More Than Just Interns — Photo by Created by HN with DALL·E

Mention internship and the industry is likely to echo that they all know about it: namely, students on short stints to learn on-the-job for an allowance. What may be overlooked is the significance of fulfilling students' psychological needs during internships. This article reports a study that examined the current situation of how students' psychological needs are being met or otherwise. Recommendations are included to help hospitality organizations better manage internships towards improving the retention of future talents.

Importance of Internships ... to the Industry

To a considerable extent, the growth of the hospitality industry depends on the employment of well-educated and passionate individuals. Past studies have found that fulfilling students' psychological needs can contribute positively to students' work performances, the perceptions of their internship experiences and their eventual career decisions.

The Self-Determination Theory

The term "self-determination" was attributed to Edward L. Deci and Richard Ryan who coined the term in 1985. Over the past decades, the theory has been applied across diverse disciplines.

Essentially, the theory describes how individuals' basic psychological needs for autonomy, competency and relatedness will influence their motivation, behavior and overall well-being.


Autonomy can be accomplished by recognizing and respecting students' ideas and opinions, as well as giving them the leeway to perform a job independently.

It was found that there is a link between autonomy and students' intrinsic motivation to work hard.


The sense of competency can be developed when students are adaptable and get the chance to be innovative as they strive to reach challenging goals.

Assigning complex tasks to interns can enable them to acquire skills, experience mastery and feel capable.


Relatedness occurs when students feel that others are interested in what they are doing, have empathy and express concern for them.

When students receive proper guidance, they feel being part of a collaborative community that provides connection, understanding and support.

Research Outcome

A study was conducted with the use of interviews and online questionnaire. The sample comprised Singapore Institute of Technology's hospitality business final- year students who had completed their industry attachment at either hotels or event companies. There was a total of 12 interviewees and 82 questionnaire respondents.


73.2% of questionnaire respondents indicated that the opportunity to take action and work on their own is important or extremely important. The interviewees reiterated the same sentiment, with majority of them sharing that they felt empowered to make decisions independently and engage in self-directed learning to showcase their capabilities.

However, some students had less satisfactory experiences. They were unable to make any changes at the workplace, usually due to supervisors who were strict or 'old-school'.

There were instances in which feedback sessions for students to speak up were de-emphasized at the operational level. The quote below illustrates one such scenario:

Despite it being stated as mandatory by HR. It seems that many managers in the hotel perceive it as unimportant and prioritize having enough manpower for operations. They see it as the HR taking staff away for an hour or an hour and a half, without meaningful outcomes.

Giving students autonomy does call for a delicate balance. Empowerment had sometimes deviated to become indifference, as seen in this comment below:

They simply just threw me the work and asked me to handle it myself.


Up to 81.7% (n=67) of questionnaire respondents indicated that the psychological need of feeling accomplished is important or extremely important.

Regarding the ability to adapt to the work environment, the common challenges that students faced included: the burn-out from consistent overtime, the stress from unfamiliar organizational cultures, the meeting of industry demands, etc.

However, the students reported that they were still able to acquire soft and hard skills throughout their internships. They added that initiatives such as cross-departmental training could help them gain an increased sense of accomplishment.

More ideal if there were rotations between different department.


Majority of questionnaire respondents (85.4%, n=70) selected relatedness to be important or extremely important. Ten out of 12 interviewees reported that were able to relate to their colleagues. They were given sufficient direction and advice too.

However, nurturing work environments do not occur everywhere. There were instances in which supervisors displayed little enthusiasm in providing guidance.

I felt that they just wanted me as an additional manpower to help them lighten the load instead of showing interest in my progress.

Sometimes, the work supervisors only gave feedback according to the administrative requirement instead of being actively engaged with the students' progress. The impression created was more of ‘I had to’ instead of ‘I want to’.

The first supervisor will give feedback for the mid-term assessment. However, my second supervisor will regularly tell me straight in my face so that I can make improvements along the way. I prefer my second supervisor because I'm there to learn.

Students would also prefer well-planned training programs with assigned mentors to provide more structured guidance.

Plan what the intern is going to take on and communicate that in detail.

While the quality of supervision could be improved, kindness was shown to the students. When they faced difficult times, supervisors and co-workers displayed understanding and willingness to extend a helping hand, a listening ear and assurance.

Students highlighted that casual gatherings such as lunches, dinner and dance events as well as birthday celebrations have helped in the bonding and team-building. The frequent gatherings made the students feel more connected with their colleagues, allowing all to open up and have deeper conversations.


While students had their psychological needs fulfilled most of the time, they indicated a few suggestions on what hospitality organizations can do even better:

  • Provide more autonomy instead of being overly strict or being restrained by their status as interns. This is especially if the interns are already at university level - they are likely to possess a certain level of maturity and some prior work experiences.
  • Have more structured training or mentorship programs to let students enhance their skills across various responsibilities / departments. More learning opportunities do serve as stimuli that drive individuals to develop skills and expand knowledge.
  • Remind supervisors about their crucial role to help students achieve goals. It appears that sometimes, the supervisors themselves may need training on how to be nurturing and effective coaches.
  • Leverage different occasions to build relationships and a sense of belonging. Such effort can boost students' self-esteem and the feeling of being validated and supported, particularly when handling the day-to-day challenges in the industry.

In conclusion ...

The fundamental mindset that needs to be ingrained is this: students are more than just interns, they are the future professionals for the industry.

Co-authors (research team): Vanessa Soh, Clara Hui-Ying Lim, Geraldine Yi-Xuan Seow, Juline Xinwei Tan, Clara Pei-Yi Ann,Singapore Institute of Technology.