The Ins and Outs of getting an internship whilst at university (advice from our intern)

Monster.com suggests that 85% of companies use internships to recruit for full time roles, with an estimated 37% of interns projected to fill graduate vacancies.

So if you are looking long-term to the end of university and the world of work, internships can be a really great way to give yourself a head start.

What is an internship.

There are a number of forms of work experience that you can do.

An internship (or placement) is most generally undertaken by university students or graduates. It is a great way to dip your toe in the water and see if the career you have in mind is actually something that you will enjoy / you are good at before you commit through a full-time graduate contract.

There are a variety of internships available; paid or unpaid; summer, term-time or placement year – so you need to consider which is best for you and how much time you have spare.

Paid or unpaid?

Obviously we’d all prefer to be paid, and the ethics of unpaid internships are thrown around. I have undertaken both paid and unpaid internships throughout my time at university. Although what you do obviously depends on your financial situation, I would suggest biting the bullet and taking what you can get.

In terms of my personal experience, I interned unpaid for over a year and this then helped me to secure a paid internship in my fourth year of university, and a graduate position for when I finish my studies – so if financially and in terms of time you can manage an unpaid internship, I would definitely suggest giving one a try.

Term time or summer internship?

A summer internship can be a great way to earn some extra money, extra experience and save yourself from boredom over the long summer holiday – so if you’re ambitious  and a morning person can be a real win win.

If you’re considering a term time internship, this depends on how you cope with your course workload – doing your very best at university should always be your first priority. There’s no point in committing to two days a week at a company if you already struggle to meet your deadlines.

If you feel you can manage it, then a term time internship is great. I found it helped me to concentrate better at university having a day or two a week focusing on something completely different in a new environment.

It gives you great skills which actually help you at university (time management, organisation) and can improve the quality and insight of your work through your practical knowledge. If your course involves a research-based dissertation, an internship gives you direct contact to industry experts that can offer valuable insights to improve your project. An understanding of what you’re good at and what you are interested in can also help when deciding which modules to choose at university – either by playing to your strengths, or perhaps in improving your weaknesses to best prepare you for your career.

If you do undertake a term-time internship, then do make sure you make your company aware well in advance if you are planning on heading home for Christmas / Summer Holidays, or if you need a bit of time off to revise for your exams. Do not be afraid of doing so –  I always found that my managers were incredibly understanding when it came to this, with some letting me put in some hours towards my internship at home over these periods, so it’s always worth asking.

What is expected of me?

Remember the work you do isn’t just benefiting the company, but benefiting you. The more experience you have, the more you have on your CV and to talk about in your interview – this will also ensure that you should have a glowing reference to give your future employer.

To get the best out of your internship, absolutely throw yourself into it. Turn your phone off, turn up early, dress smartly and appropriately and don’t be afraid to ask questions. This way you will get the most out of your time with the company.

Don’t be afraid to say you don’t know what you’re doing, or you’re not comfortable with a situation. An internship is often a brand new experience for university students and graduates, and employers should understand that it will be a massive (and at times daunting) learning curve.

If you ever get shouted at for asking a question, you are definitely with the wrong company. An internship is not a first-time job. You are there to learn, and a company should understand this when they take you on.

Be prepared.

Securing experience with a good company can be just as competitive as landing that graduate role – for my very first internship position I applied for all of the available internships on the job board of the careers service website for my university, and then speculatively for every company I could find in my discipline in my university city and around the town where I grew up – I only heard back from 5 companies max.

If the same happens to you, try not to be downhearted; it only takes one place to offer you one position to get the right experience that you need.

It definitely pays to be prepared. Start thinking as early as you can in your degree about what you want to do when you graduate. Start applying during term time (after January exams) for a summer or year-out internship placement, and during the summer for a term-time placement when you return if you feel that is more appropriate for you.

The benefits.

  • If you are coming close to finishing university, you have probably heard or experienced for yourself the challenge of the initial post-university job hunt. There are many success stories of interns being offered full-time work at a company when they graduate – so the hard work really could pay off. But if they don’t, an internship can still be a really great opportunity to network and bulk out your LinkedIn connections, further helping you into employment.
  • The longer you stay with one company, the better. The likelihood is that if a company takes you on for summer work, if they have the space available, they’ll keep you on throughout term time – so treat it as a long-term position. The longer you’re with a company, the more they get to know you and the more glowing of a reference they can give to your future employer for you and your amazing work – so that’s also a great motivation to throw yourself in and really work hard.
  • Although your degree will develop the theoretical knowledge of work and prepare you in a practical sense through laboratory work and case studies, nothing compares to the real deal. If you can get a paid internship, this is a great way of developing those really important transferable skills and getting paid to do so – a real win win over other part time jobs and so much more valuable in terms of exposing you to real-world issues that might not be taught in textbooks.
  • An internship prepares you for the daily commute and the long 9-5, which can be such a culture shock to the university world of 9am lectures for the last three or four years.
  • It is also a great way to try out different career opportunities before you sign a contract – it can be easy to say this is what I want to do for a career, but there’s no way of knowing that you actually enjoy or are good at this career until you have experienced it for yourself. An internship allows you to really test your own abilities and understand your strengths and weaknesses, which will be really invaluable when it comes to your future career.

By Emily Wilkinson

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