Doctoral Dissertation Defense: Phillip Youngblood

December 9, 2019

Alfredo Ortiz Aragón, Ph.D. (from left), Nürşen Albayrak Zanca, Ph.D., Stephanie Hartzell, Ph.D., and Phillip Youngblood

Phillip Youngblood defended his dissertation “Working Relationships Among Supervisors and Interns in Virtual Internships on Dec. 5 in the Student Engagement Center. His dissertation committee chair is Dr. Stephanie Hartzell, and committee members include Dr. Alfredo Ortiz Aragón and Dr. Nürşen Albayrak Zanca.


Working Relationships Among Supervisors and Interns in Virtual Internships

Phillip D. Youngblood
University of the Incarnate Word, 2019

Research Focus. Students encountering employers who require work experience to get a job and the frustration of needing a job to gain work experience is a familiar adage. However, this has only become an issue in recent times for young people who spend most of their first decades in formal educational settings preparing for jobs that require considerable knowledge and skill. Throughout history, most people have learned to work by observing and doing under the tutelage of experienced adults. For work requiring more knowledge and skill, an apprentice might work with a master of a craft or trade for years. In the last half century, shorter internships have become the standard way for students to gain work experience while still in school and for employers to evaluate their potential as prospective employees. Interning as a student can be challenging in terms of balancing commitments and the logistics associated with working in a location remote from home or school. In the last decade, the virtual internship has become a popular alternative to enable students to intern anywhere in the world and for supervisors to select interns globally. For all their advantages, relationships in virtual internships are constrained to remote communications, which may challenge supervisors to establish and sustain a working relationship to coordinate work and challenge student interns unfamiliar with the work environment who cannot meet with co-workers in-person. There is much literature on work relationships and internships but little from the supervisor’s perspective and even less on the nature of work relationships in the relatively recent phenomenon of virtual internships.

Research Methods. This purpose of this basic, qualitative study was to explore how student interns and intern supervisors experienced virtual internships from their perspectives and to interpret from those experiences how participants communicated remotely to establish and sustain work-related interpersonal relationships necessary to accomplish work. Research was conducted in two phases. The goal of the first phase was to explore the breadth of participant experiences. The first objective of this phase was to learn about the nature of virtual internships from an initial review of literature that led to development of questions applicable to internships and findings in prior studies regarding factors associated with intern success and satisfaction. An existing online survey instrument was then adopted and modified with permission to include open-ended questions that most closely resembled findings from prior studies. The second objective began with inviting a population of supervisors and interns participating in virtual internships facilitated by the same program with which the researcher also conducted a year-long virtual internship to respond to the online survey developed for this study. This yielded 26 responses from an equal number of supervisors and interns. Semantic and thematic analysis using open and axial coding yielded interview topics and identified a list of potential interviewees. The goal of the second phase of research was to explore the depth of participant experiences. The first objective in this phase was to purposively sample the list of potential interviewees by applying evaluative rules to the sets of survey responses and prioritize candidates based on who might provide the richest and thickest account of their virtual internship experiences during interviews. The aim was to conduct in-depth interviews with at least three supervisors and three interns, a sample size consistent with theory and phenomenological studies. A set of individually tailored, semi-structured, open-ended interview protocols were developed for each candidate interviewee, consisting of a common set of questions, questions intended for supervisors or interns and questions asking interviewees to clarify or expand on survey responses. Interviews were conducted with four supervisors and three interns and this data were analyzed employing interpretive phenomenological analysis.

Research Findings. Organized around concepts of professional interpersonal relationships within work environments, the researcher made nearly two dozen discoveries about the nature of virtual internships and work relationships within them from interpreted experiences from the perspectives of the study’s participants. These discoveries were classified into four categories. The first was the nature of work relationships, that is, some discoveries were consistent with experiences when people work together, particularly when experienced supervisors work with student interns with less work experience, including conflicts from initial stages through closure from sources such as commitments to work or to school in addition to the internship and a perception by some supervisors that interns lacked some social skills associated with work. The second category of discoveries had to do with relationships in a work environment, including evidence of a symbiotic relationship between the work community and work groups and a complex web of relationships that interns had to learn and negotiate to accomplish internship work goals. The third group of discoveries included evidence that supervisors and interns often had different objectives for participating in the internship, notably that supervisors were primarily concerned with accomplishing work and interns with learning from their experience, including how their academic preparation applied to internship work and how internship work would be used by the work community. The last category of discoveries were about the nature of virtual internships, including how supervisor and interns developed and sustained a working relationship when that relationship was constrained to mediated communications and how virtual internships in which participants may participate from anywhere in the world may increase the likelihood work groups may consist of a diverse set of participants.

Conclusions from Research. Based on the self-reported and interpreted experiences of this study’s participants and the researcher’s interpretation of these experiences, virtual internships appear to be a viable alternative to conventional in-person internships. However, this study’s supervisors appeared to have coped with relating via remote communications by resorting to minimizing relationships and leaving a ‘virtual open door’ policy if interns had questions. Supervisors and interns would be wise to discuss their individual objectives and commitments as they may result in conflicts, discuss how internship work will be used, accommodate the fact that student interns may not have the same skills as employees, orient interns to familiarize them with the generalities and specific nature of the work environment in which they will participate, and take time to get to know each other to be better able to establish a working relationship via remote communications channels and work together towards a common goal. Further research is recommended on a larger data set and action research conducted to test suggested approaches.