Internships Demystified

Bethan Watson is a third year BA English mature student on the Streatham Campus, currently pursuing graduate schemes in the UK and graduate opportunities in Australia. 

Bethan Watson, current Exeter student and explorer of internships

University is already tough – a careful balancing act between part-time work, societies and additional responsibilities; all on top of your degree. Just when you think you’re catching a break, final year rolls around, bringing with it the stress of securing graduate employment.

We’re told we need an internship to impress graduate employers, but they’re also an opportunity to help students at every stage of their university career. They help you narrow your options; they also help you practice skills in a formal workplace setting. At their best, internships function to alleviate rather than intensify the stress of graduation.

The journey is arguably as important as the internship itself. In my experience, securing any work placement requires discipline, engagement and commitment. It’s not a question of intelligence or connections, as long as you’re determined to “make your own luck.”

Beyond traditional routes offered by public sector routes or multi-national private sector employers, which follow a linear path of application form, aptitude tests, interview and then assessment centres, there are plenty of options available.

In an effort to explore every sector that interested me and develop a practical understanding of the career routes I would be entering – beyond the glossy marketing material – I threw myself into every opportunity. I never knew what I wanted to be when I grew up and as a first year, my interests were more inklings than fleshed-out plans. For example, I was interested in a media career (I had always liked the idea of working for Sky News), the public sector (I’d heard other students talking about the Civil Service Fast Stream), and business and technology-focused careers (I’d listened to a lot of tech podcasts). I used my next three years at university making sure I’d thoroughly explored my options, and internships were my vehicle to do so.

The journey is arguably as important as the internship itself. In my experience, securing any work placement requires discipline, engagement and commitment. It’s not a question of intelligence or connections, as long as you’re determined to “make your own luck.”

Firstly, I spent some time researching the schemes offered by the Career Zone. Access to Internships allows students to create their own fully-funded internships. Pathways would give me a one-week paid internship in several different sectors, depending on the stream I chose. The Career Mentor scheme would allow me to build a professional relationship with an industry professional. These were the schemes that interested me the most, so I set myself the goal that I would engage with each at least once in my university career.

The career pathways I decided upon pursuing in my third year were a direct result of the experience I gained over my internships; both positive and negative. I want to discuss my journey towards securing internships, and then how these internships shaped my future career decisions.

My first interest was in television. Paid media opportunities are difficult to secure, with a focus on practical work experience. I started with nothing. To further this interest, in my first year I became involved in XTV, a media society at Exeter University. I was elected to committee position in my second year, as Alumni Coordinator. I scheduled events and talks with alumni who were successful in the industry. I found an alumna on LinkedIn who interested me. I organised an event for her to speak about her career to our society members and I expressed a genuine interest in her work. She kindly introduced me to the recruitment team at her company at my request – Alpha Grid, a media company affiliated with the Financial Times. Due to the company’s size (250 employees or less), I was able to arrange a fully sponsored internship over the Easter holidays through the university, where the university reimbursed the company for my wages. I was also able to secure a travel grant of £250 of Widening Participation funding which paid for my living costs whilst in London. I stayed with a friend at her apartment in North London for the duration of the internship.

Secondly, I wanted to experience working in a multi-national company with a formal graduate entry route. I researched companies extensively in my first year and found that the values and strategy of Aviva aligned with my own, and loved the global structure of their graduate scheme. Whilst I knew nothing about insurance (why would I, as a first year?), I was attracted to how the company portrayed themselves across their social media platforms. I read their news bulletins, posts, blogs and read their annual reports. They were firmly in my mind as a potential graduate option.

A 10-week internship in London was an unattainable option for me; as a student from a low socio-economic background, I would struggle to cover living and accommodation costs.

Each internship gave me a different perspective on the industry I was interested in applying for. It was only by being in those work environments that I was able to develop a sense of the progression opportunities, the day-to-day work and the company culture.

With this in the back of my mind, I started attending Career Zone networking events. Everything from visiting speakers in law and finance to interview and leadership skills workshops. I eventually met a second year student when I was in first year, who belonged to a social mobility charity called UpReach. She encouraged me to join. As well as many professional development events and workshops, UpReach offered an internship opportunity with Aviva, which was 6 weeks long with fully covered travel expenses. I completed a multi-step interview process and was accepted onto the scheme, which enabled me to afford to do the internship. Even for students who don’t qualify for these charities, there are other organisations that run similar partnered internships, such as Wiser Academy.

I had inklings about career routes I might be interested in, but wasn’t sure if they were for me yet. For example, I flirted with law briefly as an option and attended a Women In Law society event about in-house legal services. I met an individual who worked for Plymouth County Council’s legal team. She invited the students attending the event to contact her about organising a one week work experience placement. I recognised this as a unique and unconventional law experience opportunity, and whilst it was not a paid placement, there were opportunities for graduate employment with postgraduate study accreditation. I had always been interested in law, but hadn’t thought about this kind of route previously. Whilst I did not pursue this opportunity, I know that students who did felt it was well worth it.

My third potential option was heritage sector work. The Career Zone offered a scheme called Pathways to Arts, Culture and Heritage, which gave students a week of training and a week’s paid internship. I applied for the scheme at the end of my first year and was successful; the process included an assessment centre-like group workshop interview, which was great practice for future applications. I networked with the professional speakers during Pathway’s training week; I added a heritage consultant on LinkedIn whose was in the middle of creating her own start-up and I expressed an interest in her work. I then completed a week’s paid internship at the Eden Project.

Equally, internships do provide a genuine opportunity to develop soft skills. These are the skills that are difficult to quantify – networking, resilience, leadership, collaboration and communication skills.

From working in the sector and speaking with professionals and learning about their careers, I realised that I didn’t want to pursue heritage. However, I spoke to the coordinator of the Pathways scheme and expressed my interest in a graduate employer who I also could’ve applied to work for on the internship. The company I asked about was a television production company, Two Four, owned by Channel 4. The coordinator kindly helped me organise work experience, and, upon its successful completion, I approached the company and proposed an Access to Internship-sponsored placement over the summer of my second year. Their recruitment team accepted my proposal, but funding had unfortunately elapsed at that point.

Each internship gave me a different perspective on the industry I was interested in applying for. It was only by being in those work environments that I was able to develop a sense of the progression opportunities, the day-to-day work and the company culture. My options narrowed organically. I realised that I wanted to work for a large company after graduation because of the investment in training new graduates, for example, and that if I were to work in television, I would want to work for a large public broadcaster and outside of the London area. I really enjoyed my placement at Aviva, so that has compelled me to apply for their graduate scheme and I will apply with a strong understanding of their expectations. It’s difficult to get a sense of your preferences until they are tested.

I was intimidated by the concept of internships and graduate employment, but I approached it methodically and was honest with myself about what I wanted, what I liked, what I was good at. There’s something for everyone after graduation, and internships are the ideal opportunity to find what works for you.

Equally, internships do provide a genuine opportunity to develop soft skills. These are the skills that are difficult to quantify – networking, resilience, leadership, collaboration and communication skills. They make sense when practically applied, and are all key to securing any form of employment. When I “networked” to get my internship at the Financial Times, I was genuine in my interest in the individual and her work whose connection helped me secure that placement. I was resilient when I realised I could never afford a 10-week internship and dedicated myself to finding alternatives. Leadership, collaboration and communication skills were all demanded of me when I: gained a committee position in XTV and organised and hosted events: attended employability events and became aware of UpReach: asked the Pathways coordinator to introduce me to the television production company: proposed to use Access to Internships to undertake an internship after my work experience. These situations developed my confidence and give real world examples of where I practiced the competencies that employers are looking for. Beyond employability, they made me more independent and capable as a person.

It is only a minority who come to university with a strong idea of where they want to be at the end of three years. I was intimidated by the concept of internships and graduate employment, but I approached it methodically and was honest with myself about what I wanted, what I liked, what I was good at. There’s something for everyone after graduation, and internships are the ideal opportunity to find what works for you. I would encourage everyone to look beyond what is advertised to you and pursue opportunities – even if you have to make them yourself – that you are genuinely interested in before dedicating yourself to a career pathway.