What is an Internship?

As competition for graduate jobs increases, students need to think of new ways to set themselves apart from all of the other equally qualified and skilled candidates. Graduates who have relevant workplace experience tend to be more valued by employers, and this makes internships an attractive prospect.

But what exactly are internships, how can they help you and what will you be expected to do? We’ll explore these areas in this guide, which should help you to decide whether an internship is the right choice for you.

What is an Internship?

An internship is an opportunity offered by an employer to potential employees, called interns, to work at a firm for a fixed period of time. Interns are usually undergraduates or students, and most internships last between a month and three months. Internships are usually part-time if offered during a university semester and full-time if offered during the vacation periods.

An internship should give you practical skills, workplace experience and greater knowledge of that industry, in exchange for the employer benefiting from your labour.

An internship can be either paid or voluntary. The trend is increasingly (and rightly) towards the former, as voluntary internships are often cited as exploitative. As you would expect, internships that pay well are usually the most competitive.



How is an Internship Different to an Apprenticeship?

It is important to differentiate between an internship and an apprenticeship, since they offer quite different experiences.

An apprenticeship is a dedicated vocational programme that combines work-based training and study towards an NVQ (National Vocational Qualification) or foundation degree. Apprentices usually spend four days a week with their employer and then a day in the training centre, where they will work on building their portfolio to achieve their NVQ.

Traditionally, apprenticeships were reserved to trade occupations such as construction or planning. More recently, apprenticeships are offered in an increasing number of industries, from accountancy to marketing.

Apprenticeships can be a valuable route into employment, as apprentices often stay with their employer once they complete their vocational training, naturally progressing into a more senior role. Perhaps most importantly, an apprenticeship is a paid programme where you will earn at least the national minimum wage or apprenticeship rate depending on your age.

Typically, an apprenticeship will last between 12 and 18 months, though this depends on the level of the qualification.

By contrast, an internship doesn’t result in any formal qualification and is often for a much shorter period of time. And as mentioned previously, not all internships are paid.

Perhaps the most significant difference between an internship and apprenticeship is the commitment required from you to complete them. Apprenticeships are for the long term and you will need to commit to a programme for at least 12 months to obtain your qualification. Internships, on the other hand, are more flexible and they allow you to try different companies, work in different roles and really explore an industry in depth.

This can be beneficial if you are not really sure what direction your career is heading. Another factor that you should consider is your area of specialism – some industries are more suitable for internships, while others are better suited to apprenticeships.

Why Do Companies Offer Internships?

Companies offer students internships for a variety of reasons:

Short-Term

Internships provide employers with cheap (and sometimes even free) labour, for what is usually low-level office-based tasks, such as photocopying, filing, simple spreadsheet work or drafting reports. Many businesses will bring on board interns for a number of weeks or months to assist with the completion of a major project or event.

This can be great for students, because it can really help you to develop and evidence skills in project management, problem solving and client relationship management. Even if the internship is only brief, it can still equip you with a range of transferable skills and help you network and build valuable connections in the industry. Plus it looks good on your CV.

Long-Term

Employers often use internships as an effective way of advertising their graduate schemes to students. Surveys indicate that almost half of all graduate employers hire at least 20% of their ex-interns for training schemes. It is likely that graduates will return to the organisation that hired them as an intern for full-time employment after leaving university.

Hiring ex-interns after they graduate ias advantageous for employers as these graduates already understand the company and the job they will be doing. Ex-interns require less training than new candidates, which saves time and resources.

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What Do Interns Typically Do?

The majority of interns will carry out a range of support tasks in a junior role. The specific duties of an internship will vary considerably depending on your employer, the industry and the type of internship. Unlike conventional employment, internships have an emphasis on training, rather than employment itself.

Don’t expect to be given a client account to manage, or a creative project to coordinate, in the first week of your internship. By their very nature, internships are more of a support role than anything else.

But they are a great opportunity for you to learn how the business operates, even if you are only carrying out basic (and perhaps mundane) activities. Typical duties may include processing mail, data entry, filing, sorting through documents or scheduling appointments. That’s not a given though: some interns are given greater responsibilities and can end up becoming a key member of the team, making significant contributions to the company.

What Experience Will You Need?

Although employers will not expect you to have previous work experience, they will look at the skills that you have obtained via your studies. So, what should you mention if you don’t have regular work experience? Here are some ideas:

  • Volunteering is an excellent way to build your experience. Don’t think about the work being unpaid; think of it as a means to an end and an effective way to develop your skills and build your network.
  • There are lots of part-time jobs that you can do in between your studies. Don’t worry too much about the type of job that you get at this stage; it is the experience and transferable skills that the internship recruiter will be looking for. 
  • By joining student groups such as business clubs, associations or community groups, you can develop skills that employers look for.
  • If you don’t want to get a part-time job, freelancing is always an option, particularly in creative industries where you can build your portfolio and develop a variety of skills from marketing through to finance.



What are the Benefits of Doing an Internship?

Some of the key advantages include:

  1. A chance to develop your knowledge and skills in a particular field or industry
  2. Exploring different roles to see which one you would like to pursue
  3. Getting insight into the way businesses work and what challenges they face on a daily basis
  4. The opportunity to create a network of contacts
  5. Gaining valuable work experience to set you apart from other candidates
  6. Acquiring university module credits
  7. Applying the concepts and strategies of academic study in a live work environment
  8. Getting the national minimum wage (if you do a paid internship)

What Will I Be Paid?

There has been considerable debate and controversy surrounding internships, particularly those which are unpaid. Questions have been raised as to whether unpaid internships should even be allowed at all.

Paid internships are very competitive, even though many of them only pay the national minimum wage. If you can’t secure one, you’ll need to consider whether the benefits of an unpaid internship (see above) outweigh the financial drawbacks.

How Do I Apply for Internships?

The application process for an internship can be rigorous and detailed, since competition is often high, particularly in industries such as law, banking, media and consulting.

Start your internship search at least six months in advance. Companies will run recruitment drives at certain times throughout the year, so know when the recruitment campaigns for internships of companies you are interested in begin.

The requirements for applicants will vary depending on the company. Some organisations will ask you to complete an online application, while others will recruit in the same way as they would appoint someone for a permanent job.

Certain employers may be quite strict in their selection process, requesting that you attend an assessment centre, complete a psychometric test or participate in an interview. Others will decide based on a CV and cover letter.

There are two ways that you can apply for an internship. You can either check advertisements, or you can send out speculative applications to companies of interest. In either of these situations you should compose a strong application that: 

  • Clearly demonstrates your knowledge, skills and motivation relevant to the internship
  • States what you can bring to the company
  • Emphasises why you are interested in the organisation
  • Demonstrates the key competencies that the company is looking for in an intern

Internships are an excellent addition to your CV and in an increasingly competitive jobs marketplace, they really can set you apart from other candidates.

Further Reading

For more information about graduate internships, see: