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Career prospects

What are internships?

Internships are a great way to gain work experience before getting a permanent job. Here we show you what an internship involves and how to apply.

Printing specialist in glasses sitting at computer and working

CONTENTS

  1. How do internships work?

  2. Are internships paid?

  3. Are internships worth it?

  4. How to find an internship

  5. How to make the most of your internship

How do internships work?

An internship is a period of work that gives people – mostly students or graduates – the opportunity to gain new skills and experience in a profession they want to get into. They’re great for learning new skills, and can range in length from a couple of weeks to several months or even a year. 

Internships vary in job specification, with some asking you to shadow existing staff and others asking you to oversee tasks or projects. Interns are being given more responsibility nowadays and the majority of internships now require at least a bachelor’s degree. This distinguishes them from work experience placements.  

Are internships paid?

All interns in the UK should be paid, as legally anyone who’s defined as a 'worker' must at least earn minimum wage. However, many internships are still unpaid. Companies that don’t pay interns often offer some compensation for travel and lunch costs.

There are some scenarios where interns don’t have to be paid:

  • If you’re doing volunteer work
  • If you don’t have an employment contract and don’t have to turn up to work on any particular day or time
  • If you’re doing work experience as part of a sandwich course or shadowing someone at a workplace

Many companies and interns don’t know what is and isn’t legal when it comes to hiring and paying interns. This is how students and graduates end up in illegal, unpaid internships as a way of getting experience in a competitive job market.

If you’re offered an internship, make sure to read any contracts thoroughly before signing. If something doesn’t look right, ask the employer to explain it or talk it through with friends, family or careers advisors.

Are internships worth it?

If done properly, internships are certainly worth it. They’re a great way to make contacts within an industry. You may also find the job or sector isn’t what you expected, but you’ll leave with a better idea of what you want to do next. The experience on your CV will be valuable too.

There are enough good internships available that you don’t have to work for an exploitative employer. You shouldn’t work for nothing, and equally you shouldn’t have to do menial work that doesn’t help you progress. Work for an employer who’ll value you enough to pay you and give you interesting, useful tasks.   

How to find an internship

As with all other types of employment, personal contacts can be a good place to start when looking for an internship. Many roles aren’t advertised, so maybe speak to family and friends – they might know of a position at their place of work.

Websites to look at include gov.uk, Milkround and Internwise.

Chatting man and woman watching laptop and discussing work

How to make the most of your internship

Adapt to the company’s culture

Dress right. Is everyone else wearing business dress? Then you should too.

Be punctual and put in the hours, as some companies can be rather unforgiving. If your colleagues are at their desk and working by 9am sharp, make sure you are too. Also take note if they only nip out for a quick lunch and stay on past their contracted hours. Remember, you’re there to impress, so adapt.

Socialise. Many businesses thrive on good interpersonal relationships among staff and may encourage them through social events. It could be as simple as drinks after work on a Friday. If you’re invited, go (even if it's just to show your face). 

Do all the above and you’re more likely to be accepted into the team and your colleagues will automatically view you in a positive light, in turn providing opportunities for your personality and work ethic to shine through.

If you’re a fully functioning member of the team, you’ll gain more support from colleagues, be given more interesting tasks to do, and ultimately leave with enhanced skills having had a better experience. You might even be offered a full-time role.

Show an interest in the whole company

Your individual tasks may seem mundane, and they often will be, but how do they fit into the big picture? If the company has organised your internship properly, you’ll be doing work that’s useful to them – find out why and how. Show an enthusiasm for the mundane and you’ll likely be given more engaging jobs.

If your job is largely making someone else’s life easier, show an interest in what they’re doing and how they’re using your work.

If it’s appropriate, volunteer your services for a variety of projects. Consider working on these outside of normal hours if necessary. 

If you know the company inside out, you’ll become an asset able to make worthwhile contributions to meetings and strategy. Assets become indispensable, so a job offer is all the more likely.

Get feedback

If feedback comes readily, listen and heed its advice. It’s all part of the learning process. A person who shows willingness to learn, adapt and improve is far more useful to any business than someone set in their ways.

If you aren’t getting feedback, pursue it yourself. There’s no harm in asking your boss how you’re doing and what you could do to improve. An enthusiasm to better yourself won’t go unnoticed.  

Network

Networking is uncomfortable for many, but it’s essential to get this right. A company won’t employ or recommend someone they don’t like.

Accruing contacts makes the next stage easier, whatever that may be. If you’re offered a job, you’ll be better equipped to thrive from the get-go. If you’re not, your contacts could help you get your feet through the door at another company, keep you informed of industry developments, or maybe give you a reference.

Get career advice

This is particularly important if you’re working in your desired field. You’re surrounded by people who are doing the work you want to get into. Use this opportunity to help inform your career plans.

Ask them questions. How did they get to where they are today? How long did it take? What’s their number one tip? 

Your colleagues will be happy to help. People generally like talking about themselves, and they certainly enjoy feeling like an expert.

Show your appreciation

Let your employer know how much you appreciated the opportunity to work for them – it leaves a good feeling, and manners cost nothing

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