). In relation to the rating/score of PC items, on-site supervisors’ ratings/scores compared with students’ perceptions of how they would respond was accurate across most of the items. Inaccuracy existed in relation to three: willingness to learn (z = -3.103, p = 0.002), time management (z = -2.556, p = 0.011), and punctuality (z = -2.687, p = 0.007)
The central question here is: How do respondents’ (self) ratings/scores compare with their counterparts’ perceptions (other) of how they will rate/score the items? In this study, supervisors provided stronger evidence of coorientational accuracy than their student counterparts. When asked to project themselves as the opposite group, supervisors were better at predicting on-site supervisors’ responses (inaccuracy only occurred in two job skills items: oral communication and overall performance; and three professional characteristics items: willingness to learn, time management and punctuality). Students did display evidence of accuracy in their predictions of supervisors’ ratings of job skills (except for one item, overall performance); however, they were very poor at predicting their counterparts’ responses in the majority (nine) of the professional characteristics categories (they only accurately predicted students’ ratings of willingness to learn, attention to detail and time management).
RQ3: Do respondents perceive that the internship experience improved students’ learning outcomes?
A Mann-Whitney U-test revealed that significant differences did not exist between the two groups regarding perceptions of whether the internship experience improved students’ learning outcomes; both groups reported that the experience resulted in moderate to significant improvement across all 12 recognized college learning outcomes (Cronbach’s α = 0.86).
Students. On a 5-point Likert scale (1 = no improvement, 2 = slight improvement, 3 = moderate improvement, 4 = significant improvement, 5 = not applicable), the majority of student respondents (N = 32) indicated that they improved across all college learning outcome categories while working as an intern (M = 3.43).
Supervisors. On a 5-point Likert scale (1 = no improvement, 2 = slight improvement, 3 = moderate improvement, 4 = significant improvement, 5 = not applicable), the majority of on-site supervisors indicated that students improved across all college learning outcome categories while working as interns (M = 3.49).
Responses to open-ended questions
Students and supervisors were asked several open-ended questions about challenges they experienced related to the internship, and suggestions related to curriculum/coursework to make the internship experience more successful.
Students. Student interns indicated that the most significant challenges they faced related to time and work-load management, the unpaid nature of internships, the strong emphasis on writing ability, and adapting to working in a “professional” environment:
[My challenges] were definitely being able to balance the work load [while] still being a full time [sic] student. Being involved on campus, having 3 internships in total, and still trying to make money [with] a part time job. It was tough balancing everything, as all the work from each of these things was incredibly important…at times it was really hard to make [priority] decisions.
[When] the internship is unpaid, it makes it very difficult to make ends meet. This is especially true when having to travel to the job site.
I think one of my biggest challenges was being able to write press releases since I never [wrote] them at a professional level before. I definitely had trouble with certain types of writing such as creating brochures and news releases.
Learning the expectations of my co-workers/supervisor and making sure I always met, and/or exceeded them. This was a challenge at times because I was new to the real world [sic] environment and didn’t know what to expect.
With regard to suggestions to the curriculum/coursework to make the internship experience more successful, most students did not respond to this question. Those who did were very satisfied with their preparation and experience: “I wouldn’t change a thing, it was a great experience. I loved the balance between the classroom and the field experience.” Another student stated: “I can’t imagine it being more successful. I learned so much.”
Some student suggestions included: “[Adding] a writing refresher workshop prior to beginning [the] internship would be beneficial,” and “Taking a business management class may have really helped too.” Additionally:
Possibly a class with reminders on basic guidelines on how to write press releases and other basic PR writing tools. I found myself looking at past assignments from previous years for help, my writing was not always as strong as I wanted it to be.
When asked what the internship taught them about their major/discipline, students indicated that they learned more about the scope of public relations: “It taught me valuable writing skills and how to tailor wording to meet the needs of specific audiences. I think I improved my listening skills as well.
Two other students responded:
I learned that there are many different facets to public relations, and problems are always going to occur. Working for a non-profit was challenging, but there were also many benefits. I now know that it requires passion and a dedication not required in most regular office jobs.
I definitely learned how to communicate in a more professional setting, i.e. through emails, phone calls, person-to-person, etc. This experience opened my eyes to not only the inner workings of a real world business, but also to new workplace skills that I will definitely use in the future.
Supervisors. With regard to challenges, for supervisors it seems that the biggest issue related to the limited time interns worked on-site: “[The] only challenge was that she only worked two days a week and [I] felt bad trying to reach her to follow up on items during days when she wasn’t working.” Another student stated:
I couldn’t be happier with the experience I’ve had with my intern. All of her work has been of the highest quality and she never hesitates to take on new tasks and responsibilities. She consistently surpasses expectations and brings great insight and value to my department. The only challenge I may have encountered was keeping her busy because she was so efficient!
Regarding suggestions, supervisors indicated that perhaps more interaction with academic advisors would be helpful:
More correspondence from the advisers is always helpful – I like having a weekly bi-weekly or monthly check-in with the college staff to ensure the student, adviser, and internship supervisor are all on the same page.
I felt like my intern had a very strong grasp of communication principles, specifically in regards to public relations and social media. Her coursework absolutely prepared her for work in those fields. Communications work can often come with broad job descriptions and require the communicator to wear many ‘hats’ [sic]. It seems to me that my intern had a strong academic foundation that would be an asset in adapting to this kind of situation.
Finally, additional comments offered by supervisors were complimentary of interns:
Our experience so far has been awesome. We currently have two different interns here for different reasons and they are both very motivated, intelligent and helpful. They are a great addition to our organization.
I’d just like to compliment the faculty on offering a generation of new communicators such a high level of preparation for an industry that changes daily with the advent of new technologies and vehicles for messaging. I’m excited to see what these future professionals will bring to the table!
DISCUSSION AND CONCLUSION
Discipline-specific skills that supervisors consider most necessary for public relations interns include strategic writing, oral, and organizational skills, research skills; problem solving and negotiation; and informative and persuasive writing (Brown & Fall, 2005; CPRE, 1999). Meng (2013) and Sapp and Zhang (2009) found that the practitioners rank strategic decision-making capability, problem solving, and communication knowledge and expertise highest, while public relations students rate ability to solve problems and produce desired results, writing skills, oral communication skills, and time management skills among the lowest. The results of this study indicate that students mostly agreed with on-site supervisors (and vice-versa) in relation to their ratings of job skills and professional characteristics. Students placed high ratings on quality of work, overall performance, writing skills, and job task responsibility; oral communication, knowledge of social media, computer skills and research skills were lower rated. On-site supervisors’ top-rated job skills were quality of work, writing skills, oral communication and job task responsibility; lower rated items were research skills, overall performance, knowledge of social media and computer skills.
While there are many benefits related to the internship experience, disparities do exist between how students and supervisors perceive the importance of job skills and professional characteristics, which can lead to missed opportunities for all (Meng, 2013; Sapp & Zhang 2009; Todd, 2014). This survey indicates that regarding job skills, student interns and on-site supervisors are both cooriented to one another across all three coorientation variables (agreement, congruency and accuracy). Regarding professional characteristics items, both groups were also cooriented to one another regarding the agreement variable (student self vs. supervisor self); however, significant differences exist among on-site supervisors regarding the congruency variable (supervisor self vs supervisor other), and students regarding the accuracy variable (student self vs supervisor other). This finding is potentially more problematic for student interns than on-site supervisors because, according to Kim (1986), of the three measurements, accuracy is the most important; it must take place before true understanding can occur. Misperceptions and misunderstanding have the potential to result in missed opportunities for collaboration and integration, and/or a self-fulfilling prophecy where a lack of coorientation between both students and supervisors damages the possibility of a cooperative relationship with current and future student interns, and the academic programs that provide access to students.
With regard to college learning outcomes, literature indicates that employers believe that engaging students in internships improves college-learning outcomes, makes students better prepared for career success, and potentially a high-impact learning experience that deepens learning (Hart, 2016; O’Neill 2010). In this study, the majority of students perceived that improvement was “significant,” while supervisors’ perceived improvement was “moderate.” These findings differ from several reports that indicate that public relations graduates re not meeting entry-level outcome competencies (CPRE, 1997; CPRE, 2006; Neff, Walker, Smith, & Creedon, 1999). The high-impact focus of the internship experience respondents of this study participated in may have deepened perceptions of learning and successful outcomes for students.
In the open-ended portion of the survey, students stated that they valued the real-world nature of the experience, and learned a lot about the scope of public relations; challenges mostly related to time and work-load management, the unpaid nature of experience, and the strong emphasis on writing ability. Supervisors identified limited time interns worked on site as a key challenge, but for the most part, they reported being very satisfied with their interns.
The findings of this study suggest that both groups were cooriented to one another in relation to perceptions of the job skills associated with the internship experience; however, in relation to the professional characteristics category, supervisors indicated lower levels of congruency (supervisor self vs. supervisor other), which means accuracy and overall coorientation between the two groups is low. Blindly assuming that all parties share a common understanding of goals, outcomes, tasks and responsibilities can lead to missed opportunities for collaboration and integration, and/or damage the possibility of a cooperative relationship with current and future student interns, and the academic programs that provide access to students
Suggestions to overcome discrepancies
- Faculty supervisors should clearly communicate to all parties (not just students) what practical expectations, roles, and responsibilities are associated with the experience. This can be achieved by encouraging collaboration between student and supervisor (prior to the start of the internship) in the learning goals and outcomes identification process.
- Details related to projects and deadlines, expectations regarding the degree of autonomy/independence versus teamwork/direction could also be established. This could be achieved by collaborating in the creation of a “contract” document in the opening days/weeks of the internship.
In addition to collaboration related to expectations, the provision of rich feedback to the student from both the faculty and on-site supervisor can benefit all parties and the hallmark of high-impact internships. This feedback can relate to the practical day-to-day tasks/responsibilities, but also engaging students and their supervisors in reflective conversations related to the interns’ career goals and opportunities to reflect on the people they are becoming.
Scaffolding relevant prior learning (Introduction to Public Relations and Public Relations Writing classes as prerequisites) and encouraging reflection on challenges/opportunities can take the form of journals—shared with faculty and on-site supervisors—that hone writing skills and prompt students to engage in critical thinking related to the experience; it can also provide an opportunity to coorient more accurately with one another.
To conclude, the two groups in this study have a lot more in common than they don’t; perfect communication may not necessarily improve accuracy between these two groups, but if two are motivated to coorient, it can facilitate understanding. For the public relations educator and student intern, the goal of communication must be to improve accuracy, even if they agree to disagree or even choose not to coorient to the same things in the same degree. As such, greater dialogue about the fact that students are more cooriented to supervisors regarding the importance of jobs skills and professional characteristics than supervisors suspected, will ultimately lead to greater understanding and opportunities for all parties involved.
Limitations and Future Study
Although the survey was sent to over 135 strategic communication/public relations concentration students, the response rate and subsequent sample size was small. The convenience sample nature of the supervisor sample—determined by student interns providing their supervisors’ contact information—is also a limitation and while the response rate was relatively high, the researcher acknowledges that external validity for the study is low. The study’s results may not be generalizable with a certain margin of error toward the larger population of student interns and on-site supervisors. Another limitation is that that the majority of students who participated in the study worked at the internship site fewer than 10 hours; their experiences would likely differ from students whose internships require them to work significantly greater hours. Despite these limitations, the results provide a valuable exploratory insight into how respondents’ rate job skills and professional characteristics, the level of coorientation that exists between them, and the extent to which they view the internship experience improves a variety of college learning outcomes.
Future research could expand this study by incorporating some qualitative elements, and increasing the representativeness and generalizability of the study by increasing the sample size (including other universities). The researcher intends to incorporate a longitudinal approach, continuing to gather and analyze information from student interns and their supervisors and explore the implications of their orientations on the quality of the experience for both parties.
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