Internships are an opportunity. They develop and refine your skills, provide real-world insight into industry and job roles, plus help give you an edge when starting a career. As competition for graduate jobs increases year on year, internships have become an opportunity that many cannot afford to miss.

This articles guides you through internships in the UK, covering essential questions you must consider before finding and completing an internship. It provides advice on how to look for an internship and how to maximize the opportunity.

What is an Internship?

An internship is a professional opportunity that allows students and graduates to build valuable experience and skills. Interns work for an employer, sometimes without pay, for a set period of time.

Cynics will say that an internship is a way for employers to get work done for free. In 95% of situations this is not the case. Internships are usually official programs developed by employers. These provide meaningful, practical work for interns, along with feedback and a unique chance to learn from respected industry figures.

How Long Does an Internship Last?

Internships can last from one week to one year, although they are usually from three to six months. Full-time internships mean working full-time hours, the same as the company’s employees. Part-time internships can be done for just a few hours a week.

What Do Interns Do?

The day to day of an internship varies immensely, even in the same company or industry. On a good internship you should have a specific job role and contribution to the company. Interns are often required to do lots of admin tasks and seemingly basic errands. While this may seem repetitive you must remember that almost every job involves some amount of clerical tasks.

Different Types of Internships in the UK

Student Internships

Student internships must work around the student calendar. So these tend to be full-time positions offered during the summer vacation, or part-time positions that continue throughout the year.

Student internships are highly competitive and second-year students are at an advantage over first-year students. While some employers have created student internship programs, the majority of student internships are less formal. So when looking for an opportunity it’s important to spread your net as widely as possible. Many employers are keen for student interns but have never thought about it before, or been approached by an enthusiastic student.

Graduate Internships

Graduate internships are an opportunity for graduates to bridge the gap between university and career. They are usually full time and can last for up to one year.

When a future employee is looking to fill a graduate position they are not looking for the finished article. However, they are looking for a genuine interest in the industry, an ability to transfer skills into a professional environment, and a personality that suits both the company and industry. All this is demonstrated through a graduate internship.

Paid Internships

Despite their reputation, many graduate and student internships are paid positions. You are legally entitled to the National Minimum Wage if you are a working, unless you are taken on as a volunteer.

Some employers deliberately abuse this system by asking interns to volunteer. Many interns will also choose to work without pay for the opportunity they get; it’s commonplace to at least negotiate a stipend to cover travel expenses and lunch, even if you are not paid a salary.

Paid graduate internship schemes are highly competitive. They are typically used by employers as a precursor to full-time graduate jobs.

What are the Benefits of an Internship?

Work Experience

Internships provide valuable work experience. A competitive jobs market means graduates need more than just a good degree in order to be hired. Work experience is one such way to demonstrate proficiency and improve your employability. However, it’s dangerous to think of an internship as purely a means to add an advantageous line on your CV. Simply because you worked for an employer for three months (or less or more) doesn’t make you a more attractive candidate. It’s what you did and what you learnt in that internship that will make a difference.

Industry and Job Role Experience

It’s better to think of an internship as working experience. You’ll receive an intimate first-hand look into an industry and discover what you need to be successful. Internships in the UK are a good place to test the water and refine your career plan; some interns have dreamt of working in a certain industry for years, only to find it’s not what they want. That’s not a negative. It’s an advantage to understand what you don’t want during a formative stage in your career.

On an internship you should be working in a specific job role. Despite all the job descriptions and articles you can read, it’s only when working in the job that you can appreciate what’s really involved. So internships are also an important stage in your career exploration and development.

Skills Development

Some people approach internships as a tick-the-box style of exercise: do the internship, get the reference, improve the CV, then the job offers will flow in. Erm, no. The most important benefits of an internship are all the skills you develop. Mostly these will be transferrable skills that can be taken between industries and job roles. They will be practical skills to complement academic-based learning. In short, they will be the skills you need for a successful long-term career.

It’s amazing how much you can learn during an internship. Some of the skills can be quantified, such as proficiency in a certain technology or task. However, the majority of these skills are more complex. They concern communication, negotiation, decision making, problem solving, strategy, workplace politics, workplace behaviour and many many more. These are transferrable skills that future employees are looking for, as well as essential skills for furthering your own development and career.

Course Credit

Some universities include internships as a course requirement. This is win-win for students who can complete a module while realising the other benefits.

Industry Expectation

In highly competitive industries internships have become a standard career starting point Journalism is one example. Many practical careers require multiple internships, such as being a doctor or teacher.

Networking and Industry Contacts

You’ve probably heard that it’s not what you know but who you know. That statement has become a go-to explanation for missing out on a job and it does have a strong element of truth. The wider and greater your network the more opportunities that will come your way. Through an internship you’ll develop contacts within the company as well as the wider industry. If you’re the half-arsed intern then you’ll be remembered as the half-arsed intern unsuitable for the industry (if you’re remembered at all). But when you act professionally there’s no telling what a new contact could lead to as you extend your network.

Learning From the Best

The people who rise to the top of your chosen profession are those that are best at their job. They are the decision makers, the strategic thinkers, the groundbreakers and team leaders. These are people who have been where you are now, and have plotted a path to where you want to be. So who better to learn from? When taking an internship you’ll have opportunity to learn from all kinds of professionals and managers, many of them leaders in their field.

Getting a Job

Graduate internships (even student internships) can be a starting point for a full-time job. Ex-interns require less training than new graduate candidates and can be seen as a safe choice, meaning internships become a key means for employers to fill graduate roles. So if you make a good impression and fit into the company’s culture, then an internship can directly lead to a paid full-time role in that company.

What Benefits Do Employers Get From Interns?

Before applying for internships in the UK, think critically from an employer’s perspective. Taking on an intern requires them to make a significant time commitment, even if the role is unpaid. You will need induction, mentoring, some element of training and much more, including a place to work. Employers want to see a return for this investment.

Most employers would rather employ a trained administrative assistant to complete their low-level office-based tasks, rather than take the risk on a student or graduate who hasn’t worked in industry before.

Employers are often looking to increase the size of their workforce in order to meet increased work demands. In short, there is too much work to do and not enough people to do it. So they use interns. This could be:

  • Using interns to help complete a specific project or deliver an event.
  • Using interns to manage an increased everyday workflow by getting more hands on deck.
  • Using interns to perform lower-level tasks, thereby freeing paid staff to perform more strategic functions.
  • Using an intern to fulfil specific roles that existing staff do not have the time or expertise to work on; for example, small companies looking for a marketing intern.

What employers really want from an intern is somebody who will improve their business. This is consistent with every job you will take in your career. Employers are looking for somebody who will make a difference. That seems obvious when appointing a new CEO or executive but is equally true of an intern. If you can make a difference you will be respected and go a long way towards landing a job, in the same company or another.

Guide to Landing an Internship

#1 Career Interests

Don’t do an internship for the sake of it. Think clearly about what industry you want to work in, what kind of job you want to do, and how the internship will help your career.

#2 Network

Searching online sources for graduate internships will provide you with some leads. Unfortunately, these leads are the same as everyone else in your situation.

However, the wider your network the greater opportunity you will find. By networking you will find out about specific internship schemes. You will also connect with employees who will be very willing to employ an intern, but don’t have the time or headspace to look for one.

#3 Polish Up Your CV

Even an unpaid internship is a big commitment and potential risk for an employer. They want to know somebody is up to the job from the start. It doesn’t matter that your CV shows no work experience – that’s why you are seeking an internship in the first place. But your CV must be professional and engaging. Read more with this ultimate guide to writing a CV.

#4 Take Risks and Put Yourself Out There

Employers want somebody who will make a difference. People who put themselves out there and look to make an impression are usually put in that bracket. Send concise emails (think of them as cover letters) to companies, telling them what you want to do. Tell companies what you can do. Apply for all opportunities that come through your network.

Unsolicited approaches will do much better if they are directed to a specific person but don’t aim to high on the chain. A CEO, partner or senior executive doesn’t have the time to train you. Look instead at middle-level professionals. They are keen for both the managerial experience and extra pair of hands.

#5 Start Early and Keep Applying

Many graduate internships are arranged before graduation. Most student internships are organised six months before they start. The earlier you start thinking about your internship the greater opportunity you will find and the more professional you will appear. If you were an employer would you prefer:

  1. “I graduated with a 2:1 last year and I’m looking to build my work experience.”
  2. “I am due to graduate with a 2:1 and I’m looking to kickstart my career by transferring my skills into the professional arena.”

Employers want go-getters. They don’t want to be seen as a safe choice for somebody who has struggled to gain employment since graduating. If you have graduated then change the message subtly: “I graduated with a 2:2 last year and want to apply my specific skills.”

Guide to Excelling in an Internship and Advancing Your Career

Be Confident

Okay, it’s hard. You’re the least experienced person in the room and have never done a professional role before. But at some point in time that was the situation for everybody in the workplace. You can do things. You have skills. You can make a difference to the company you intern with. So believe in yourself from day one. After all, if you didn’t believe you could do the internship, why did you apply?

Ask Questions and Make Notes

Confidence doesn’t mean nodding your head and pretending to know everything. In a professional environment there is always something you don’t know. When you’ve just started out everyone will accept that you aren’t up to speed on many things. So ask questions.

An internship is about your learning. The more questions you ask the better you prepare yourself for the future. Questions also demonstrate your willingness and enthusiasm.

Be Realistic

You’re not going to be the boss; you’re going to below everyone else in the company so you must expect to be given some of the mundane, donkey work.

Also be realistic about where the internship will lead you. Don’t see it as a magical step towards a job with the company, but rather a chance to develop professionally and make yourself career ready.

Be Professional From the Start

Before investing time in your training, and before trusting you with an important job (however small), the company must be convinced of your professionalism. Once you land an internship you must treat it as a professional job. That means showing up on time, dressing for the occasion, and demonstrating you can be trusted with work and deadlines.

At the start of your internship you will be given administrative tasks. Are you the person that thinks themselves about these tasks and performs them in a half-arsed manner? Or are you the person that demonstrates your ability through these tasks?

Network

Go for coffee with the people you work with. Try and use lunchtime as a way to get to know your boss. Set up individual meeting with people on your team and understand what they do.

By networking within your team you’ll be seen as friendly and likeable. You’ll get to learn from professionals in the industry. In the short-term you can also find ways to make more of an impact in your position. When networking like this always bring the conversation back around to your internship, asking what you can do to make more of a difference.

Ask to be Involved

At the start of an internship you’ll spend a lot of time coming to understand your role and tasks. Hopefully you’ll gain some responsibilities and be trusted with parts of a project. After that it’s time to go the extra mile.

You will have heard your boss talking about things they would like to achieve or implement in the future. Chances are that they simply don’t have the time to do them. So ask how you can help. You’ll be seen as professional and serious just by asking. And your boss will start thinking about how they can get you more involved.

Take the Initiative

Employers want interns who can work independently. If you see that something needs to be done then do it. If you have a fresh perspective then say it. If you an idea then articulate it. The more you take the initiative the more you are going to be trusted. And that means much more than the administrative tasks you might have started with.

Networking for Internships on Fledglink

The wider your network the greater your opportunity. Through Fledglink you can find opportunity, from internships to jobs to career progression. So take the initiative and make a network that works for you.