The internship is a time-honored tradition among accounting students, an opportunity to put their hours in the classroom to the first real test. Internships provide students with real-life experience dealing with professional superiors, clients, colleagues, and deadlines in a setting that is often far removed from the classroom. While the core mission of the modern internship is still gauging the viability of potential employees in a relatively low-risk environment, roles have changed somewhat, and firms are increasingly as much on audition as interns. As a result, firms have begun to place more emphasis on increased flexibility, increased autonomy, closer relationships, and greater work/life balance. This article summarizes the results of a survey designed to provide, from millennial interns’ perspective, a measure of firms’ success in creating a more mutually beneficial experience for both the intern and the firm.
Survey of Accounting Interns
The authors conducted a study of 52 accounting students who recently completed accounting internships; the demographic breakdown is as follows:
- Approximately 75% of students interned at a Big Four firm, 21% at a regional firm, and 4% at a local firm.
- Approximately 69% of students selected an assurance internship, 17% chose tax, and 14% selected other areas.
- Approximately 70% of students received one or two internship offers, while 30% received three or more.
The results of this study should be useful for students considering and preparing for internships, as well as accounting firms looking to understand how students assess and value their internship experiences. The Exhibit presents questions that were asked in the study, which focused on several key phases of the internship life cycle to gain insights into the overall internship experience. Specifically, interns were asked about interview preparation, their selection and decision procedures, their perceptions of the training, mentoring, and feedback provided by the firms, and their overall experience, including how they managed their stress during the internship. The most notable findings, along with key takeaways and implications for future practice, are discussed below.
Interview Preparation and Interviewer Expectations
In preparing for initial interviews with firms, many of the interns reviewed common questions they were likely to face. While some indicated they prepared these questions independently, many cited the use of preformulated questions that had been prepared by their universities or other university-backed sources. In fact, a substantial majority of those surveyed indicated that their primary means of interview preparation had been via university-sponsored resources, including prep kits, workshops, counseling, and mock interviews. A smaller number of respondents prepared for their interviews by researching the interviewing firms and by speaking with family and friends. A key takeaway for prospective interns is to take advantage of the many opportunities for assistance that most schools typically offer, including help with résumés, identification of key questions to consider, and participation in mock interviews with experienced school professionals.
Interestingly, among the interns surveyed, few respondents felt that technical or accounting experience was a primary factor in determining whether a firm was more likely to offer the candidate an internship. The vast majority of interns viewed aspects of personality, such as communication and interpersonal skills, as being much more important to an interviewer than technical aptitude. Among the specific attributes most cited were the interviewee’s fit with the team, positive attitude and work ethic, flexibility, and willingness to learn. Thus, it is important for a prospective intern to be able to promote and demonstrate softer skills.
Internship Selection and Decision Procedures
Respondents cited a variety of reasons for their pursuit of an internship in a certain area (e.g., tax, assurance). Many respondents noted that their decision was driven by prior experience; for most, this prior experience primarily came from coursework or previous internships. For others, personal fit weighed most heavily in making an internship selection; these respondents cited a number of considerations, including client interactions, dayto-day responsibilities, work-based travel, location, team versus individual orientation, and various other aspects of office culture. Regardless of the area chosen, most interns sought experiences that meshed with their existing skill sets and that conformed to their personality preferences. Interestingly, about one-quarter of those that chose assurance stated that they selected that area because they knew they did not want tax, not because they knew they wanted assurance.
Internship selection is often a daunting decision for interns, particularly when they have multiple offers. Thus, the survey also asked interns whether they sought any assistance in making their selection decision. Less than one-third of respondents reported accounting firm assistance in making their decisions on internship area; of the interns who did seek firm guidance, the majority cited conversations with current employees as being the most helpful. Others who provided assistance in selecting the most appropriate internship area included family; university professors, advisors, and alumni; and various mentors. These sources of guidance frequently shared personal experience, explained the various potential paths that could come out of a given internship experience, and provided a network of contacts.
Initial Internship Training Experience
Interns are often apprehensive when making the initial transition from the classroom to the profession. To help alleviate this apprehension, firms typically offer some form of initial onboarding training. More than half of the responding interns (58%) reported that their training lasted one week; for others, the training was held for more than a week (21%), multiple days within a week (16%), and during a single day (5%).
Notwithstanding the variation in training length, the interns were for the most part satisfied (3.9, where 1=very dissatisfied and 5=very satisfied) with the extent to which their initial training provided them with a solid foundation for the internship. When asked for suggestions for improvement, the interns primarily sought more experiential training. Specifically, they expressed a desire for more “hands-on” training specific to their service lines (e.g., audit simulations, tax systems/tools), as well as more training on technology specific to the firm. In general, respondents sought more focused training, with greater emphasis on information relevant to their specific internship responsibilities. For example, respondents suggested that firms provide more training with people in the same service line as the interns and engage concepts more directly relevant to their service line instead of covering multiple broader concepts.
Mentoring and Feedback
Once the internships commenced, most respondents (89%) were paired with one or more mentors in the firm. The majority of interns received mentoring from one or two people, most frequently by staff, though some reported receiving guidance from managers, seniors, and even partners. The support received from these mentors varied widely; some interns noted ongoing interactions and availability over the course of the internship, while others recounted only having access to their mentor over a single lunch meeting or less.
Though not specifically measured, responses suggest that mentor availability were strongly inversely correlated to the mentor’s level of seniority within the firm. The mean rating of perceived mentor usefulness for the surveyed interns was 3.8, which suggests overall satisfaction in the quality of interaction with firm employees. Respondents were also asked for suggestions to improve the mentorship experience; while it should be noted that this question received far fewer responses than most, the single most frequent response centered on enhanced intern proximity to a mentor, specifically via regular meetings or by working on the same team. In what could be construed as a measure of the millennial mindset, several interns felt that they should be allowed to self-select their desired mentors rather than have them assigned by the firm. Respondents were happy overall with their mentors’ openness to questions, 91% of interns said that they believed their questions were respected and answered to their satisfaction.
Though the degree of mentorship received by respondents varied greatly, they overwhelmingly expressed an understanding of their job expectations (95%). Most respondents (84%) reported receiving feedback on their job performance; this feedback was most frequently given monthly (45%), though many cited weekly (26%) and even daily (6%) reviews. The senior in charge generally gave these progress reports in face-to-face meetings with the interns, with the remainder being presented by various other firm employees. In addition to these periodic meetings, over 75% of respondents took part in a debriefing at the conclusion of their internship. These final meetings were most often presented by seniors or managers at the firm, though many were also conducted by recruiters or other HR personnel. Most interns cited commendations on various aspects of their performance, with most reporting subsequent job offers.
Internship Stress Management
The authors believe that the solid understanding of job responsibilities noted above contributed to less-than-expected stress levels, with a mean of 2.76. When asked about their main sources of stress, nearly all of the respondents cited various aspects of the job itself, with only a few indicating a primary stress related to the location of the internship. The most frequently noted stressor for interns was long hours, along with the accompanying workload and deadlines. Perhaps reinforcing the concerns regarding feedback expressed by some interns, the second most frequent response related to concerns of job performance, not knowing what to expect each day, and of whether a job offer would be forthcoming. Other specific stressors included monotony of the job, client interactions, team frustrations, micromanagement, and underutilization by the firm.
Interns seldom acknowledged taking advantage of firm-provided stress-reducing resources; of the few who did, most found relief in the form of social events like happy hours, followed by talking with friends, mentors, or other associates. When asked why they did not utilize stress-reducing resources, most respondents said they were not needed, while many others noted that they were unaware that the firm had any or that the firm did not provide any.
One explanation for the lower measures of stress among many of the interns may be rooted in perceived firm flexibility. When asked to describe areas in which they felt the firm provided flexibility, respondents expressed appreciation for more relaxed dress codes on certain days and under certain conditions, flexibility with regard to scheduling and breaks, and the ability to occasionally work from home. Perhaps unsurprisingly, those interns who expressed the need for greater firm flexibility cited precisely the same factors: more flexibility in hours and scheduling, the ability to work from home, and the desire for a relaxed dress code. Several of those seeking more flexibility also appealed for more input into team and client assignments.
Overall Internship Experience
Most interns found the internship experience to be overwhelmingly positive. When asked what they had learned about their career goals and plans as a result of the internship, the majority of students said that the experience had solidified their thinking on a career choice, giving most of them a better understanding of the profession and thus confirming an interest in their chosen area. Some others, however, found themselves less enamored of a career in accounting following the internship, with several stating that they no longer saw a future for themselves in the profession.
Several respondents took a more focused view of the internship experience, citing specific areas of interest gained, such as not-for-profit, state and local, asset management, transaction services, and international accounting. In total, 91% of interns were offered permanent positions from their internship firm, with 91% of those accepting the offer and another 6% planning to accept at a later date. The final question of the survey asked respondents, “If you had to choose your internship again, would you select the same or a different experience?” A large majority (80%) said they would select the same internship; of the students who would not repeat the experience, most wished that they had sought an internship with a larger firm, while several regretted the timing of their internships, and several others expressed varying degrees of disillusionment with the profession.
Providing a Strong First Step
The results of this survey strongly suggest that firms are moving in the right direction with regard to meeting the needs of the millennial intern. The authors believe the prevailing approach has contributed to the relatively low measure of stress indicated by interns, and while room remains for improvement, interns seem to overwhelmingly view their experiences as positive. Interestingly, one possible interpretation of this data suggests that some firms have actually sacrificed aspects of technical job-training experience in order to accommodate the perceived “soft” needs of the modern intern. In fact, the questions that received some of the most comments in the survey centered around the interns’ views on a firm’s training, mentoring, and feedback regimens, with many interns wanting more specific and rigorous hands-on training. This may indicate that the more traditional aspects of the internship remain the predominant factor, and that interns look for, if anything, an even greater level of professional guidance and interaction than currently provided.