Graduate and Student Internships

Guide to Graduate and Student Internships

Employers place great emphasis upon the value of skills, but they place a greater value upon the application of these skills in a real environment. The best way to demonstrate this is through work or work experience, which is increasingly taking the form of an internship.

If you want the full insiders guide to internships download our feature rich Internship Success Kit which includes the sections What are internships, The benefits of an internship, How to make the most of an internship, Case Study: A student's experience and Find an internship.

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What are Internships?

Although any company or industry can offer an internship they tend to be found in city based companies. Banking, investment and financial services, strategic and management consultancies, engineering and law firms are common employers. These companies recruit hundreds of graduates each year and internships form part of their recruitment campaign. For these companies, internships provide a 'try-before-you-buy' method of selection with up to 80% of summer interns being offered graduate jobs in some cases.

Internships are massively beneficial to a students or graduates employment prospects. One of the reasons for this is that they are rare, so those who have been on an internship stand out. Sometime it is harder to get on a company internship program than it is to get on their graduate training scheme. Only certain sectors of the job market offer internships. For example, internships are often offered by financial firms but looking for an internship in the media might be like looking for a needle in a haystack.

The Benefits of an Internship

As well as the direct benefits of industry experience, an internship will also improve your transferable skills. Team working, organisational, time management and communication skills are classic examples that most employers want evidence of in the application process. Even though you will start to develop these kinds of skills when you are studying at university, the more evidence you can give employers the stronger the candidate you will become.

How to make the most of an Internship

The best thing about an internship is that it will allow you to demonstrate to future employers that you can practice your skills in a professional environment. Therefore, having secured yourself an internship, you need to ensure that you get the most out of the experience. The following advice will help you create a valuable internship experience.

1. Set realistic personal goals - While some internships are very structured, others are not, so you need to spend some time before you start the internship setting goals that you want to accomplish. Examples of goals may be discovering a specialism, building a network, learning new skills or conducting your own project.

2. Have regular meetings with your supervisor - You may get a supervisor who never schedules meetings with you or travels quite a bit, so it may be up to you to make sure there are regular meetings where you can get some feedback. If it is difficult to arrange interviews then a good idea is to send progress reports to keep your supervisor updated. 

3. Tackle all tasks with enthusiasm and a positive attitude - In just about every company, a new intern is going to have to pay their dues. You will undoubtedly be given some menial work to do. The key is to complete all your work assignments with the same level of enthusiasm and professionalism. Avoid a negative attitude as it is the quickest way to ruin a good internship.

4. Never shun a chance to learn more - Take every opportunity presented to you to attend company or industry meetings, conferences, and events; participate in training workshops; and read all company materials. It may not seem appealing at the time but it will be worth it when you look back on your internship experience.

5. Get as much exposure as possible - Some of the best internships rotate you among departments and supervisors, but if yours doesn't, don't let that stop you from tackling new tasks, meeting people outside your department, and attending company social events. The more you are exposed to new ideas and new people, the more you'll learn. 

6. Don't be afraid to ask questions - Always remember that an internship is a learning experience for you. While the employer expects to get a certain level of work from you, you are not expected to know everything about the job. Seek advice and raise questions whenever you encounter something that is not familiar to you.

7. Take the initiative - Employers encourage employees to tackle tough problems and to think "outside the box" in order to find solutions. Just make sure you check that your ideas are ok before you inflict any irreversible damage.
8. Find a good mentor - A mentor is someone at a higher level in the organisation that you can look to for guidance. Talk to them about yourself and your ideas. If they are a good mentor they will enable you to learn from their experience.

9. Network - One of the key tools of job-hunting is utilising your network of contacts. An internship is a great opportunity to set up or add to this network. This network will become important when looking for another internship or a job upon graduation. If you intern in a sector that you later become established in then these contacts could become very important in the long term.

10. Leave with tangible accomplishments - One of your goals with any internship should be leaving with some tangible results. These will make good interview topics and CV content. A tangible accomplishment can be anything where you apply your own skills to create something. This could be anything from a written report to organising a social event.

Internships and Employment Law

Anybody doing work for a company should be paid at least the minimum wage, as set out by the National Minimum Wage Act 1998. This covers work conducted through an internship. Work is not defined but if you have predetermined tasks, set hours, deadlines and your output is monitored you can reasonably claim that you are working. If however, your internship takes the form of shadowing, sitting in on meetings and doing your own research this is work experience and not work that requires pay. The only time when work does not need to be paid is when it is voluntary or charitable. Despite this point of law many internship in the UK are not paid. As internships are so sought after, employers know that students and graduates will be willing to volunteer and therefore not require payment. If you take a voluntary internship, make sure you let the employer know what you want out of the arrangement.   

For the current rate of minimum wage please see HM Revenue and Customs website.