Features | The truth about interning

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The summer may be long gone, but those with an eye on the future are already thinking about the next opportunity to make their CVs look pretty. LS takes a look at the urban myths surrounding the elusive internship and speaks to students and alumni about their experiences.

We have all had those vague ice breaking conversations along the lines of: “What did you get up to over summer?” “Oh nothing special, I just went to a few festivals and did a couple of internships”. The usual response to this is an approving nod, maybe a question to see if it was anywhere impressive but what does it even mean to “do an internship”? We understand that an intern is a student or trainee who works, sometimes without pay, in order to gain work experience or satisfy requirements for a qualification yet there are vast variations and misunderstandings about to what it means, what to expect, what your rights are and sometimes it can be difficult to know where to start.

Internships vary greatly – they can be paid or unpaid, last from one week (some cheeky ones try to label three days in the workplace “an internship”) to six months. They might be based at your university or on a different conti- nent and may or may not involve a contract. Essentially the word internship has a broad definition and can be used to describe a whole host of working experiences or placements.

This summer, during a much needed lunch break, a fellow intern concluded in stressed, hopeful jest that at least the next lot of interns will have bosses who are more sympathetic to intern life, having once been there themselves. Like it or not, we are the first generation of interns, paving the way for the future. Powerless and moneyless though we may at times feel, it is up to us to understand how the elusive internship works and how to mould it to our needs.

This intern business is not a fleeting trend, although parents may frown confusedly at the concept; nor is it a clichéd sign of the times, despite what tabloids may tell you. It is, in fact,the new way into work. Yet, this is not to say that internships are in any way necessary. To break into the workplace you do not need to spend a year working unpaid; life, fortunately, is not a Lena Dunham script. Indeed, with its recent surge in popularity, the internship comes with many urban myths, deigned to put you off. As with all urban myths, these are truths wildly exaggerated. As a previous intern, and a friend of many interns, I have learnt that things aren’t as bad as they seem.

Urban myth 1: Good internships are only available to those living, or who can afford to live, in London. This is completely untrue. A daily commute on the Tube proves to be of little worth when it comes to experience or CV presence. There is a wealth of opportunities in Leeds, Manchester and cities across the UK which all come with either low accommodation prices or, if in Leeds, will be a thrifty use of summer rent. Work experience and internships don’t always mean office work; there are plenty of job opportunities that require at home work, in some cases over a year whilst at university requiring three or so hours a week.

Urban myth 2: Bigger companies are better. This links in with the previous myth (because the big names live in the big city) and is just as untrue. There is a lot to be said in praise of work experience in a small company or business. In many people’s experience smaller companies give you greater responsibility and a better rapport with the team. If you want to climb the intern ladder, it is to begin in small companies to gain experience and confidence and then work in the bigger companies to acquire the important company name and contacts. Of course there are great, successful companies that we all dream of working with, but interning isn’t about where you end up, it is about where you begin.

Urban myth 3: Most people get their internships through good contacts. Those who have gained successful internships at media outlets such as Vogue, Dazed and Confused and The Guardian, have gained these simply through an application process. To get the best internships and jobs you need an inspiring application and sharp interview skills.

Urban myth no 4: Internships are stressful skivvy jobs with no use other than to add a company name to your CV. Internships are a learning process, whether you realise it at the time or not. Even if you hate your work placement, you are learning that you don’t want to work in that industry or company. Meanwhile you are also learning an invaluable lesson about how to work in an office environment, how to interact with colleagues, how to speak up and how in to conduct yourself. As with anything, you will make mistakes when you start life in the working world but isn’t it best to make these mistakes in an unpaid, non-contract job that you can leave in three weeks? Of course it is likely that you will find yourself stressed, frustrated and wondering if your hard work will ever come to fruition; welcome to the working world.

Urban myth 5: Internships are necessary. With all things popular comes pressure. Don’t feel like you need an internship to be at an advantage. They are simply a way of tasting the working world and trying out your skills in a working environment. If this doesn’t appeal, or you just haven’t had any success don’t worry. Internships are useful but they are not absolute.

You’re at uni enjoying being a student but you get sweaty hands thinking about the future and feel overwhelmed whenever you hear someone talking about their career plan. Don’t waste the three years of wild undergraduate adventure worrying about what will happen afterwards; put them to use. The Living CV in your Leeds for Life section accessible through the portal (right next to the VLE icon) enables you to input details of every experience, in and out of university, into a continuous documentation of your three years. A pantry of ingredients if you will, so that when it comes to applying for jobs or internships, the application won’t feel half as daunting or dull. Meanwhile keep an eye out for opportunities that suit you. One of the first places to look is the opportunities tab in the Leeds for Life space on the VLE and the University’s Careers centre, which have a plethora of opportunities already found for you. You can refine these by your degree subject, alongside a range of other specific criteria, so that you are not overwhelmed by reams of results. To find out more about what Leeds for Life can offer you, visit leedsforlife.leeds.ac.uk

Get advice from the Careers Centre, whether it is through CV checks or mock interviews, they are experts and can help you invaluably. If you find yourself applying for and gaining in- ternships, then as well as working your hardest for the job, it is important to make the job work best for you. Don’t think about what other people are doing or what the media is telling you (this article included); be brave and take ownership of your degree, career and life – internship or no internship. If you do this, then you might eventually just find yourself following Katherine Whitehorn’s career advice for the young: “find out what you like doing best and get someone to pay you for doing it.”


Ellen O’Donoghue Oddy

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