One thing it seems everyone can agree upon at university is that getting an internship is going to be good for your career. They are rather like the Holy Grail in that respect, mysterious, ill-defined maybe, but certainly a useful thing to get your hands on. If you can just get hold of one you will be able to get any job you want, earn fabulous sums of money, climb any mountain, do away with injustice, hate and want, all seems possible if you can just get an internship. OK, that might be a bit of a stretch but it’s certainly not going to hurt your career prospects to get one. But where on earth to begin? This brings us to our first problem. Whilst everyone may seem to be sure that getting an internship is certainly the thing that needs doing, not everyone is as sure as to what they actually are. There is a good reason for that because internships are actually pretty poorly defined.
What are internships?
Until quite recently the term ‘Intern’, at least in the UK, meant “to put someone in prison for political or military reasons, especially during a war”. It is only in the last 10 years or so that the term has taken on the same meaning it has in the United States which is to undertake a period of work experience. There is still no exact definition of what an internship actually consists of though. Will it be paid or unpaid (a point I will return to)? Will it last 2 weeks or 6 months? How much responsibility will you be given? Is there an expectation it will lead to permanent employment? The answer to all these questions is entirely up to the organisation offering the position.
Broadly speaking the landscape of the internship consists of structured programmes offered by big companies that have been operating for a number of years. These are often designed to take place over the summer before your final year, although may also take the form of an industrial placement or a shorter spring week in your second or first year (or indeed companies may offer a combination of these).
For some sectors (such as banking) internships are one of the better routes of entry but for other sectors this is not the case. Smaller companies which do not have such regular recruitment demands may not have formal internship programmes in the same way, so can offer more flexible positions. They may more typically offer one a year or a handful on an as-needed basis.
In the US internships are not always paid, and indeed are sometimes paid for! The value of the experience is deemed to be remuneration enough. In the UK employers have a legal obligation (at least for now, discounting the notion we return to a hunter gatherer economy in the wake of Brexit) to pay interns at least the national minimum wage. The exception to this is if the internship or placement is part of an educational course, in which case it doesn’t have to be paid (hence the popularity of placement years which form part of your course). The subtleties of this distinction are not always fully acknowledged by employers, particularly smaller ones without legal departments to advise them. So the take home message is “buyer beware”.
Where to get internships
OK so where do you actually source internships? First point of call is going to be your university’s career service. At time of writing there are 210 opportunities on Warwick’s job board marked as work experience or internships. We check these before they go up so they adhere to Warwick’s standards on internships and other Universities would follow similar guidelines. Prospects, TargetJobs and Milkround would all be other good places to start. If you have some idea of what area you would like to work in, identifying the large employers in that sector and looking at their websites is a good plan. Remember the bigger and more prestigious the company, the more competition there will be for their internships and the more likely there will be early deadlines for applications. Internships with the big 4 are often advertised at the end of the summer for students going into the 2nd year to apply for to undertake the following summer. Try following companies that you are interested in on Twitter and LinkedIn. I saw an excellent internship working in science lobbying last year that didn’t seem to be advertised beyond Twitter. Ask around, use friends, family and tutors for any contacts you can make use of, it’s amazing how many people can get internships this way!
The final thing to say. An internship is a means of getting experience. The experience is the important bit. It gives you stories to tell about your skills and achievements and gives you insight into how organisations function. You don’t have to get an ‘Internship’ to get experience. You can get it through any number of activities. Work experience opportunities are not always advertised as ‘internships’ (so broaden your search criteria) and volunteering for a charity or working with a student society can be just as valuable as something marketed as an internship. As with the quest to find the Holy Grail it’s what we learn on the journey that’s important.