Work experience

Work experience – myths and misunderstandings

Myths and misinformation abound in the careers world and as the autumn term fast approaches, I think it’s worth taking some time to challenge the more pervasive ones.  We all know how invaluable work experience is – success in the graduate job market depends on it, but some of the rumours flying about serve to demoralise, not inspire. So, what is the truth behind the fiction….?

1.  I won’t get a graduate job without an internship

I can see how this rumour mill started as many of the big graduate recruiters use their internship schemes as a talent pipeline.  This year’s High Fliers report – which summarises the recruitment practices of the Times Top 100 employers – found that 36% of graduate vacancies at “leading graduate recruiters” were filled by applicants who’d interned at the organisation. In two sectors: law and investment banking, the proportion increased to more than 50%.

There are a number of counter arguments to challenge the myth:

  • The Times Top 100 employers only represent a slice of the graduate job market. ‘Graduate level’ jobs exist outside of the milk round – don’t restrict your search to the big corporates.
  • The majority of graduate vacancies (even within this elite group) are not filled by former interns. Now, this could mean that some of the vacancies are taken by candidates with internship experience in similar organisations. I suspect there’s a fair degree of cross-pollination between the Big 4, so an internship at PwC may well open doors at Deloitte or KMPG. But we know – anecdotally and otherwise – that plenty of our students secure places on grad schemes without an internship.
  • Experience can come from many quarters, not just formal internship schemes. Employers are (often) more open-minded than we give them credit and try to view applicants holistically.  If you want to be considered a strong candidate – and attract the notice of graduate recruiters – try to make the most of your collective experiences – academic, work, extra-curricular and voluntary.
  • An internship certainly looks good on your CV but it won’t automatically propel you to the shortlist, not unless you communicate and articulate the skills and experience gained. I’ve seen some applicants make a little go a long way, and others with seemingly impressive portfolios fall by the wayside.  Don’t assume the experience will sell itself! 

2. I should only look for ‘internships’

The word internship has now well and truly embedded itself in the language of careers, and appears to be (from casual observation) synonymous with “high quality” structured work placements. Many a time I have heard or seen students talk of ‘internships’ in quite hallowed terms, as though finding one will answer all their career and job search woes. It’s not unusual to encounter a student who simply wants help “finding an internship” and has no conception as to how or where such a thing may be found.

Now here’s the thing: back in the day, internship was very much a US term but some point (possibly during the noughties) crossed the Atlantic, where it was adopted by big corporate and professional recruiters in the UK, to denote a lengthy period of paid, structured work experience. There has been a kind of semantic creep since then and it’s now used far beyond the corporate sector – charities and voluntary organisations seem quite comfortable with the term.  However, ‘internship’ is a bit of a shape shifter and can mean whatever the employer wants it to mean: short, long, paid, unpaid.

In a nutshell:

  • Don’t get hung up on terminology –  internship/work placement/work experience are often used interchangeably.  Concentrate on the ‘quality’ of the experience, not the name.
  • In some sectors, you may struggle to find advertised opportunities and you’ll need to be far more proactive and creative in sourcing work experience. If you’re considering a career in politics or public affairs, for example, you won’t see the vast array of advertised, paid placements that typify the banking and finance sector.


3. Work experience is hard to find

It can be, but plenty of students manage! There’s no question that it is easier to find opportunities with the established graduate recruiters – you only have to scan the likes of Milkround, TARGETjobs and other graduate portals in early autumn to see the range of internships, vac schemes and placements on offer. But these sites only give a snapshot of the work experience opportunities available and there is perhaps a slight bias towards towards the most ‘prestigious’ schemes.  If you take a passive approach and rely exclusively on the well-known, high profile sites (many of which ‘pool’ the same vacancies) you may well be disappointed – after all competition is pretty intense. Fortunately there are other avenues to explore:

  • Use the Advanced Vacancy Search on myAdvantage to select and filter opportunities. Try a number of different search parameters to maximise results.
  • Check out other work placement sites for a wider range of options – RateMyPlacement, Inspiring and Topinternships
  • Think about project-based opportunities – see what Step has to offer.
  • Harness your networks, on and offline, to make contacts and tap into the hidden job market. Don’t be afraid to send speculative applications.
  • Start following companies and organisations on Twitter, Facebook and Linkedin.  Use relevant hashtags to manage your search (#workexperience).
  • Start your search early on in the academic year – don’t leave it until the summer holidays!
  • Scan the online sites of professional organisations and associations allied to your area of interest. Some may even some advertise placements, but if not they’re still a great source of news and potential contacts.
  • Talk to your (Faculty) Placement Learning Officer to discuss your work experience needs and identiify suitable placements.

4.  There’s no point if I don’t know what to do

On the contrary, work experience is never wasted. Not only will the skills gained transfer to many occupational areas but you’ll also get an insight into how companies and organisations operate –  great for developing commercial and business awareness.  Work experience can help you get a feel for the professional workplace and is invaluable in helping you decide what suits.  If you’re feeling a little ambivalent about your career choice, a short of period experience can help you test the water and may provide just the inspiration you need. And if it doesn’t? Well, eliminating options is an important part of the decision making process and will help you re-direct your search elsewhere.

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