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Public Administration Education

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By David Adams and Meriem Doucette
August 10, 2018

Internships have become increasingly common in master of public administration (MPA) programs and have many benefits for graduate students. For example, as Eva Wiseman noted in her 2012 article in the Journal of Public Affairs Education entitled “Faculty Research-Driven vs. Community-Driven Experiential Learning in the Quantitative Public Administration Curriculum,” graduate programs are using service learning opportunities like internships to provide opportunities to apply academic concepts in real world situations. More specifically, we found in our study, that they can help students develop the core competencies outlined by the Network of Schools of Public Policy, Affairs and Administration (NASPAA). These competencies include leadership and management, public policy, critical thinking and problem solving, a public service perspective and productive communication.

Faculty integrate these competencies into the curriculum, creating student learning outcome goals that relate to these competencies, such as the ability to synthesize relevant theoretical knowledge of public administration when addressing public problems. Much of this knowledge can be learned in the classroom, but as Eva Wiseman suggests, internships and other experiential learning activities can enhance desired student learning outcomes.

We conducted an online survey for alumni from the past five years of our MPA program to understand whether these experiential learning opportunities (in this case internships) have improved learning outcomes. Our MPA program is located in a large public university in Southern California so students in our program typically intern at the local level in a city or county agency, or with a nonprofit organization. In the survey, we asked our alumni to reflect on their internship activities. Specifically, we asked them what internship activities benefited or advanced their career, and what the most beneficial part of their internship experience was. We received 61 responses, 15 of whom participated in an internship as part of the MPA program. While many of our students are currently in-service and thus already have public sector experience, our pre-service students are required to complete an internship in the public/non-profit sectors. The discussion below reflects the importance of the experience for these pre-service students.

When we asked students to reflect on the activities they participated in during their experience, 33 percent of the students discussed activities related to developing more productive communication, 40 percent mentioned leadership and management related activities, 27 percent indicated public policy development or implementation activities and 27 percent specified critical thinking and analysis related activities. For example, one respondent said, “I interned in the city manager’s office in a mid-size city focusing on energy, sustainability and other special projects. I did a lot of research, analysis, and memo writing.”

Students who benefited from the experience indicated that it helped their career advancement in numerous ways by increasing their professional experience, improving their understanding of budgeting and financial management, and further developing their programmatic assessment and analysis skills. One student wrote that he/she participated in the “development of tracking systems and databases, learned about streamlining processes, learned about public service values, wrote staff reports, assisted with developing the budget, and engaged the community.” When we asked about the most beneficial part of the internship experience, 40 percent of the students noted the out-of-the-classroom real world experience, 27 percent indicated the social networks they created, and 13 percent appreciated their further developed analytical skills. These reflections are like the responses we received for a question about how the internship supported their professional development: 20 percent of the students said it helped them advance professionally, 20 percent said they appreciated the real-world experiences, 13 percent appreciated developing new social networks and 20 percent indicated it increased their self-efficacy. For example, one respondent said the experience “provided me with the confidence to hone in on my leadership and data management skills.”

It is important to note that while the internships had a positive effect on developing core competencies and increasing professional experience for many of the students, not all of those who participated in the internship fully benefited or embraced the experience. As is the case in many endeavors, you get out of it what you put into it. Of the 15 respondents discussed here, less than half of the students indicated they “took maximum advantage” of the experience. Educators and internship supervisors cannot force interns to take full advantage of their opportunities, but we can encourage them to do so. Program faculty coordinating interns can use their own anecdotal evidence as well as the evidence from this research to encourage their students to use internship opportunities to further develop their skills. A student can sit in a back office and count the hours, or they can take full advantage of every person they meet and every experience they encounter. Students who really engaged in their internship left with comments like, “Being involved in budgeting meetings helped me to better figure out how public finance and budgeting works in cities.” Conversely, a student who admitted to taking no advantage of internship opportunities wrote that the most beneficial part was “leaving.” Thus, the students who actively seek to make the best of the experience and opportunity will be the students who find real benefits from it.

Authors: Dr. David Adams, Assistant Professor of Political Science, Department of Politics, Administration, and Justice, California State University, Fullerton, [email protected] | Dr. Meriem Doucette, Assistant Professor of Political Science, Department of Politics, Administration, and Justice, California State University, Fullerton, [email protected]

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