The graduate guide to internships and work experience

Internships and work experience are a great way to gain skills and make contacts, especially as you think about life after graduation

June 28 2019
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Those hunting for their first jobs after graduation will find internships and work experience an asset to their CVs and a great way to build a portfolio of work.

Gaining experience will bring you a step closer to being “work ready”, give you an opportunity to build contacts in the industry, and help you to discover roles that you might not have heard of. Many employers who hire graduates say work experience is a “need to have”, not a “nice to have”.

But not all internships are the same, and expectations differ. Some are unpaid; others offer “expenses only” to cover such things as travel and lunch; yet others pay a wage.

Some companies view internships as trials for permanent jobs, while some want to do their bit to attract entry-level candidates to their industry. In some firms, interns are used to bridge staffing gaps, and those in such positions should rightly expect payment.

The basics

An internship is a period of work experience offered by an employer for a fixed period of time. The deal is normally that a relatively unexperienced worker can pick up skills, add value to their CV and learn about an industry while an employer can gain access to new talent and fresh ideas.

The law regarding the payment of interns changes from country to country, but placements should at least cover expenses. If you are expected to work set hours and to perform set tasks (and most internships do), you are classed as a “worker” and should expect to be paid at least the minimum wage.

Note, there are a few exceptions relating to volunteering for charities, or doing an internship as part of your course.

How to secure

Internships are often highly competitive and not widely advertised; you may need to contact a company to find out if it offers one and to learn how to apply. Some are advertised on jobs websites, at careers fairs, with university or college career services, or on the websites of the companies that offer them.

Apply for an internship as you would for a job. That means a providing a tight, word-perfect CV and a personalised cover letter expressing what interests you about the company, why you’re a good fit, what you can bring, and what you hope to learn.


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What to expect

It’s fine to question what your tasks might be and who you will be shadowing. Most internships, particularly short ones, will involve administrative tasks. However, to get real value out of a placement, you should also be supporting members of the team and taking on assignments of your own so you can learn by observing and doing.

We’ve all heard stories of interns who were stuck in the post room or on coffee duty, so do your research before you forge ahead. An internet search could reveal how a company treats its interns.

Making the most of it

To really impress, treat your placement as you would a new job. Be on time, enthusiastic, volunteer yourself for tasks, work hard and deliver to deadline.

Focus on defining your own objectives, creating a good impression and carrying out your responsibilities well. Don’t panic if you make a mistake, and never be afraid to ask questions – that’s what you are there for.

Work on making lasting relationships with the people around you; if they are impressed, they might offer to act as a referee for a future job application or keep you in mind for future positions.

If you were promised real experience but have been staring at a blinking photocopier for a week, bring it up with your point of contact and suggest other more productive tasks that you could do. Your time is precious.

Drawing the line

Some companies use internships as a means to find free labour instead of as a chance to identify, nurture and attract talent. Agreeing to work for nothing contributes to social immobility and perpetuates a system of inequality.

Employers hiring entry-level candidates will expect to see a couple of work experience placements or internships, but you don’t need to commit to months and months of interning to make an impact on your CV.

Read more: How work experience can help you get ahead at university

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