How Internships Work

What Is an Internship?
A coveted internship on NBC's TODAY show can be a launching pad for someone interested in pursuing television media. NBC/Getty Images

Chandler Bing's not the only famous fictional intern, of course. Robert De Niro portrayed a 70-year-old "senior intern" in 2015's big screen movie "The Intern," and two years earlier, Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson played two salesmen-turned-Googlers in "The Internship."

But in all these representations, the comedy lies in the concept of grown-ups taking on pre-entry-level roles intended for a younger crowd. So where did that concept even come from?

If you're looking for someone to thank (or blame) for the term "intern," look no further than the medical community. After World War I, everyone agreed that medical school alone would no longer cut it when it came to physician training. Doctors in training soon came to be known as "interns," and the political world later adopted the term as an alternative way to refer to "apprentices," or people interested in learning about government jobs [source: Haire and Oloffson].

As internships emerged as a trend across industries, co-op programs cropped up on college campuses, providing students the opportunity to work at companies and earn tuition money while gaining professional experience. The co-op program originated at Northeastern University in 1909, but it didn't become a trend until the 1960s. Between 1970 and 1983, the number of universities offering co-op programs jumped from 200 to 1,000 [source: Haire and Oloffson].

Today, some institutions use the term "co-op" and "internship" interchangeably, but others consider them completely distinct. Students participating in co-ops generally pause their classes to work full-time for anywhere from three to 12 months, while students participating in internship programs usually complete their work over the course of a set semester or summer [source: Boyington].

San Francisco resident Ricquel Newman has managed many interns over her 15 years as a local news producer for the San Francisco ABC affiliate. "I'd have anywhere from three interns and up to six at one point," she says. "The position showed the students how to research, communicate as a representative of the media, and to learn what makes a story newsworthy for air. They could work up to 20 hours a week." Newman says the internships allowed students to explore the various paths within broadcasting, and it provided the company with quality work. "It was a win-win for the company and the students," she says.