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What to Expect

What is a Practicum course?

A Practicum course is a one-semester, 3-credit capstone experience for SIS Masters students. Professors oversee student teams completing consulting-style projects for external client organizations. The client presents its problem and the student team works together to produce deliverables that meet the client's needs, with the professor acting as a coach and facilitator. The Practicum is a real-world, team-oriented alternative to the Substantial Research Project or thesis capstone options. (For more information on SRPs and thesis options, check your program's website).

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What are the learning objectives of the Practicum Program?

Each Practicum course will have its own unique subject matter and deliverables tailored to client needs, but there are a few cross-cutting learning objectives: 

  • Critical Thinking and Analysis: Researching and conceptualizing problems, defining the scope of a project and breaking it down into workable components
  • Teamwork: Working effectively as a team member by identifying key tasks, sharing responsibility for the project, and ensuring all deadlines are met
  • Client Relations: Establishing a positive working relationship with a client by understanding the client's needs and deadlines, leading productive meetings, following up with client requests, and managing expectations
  • Oral Presentation: Delivering an organized, articulate presentation to the client with effective remarks and graphical aids
  • Written Presentation: Preparing a professional, cleanly written document that identifies the client's problem and offers thoughtful analysis and recommendations

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Is a Practicum course the right choice for me?

Practicum courses are designed to simulate a real-world practical experience and prepare students to begin or continue their professional careers in international affairs. They are an excellent choice for students seeking to expand their networks and build generalist skills in project management, client relations, teamwork, and consulting. If you are planning to go on to a career in the government, NGOs, startups, corporations, or consulting firms, a Practicum course may be a good choice for you.

A Practicum course may NOT be the right choice if you are seeking to build your expertise in a specific topic or region. SIS students' interests and passions are thrillingly diverse, but we cannot offer a Practicum course that will appeal directly to every student. While Practicum teams are empowered to take ownership of their projects and follow interesting lines of inquiry, they are constrained by their client's needs. Those needs and priorities may also shift during the project cycle, meaning that students' work may end up diverging from the initial course description. An SRP may a better fit for students seeking a specific focus and close control over their project's outcomes.

Likewise, a Practicum may not be the best choice for students planning to apply to PhD programs or to jobs with significant research and writing responsibilities (e.g., a think tank or research institute). All courses require critical thinking and intellectual curiosity, but professors and clients will place varying degrees of focus on theoretical and scholarly frameworks. Additionally, Practicum deliverables can vary widely, from lengthy research papers to brief policy memos to videos and graphics. While you can expect to conduct rigorous research and contribute to high-quality deliverables, those deliverables are jointly authored by your team and may not be appropriate for writing samples or portfolios in PhD applications, or for publication in scholarly journals. An SRP or thesis may be a better option for students planning for academic careers.

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What is the time commitment for a Practicum course?

While Practicum courses meet regularly (like standard 3-credit courses), practicum students should expect more required in-person time commitments than normal classes. These include: 

  • Weekly class meetings. Practicum courses have weekly on-campus meetings, just like all other SIS classes. While class time may be used for non-traditional purposes, such as project planning and small-group check-ins, professors expect all students to be present for every class.
  • First week orientation. All Practicum students are required to attend a 2-hour orientation in the first week of their Practicum semester. You will be notified of the date and time of this orientation after having been accepted to your practicum course.
  • 1-2 client meetings per month. The number and type of these meetings will vary from client to client. Some may be in person, some over the phone or Skype. Some may require all team members to attend, some may require only a few representatives. Some may be in the evenings, some may be during work hours. Experiences will vary, but students can reasonably expect to participate in 1-2 client meetings per month, during work hours. If your job or other commitments make at least a couple meetings during the day impossible during the semester, a Practicum may not be for you.
  • Presentation Bootcamp. All project teams are required to attend a Presentation Bootcamp. Teams from different Practicum courses will pair up to practice their oral presentations and give and receive feedback. Sign-ups will take place early in the semester, and Bootcamps will take place about one month before the end of the semester. Many evening and weekend slots will be available.
  • On-campus presentation to the SIS community. Your team will give an on-campus presentation for students, faculty, staff and other guests. The most likely date for this presentation will be the reading day between the end of classes and the start of finals. The final date will be confirmed and communicated during the semester.
  • Client presentation. All teams will give a live presentation of their deliverables to their clients at the end of the semester. You will work with your professor and your client to schedule the time, location and format of this meeting.Your specific Practicum may also include additional time commitments for team meetings, travel, interviews and other research, and events, as well as the time spent actually working on the deliverables.

You can reach out to the Practicum professor or former Practicum students (email sis_pratica@ameican.edu) to get a better sense of the overall time commitment. We understand that many SIS students work full time and may have families or other commitments that limit their availability and flexibility. We do our best to communicate these requirements upfront so that students can plan accordingly. We will also offer multiple meeting times or online sessions when possible, but we do expect all students to respect their teammates and clients by participating in all required meetings. If you do not think you will be able to meet the required time commitment, we ask that you reconsider applying/registering for a Practicum course.

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What kinds of clients does the Practicum Program work with?

SIS works with clients in all sectors and scales. Public sector clients have included the U.S. State Department and Department of Justice, the Defense Intelligence Agency, and the government of Hungary. Students have also worked with multinational clients such as the World Bank, Inter-American Development Bank, and UN Special Rapporteurs. NGO clients have included Save the Children, World Resources Institute, numerous research institutes and many others. A more complete overview of past clients, topics, and final projects is available under "Past Practica."

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Do all Practicum courses travel?

No. Currently, only Summer and a few selected Spring Practicum courses will travel internationally for field research. Summer Practica are coordinated with SIS Abroad, and all participating students will travel. In the Spring, some courses will require travel for one team of students or one or two representatives. Most travel will take place during Spring Break. Practica that require travel will be identified during the application process.

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Is there funding available for traveling practica?

Most in-country expenses are covered, but students will be responsible for some meals and incidentals. Students are responsible for buying their own airfare, paying tuition costs, plus a $1700 program fee, %50 of which ($850) will be refunded to students in the form of a scholarship to their student accounts.

Will my client hire me at the end of the semester?

Your client relationship can be one of the most valuable outcomes of your Practicum experience. Many clients are happy to nurture students' careers through mentorship, networking contacts, references and--in rare instances--employment. However, the Practicum Program is not an internship or employment program. In the past, some clients have been turned off by students hounding them for jobs or networking aggressively. We expect all students to respect their clients and represent SIS professionally.

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I have a great idea for a Practicum course. Can I start my own?

We always welcome new ideas for Practicum courses, from students, faculty, or client organizations. Contact Stephanie Fischer, Director of Experiential Learning, at fischer@american.edu to give your pitch. Students in particular should be aware that it can take up to 6 months to bring ideas, clients, professors, and administrators together to create a viable course, so share your ideas early!

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