Take advantage of internship opportunities, whether at home or abroad, as they provide transferable skills, useful connections and invaluable industry insights

Internships explained

An internship is a period of work experience, offered by an organisation, lasting for a fixed period of time anywhere between a week and 12 months. They are typically undertaken by students and graduates looking to gain relevant skills.

Employers use these placements to assess a student's or graduate's capability and often recruit employees from their interns, rather than advertise their vacancies externally. You should therefore apply for an internship which you have a real interest in.

People often confuse internships and work placements but the two types of experience are different. While internships are usually undertaken over the summer months or after graduation to gain experience in a particular field, work placements, also known as a year-in-industry or placement year, are taken as part of a degree. Students on a placement year are completing a module and receive academic credit for the year.

A huge number of students lost out on internships, work placements or work shadowing opportunities due to the coronavirus pandemic and if you're still struggling to get a period of work experience there are a variety of things you can do to build your skills.

You could apply for virtual work experience, get involved in online volunteering, apply for temporary or part-time roles or show your talents online via videos and blogs.

All these activities will build your transferable skills and demonstrate to employers your tenacious, proactive, outside-the-box thinking.

Internships in the UK

To find internships in the UK:

Internships abroad

  • AIESEC UK - facilitates international student exchanges through paid traineeships and other schemes.
  • Absolute Internship - matches university students and graduates with international internships in elite cities around the world.
  • Asia Internship Programme - leading international internship provider in Asia, AIP offer programmes in Australia, China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand and Vietnam.
  • BUNAC - offers TEFL China, Vietnam and Thailand programmes, as well as professional internships in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the USA.
  • City Internships - provider of structured internship programmes in the world's greatest cities. Placements are offered across all sectors including banking, consulting, law, marketing and technology.
  • CRCC Asia - Internships - facilitates global internships in China, Japan, Vietnam and the UK. They'll find your perfect internship, be it in law, finance, business or marketing.
  • Frontier - offers more than 300 volunteering and internship placements in countries throughout Africa, Asia, South America, Europe and Australasia.
  • ImmerQi - provides international internships in more than 200 companies in three major Chinese cities - Beijing, Shanghai and Chengdu.
  • Maximo Nivel - offers internship opportunities in Costa Rica, Guatemala and Peru.
  • Placement Year International - offers paid business, hospitality, sports and leisure and teaching work placements to students and recent graduates.
  • The Intern Group - provides remote internships and in-person programmes in London, Dublin, Barcelona, Madrid, New York, California, Toronto, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Bangkok, Colombia, Chile and Australia.

In light of the pandemic check GOV.UK foreign travel advice and contact your internship provider if you have any questions or issues.

Length of programmes

Internships can last a week during the summer holidays to a year depending on the sector and employer. Student internships tend to be shorter in length than graduate ones. In the case of medical training, for example, you might be labelled as an 'intern' until you progress to the next professional level.

As their name suggests, summer internships tend to last the length or your summer break - typically two or three months. Popular with both students and graduates, summer internships last long enough for you to get a taste of the job and gain valuable skills but don't require the commitment of longer programmes. To discover the different ways you can use the summer months to your advantage, see summer jobs.

Usually internships are not accredited by universities as part of courses, but may be accredited or formally acknowledged by professional training organisations. For example, experience gained on an accountancy internship may count towards The ACCA Qualification, which is required to become a qualified accountant.

Pay for interns

The ISE Annual Recruitment Survey 2018 states that on average, interns are earning just under £20,000 a year.

You should receive at least the National Minimum Wage for your age range in the UK if you're performing the role of a worker. The majority of interns are classed as workers and you're only not a worker if you're shadowing someone. If you work set hours, perform the same duties as paid members of staff, meet deadlines, work unsupervised or supervise others, then you're classed as a worker.

However, consider the arrangement as a whole in determining your right to pay - work experience should be for your benefit, not the employer's. If you're part of the commercial operation of a business, you're likely to be entitled to payment.

Bear in mind that there are exemptions, such as:

  • a sandwich placement that is part of a higher education course
  • work shadowing
  • working for a registered charity
  • undertaking work experience as part of 'Back to Work', or similar schemes with the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).

When it comes to unpaid internships awareness is increasing and steps are being taken to ensure that exploitative placements become a thing of the past. The majority of unpaid internships are found in the retail, arts and media industries. When looking for opportunities, know your rights and only apply for paid positions.

Applying for an internship

The application process can be as competitive as applying for a permanent job, especially in industries such as healthcare, law, media, social care and teaching and education, where experience is essential.

Aim to apply at least six months in advance, although companies may set specific deadlines so make sure you do your research.

Application requirements differ between companies. For some you may need to complete an online application form, attend an interview or an assessment centre, where you could be asked questions about your qualifications, skills and past experience. For other opportunities, submitting a copy of your CV and a cover letter will suffice - take a look at our internship cover letter example. You can also submit speculative applications to enquire about available internships - in this instance, use your initiative and call the company beforehand to find out who to send your enquires to, along with their specific contact details.

While methods can vary, all applications should:

  • demonstrate that you have the knowledge and motivation to benefit from the internship
  • outline what you can offer the company
  • emphasise why you want to work for that particular company
  • show that you match what they’re looking for in an intern.

Necessary requirements

The majority of internships are usually undertaken by university students and recent graduates to test the water before committing to a particular job or career. Employers therefore do not expect previous experience of the working world but they will ask what experience and skills you've gained through your degree. For example, to do a graphics design internship you would most likely need previous experience with Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator.

As with many graduate jobs, the subject you've studied is not the most important thing but rather the skills you can demonstrate.

When you think of an intern the image of a university or college student usually comes to mind, but while some opportunities may come with an age limit, often 18 to 25 years old, not all work experience will be so restrictive.

If you're a mature student or a career changer it's best to do your research and check with the internship provider to find out whether any age restrictions apply.

The benefits of becoming an intern

Doing an internship will:

  • ease the transition from study to work
  • increase your skills and knowledge
  • improve your understanding of a particular job or industry
  • show you other roles you may not have previously considered
  • help you to gain an insight into the way organisations operate and the challenges they face
  • provide you with networking opportunities
  • give you real work examples to use in future job interviews.

The benefits of internships can include:

  • payment, by law the National Minimum Wage is the least you should expect
  • subsidised travel or lunches
  • attendance at in-company training courses
  • a supervisor who might be able to act as a referee for you in future job applications.

According to the ISE Development Survey 2019, the importance of work experience is highlighted by the fact that 87% of respondents agreed that students who had completed an internship or placement had better skills than those who did not have this experience.

Potential job offers

It's true that internships give both you and the employer a chance to 'try before you buy' but not all opportunities lead to a job. While some interns embark upon a placement to build their experience, some do so in the hope of securing a more permanent position. If this is your intention you should check the likelihood of this happening with potential employers before applying.

The ISE Annual Recruitment Survey 2018 found that employers rehired an average of 52% of their interns and 43% of their summer placement students.

To increase your chances of a job offer there are a number of things you can do on your internship to stand out:

  • Make a good impression - Always be polite, smartly dressed and willing to take on any tasks. Never be idle. If you complete a task ahead of time then ask for something else to do.
  • Be enthusiastic - Interns don't usually receive the most exciting jobs but no matter what you're asked to do show enthusiasm for your work. Demonstrating that you can handle small, tedious, repetitive tasks with a positive attitude may inspire your employer to entrust you with bigger projects. Showing an interest in the work that the company does will also leave a good impression.
  • Develop a rapport with co-workers - Teamwork is important in the majority of roles so showing your employer that you get along and fit in with your work mates may pay dividends.
  • Show appreciation - Once you've completed your internship send a letter or email of thanks to your supervisor. Thank them for giving you the opportunity and mention elements of the internship that you particularly enjoyed. Wish them luck with future projects and ask them to consider you for any future vacancies.

This webinar featured in the Prospects Future You: Live event in November 2020.

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