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What is the Difference Between a Practicum and an Internship?

Understanding the difference between a practicum and an internship can better prepare students for the curriculum demands of their degree programs.

An educational practicum and an internship share the same goal: allow students to implement the skills they've learned during these studies. While they share a common intent, however, the purpose and scope of these experiences differ. Knowing these differences can help students plan their education more effectively.

The Practicum Experience

During a practicum, students' primary task is observation and documentation. While they will participate in the work in a limited way under the supervision of practitioners and professors, they should treat the practicum as an observational learning experience first and foremost. Concurrent with the practicum experience, students enroll in a practicum course which outlines goals and expectations and confers academic credit.

A practicum's specific demands can vary from field to field, but generally involve limited assistance in a closed environment for less than ten hours per week. Prospective counselors might observe a session and take notes, while future medical professionals could monitor a patient on behalf of the supervising doctor or nurse.

The course itself augments this participation with assignments and follow-up discussion. Students connect their experiences during the program to the theories and concepts they have learned during the program.

The Internship Experience

Internships mimic a conventional job much more closely than practicums. Students still work under the supervision of professionals, but those professionals oversee them more like bosses or administrators than like mentors. Program instructors might visit the internship site, but these visits will be less frequent and serve as only an occasional assessment of progress and performance.

An internship typically takes place later in a student's program than a practicum, and accordingly, responsibilities undertaken tend to be more significant during the internship. Student teaching interns might plan and implement whole lessons, rather than observing a teacher and participating in group work. A medical intern would, similarly, evaluate multiple patients, record results, and consult with hospital staff. While a practicum helps students develop understanding, an internship helps them understand how to implement that understanding in the real world.

Internships can require as much work as a full-time position within the field, though some may demand less. Students receive academic credit for the internship. Depending on the internship, students may also receive a stipend or other payment, but some internships are unpaid.

Some programs require students to submit a report on their internship after its completion. This can include information on the business or organization, a summary of intern duties, and an evaluation of the internship experience. In fields like mass communication, an internship report can also include a portfolio of work from the internship.

The specific requirements of internships and practicums can vary based on the field of study. Some credentialing organizations set out specific requirements for internships and practicums, like these standards from the Council for Accreditation of Counseling & Related Educational Programs (CACREP). Other internships and practicums have less stringent specifications, so students who need to complete either of these field learning requirements should contact their own department and any internship coordination offices at their school.

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