How to Find an Internship.

The most regularly occurring topic of conversation I've had with university students this autumn has been how to find an internship. So, how do you find an internship?

Start by looking at your university vacancy system for internship schemes advertised by large organisations and perhaps smaller ones local to your university. Some smaller organisations may advertise later in the year. There are also national sites such as PROSPECTS, TARGETjobs and milkround 

Quickly though, many of you will find...

  • I'm not in the right year to qualify for this internship.
  • There is nothing in the sectors I'm interested in.
  • I can't find the organisations I want to work for.
  • There don't seem to be any internships relating to my degree.
  • I need to live at home during the internship not in London.
  • Internships in my field of interest are unpaid and I need to be paid.

This is a good introduction to the world of work, rather than education. You are now outside of the world of clearing, set timetables and deadlines. It's time to put aside the idea of one or two resources listing all your options and a common application and selection process.

Scary? Well, yes it can be. Confusing and overwhelming? Certainly.

If you re-frame it though, look at the freedom! That you are no longer constrained by a missed grade or one missed deadline. You can use a variety of strategies to find an internship and play to your strengths.

Check you are looking at the right internships for you.

Some internships are aimed at students in a specific year of study. In the UK this is commonly the penultimate year, although that can be ambiguous. If you are doing an industrial placement year or year abroad where does that fit, and did you know that if you are planning to do a Masters degree, then your final year might count as penultimate? If you're not sure you qualify, check before spending days applying. For some sectors, applying in your first year is more desirable, others in your final year.

If you just look by an internet search you might come up with internships seeming to want lots of experience already! They may be aimed at graduates, common in some industries; or be outside the UK, where graduate internships are more common.

Get sector and size specific

Put yourself in the shoes of your target organisation. Universities have big budgets for promoting their courses to you, as do large graduate recruiters for their vacancies. A smaller organisation, not recruiting graduates or interns in large numbers, won't create internship schemes and advertise on national sites. 

Charities and organisations who receive lots of speculative approaches aren't going to use up time and funds advertising so much. It's not entirely logical which sectors have a tradition of speculative approaches, nor which are likely to be unpaid, so you just have to find out.

Any of the above might advertise through your university, as usually that's free, but it just might not occur to them to do so. They might not particularly target students, instead choosing to spread the word in places where they know their sector 'tribes' already hang out.

National career sites have some fantastic sector briefings and your own careers service may have too. You can discover specialist vacancy sources, professional bodies and typical employers you might then approach speculatively. Also, they will have suggestions about the most useful experiences to help you develop the knowledge, skills and contacts to break into a particular career. Which reminds me...

Don't be too attached solely to the idea of an 'internship'.

Because it most definitely is NOT the only way. This is particularly important if you are going to make those speculative approaches I keep mentioning. You can send an email, with a CV attached, asking specifically for an internship. If you get a really good targeted CV and cover letter together, experiment with your approach and catch the right person at the right time, that might work. On the other hand, it often won't.

I suggest that you stand out by being cleverer than that.

Be considerate of the person receiving your approach. Do they have the same understanding as you about what it means to offer a placement, internship, experience, work shadowing? Have you thought about what they could gain from this? If it's not a routine strategy they use to attract a pipeline of students and graduates, have you considered how much work it might be to set up an internship? They have to think about what to do with you, who is going to manage you, what they can let you loose on and not, possibly confidentiality issues, legislation about pay and conditions.

Be flexible. By all means ask for what you would ideally like, e.g., a summer internship. But you might also acknowledge how that might not work for them and that you would be grateful for any advice or suggestions. So perhaps a week might work better, or a day shadowing, or even a coffee or chat over the phone for 20 minutes.  

Think about why you're doing this. Probably for some advice, contacts, insight, ideas. From just a conversation you can learn about many things: the highs and lows of the work, how it's changing, common routes in. This smaller step of a chat may well lead to you following up with a CV, or some actual experience. If not, you still have a contact for the future and perhaps they know someone else you could talk to?

Make it easy for someone to say yes. If you do your research, listen to the demands of the job and consider your skills, you may be able to suggest a way you can help your potential host. Nearly everyone has something they keep meaning to do and don't have time for. Perhaps it's some social media marketing, a research project, setting up a new database. Could you help with that?

Or is there at least something where you will cause them no extra work. One careers service I worked for regularly received approaches from newly qualified careers advisers looking for experience. We did often help but sometimes it was just far too busy to even think about. I remember one careers adviser who looked at what we were doing, saw that an autumn fair was coming up and just asked if she could come to that. Yes, fine, brilliant, easy! We felt helpful but with no effort, she could chat to staff, students, employers and help out and she did later go on to work for us full time.

Put in some extra groundwork. That's obvious from the points above really, but you will stand out from others if your communication clearly demonstrates research into and understanding of the organisation you approach. If you're not genuinely interested or not going to show it then, frankly, don't bother! Groundwork means time and energy, so less is often more when it comes to how many speculative approaches you make.

Be creative and personal. Researching the work of a particular organisation might change your approach. For instance, advertising or media agencies will have different cultures and respond to more or less formal approaches, which you can gauge by looking at their clients, their work and their staff.

Find something in common with the organisation, perhaps their values or connections with a specific region. Medium sized accountancy firms for instance often like employees who have links to an area as they may know and care more about local businesses.

Don't get too personal in terms of researching individuals and if you're not good at determining where to draw those lines seek advice, but it can be good to find something in common with an individual too. Perhaps use alumni contacts so you have the same course or university in common, perhaps you have an acquaintance in common. Sometimes a difference can also be interesting to an employer, as it brings a different perspective.

There are other alternatives to work experience too!

  • Workshops and events at university, through professional bodies and national websites.
  • Competitions - run by big employers and
  • Career related student societies.
  • Do your own thing! What better way to develop and demonstrate marketing or events organising skills than to run a marketing campaign or event for a society or cause you believe in. One of the most impressive students I knew set up a fundraising initiative which spread across other universities, in response to a natural disaster. I'm sure that was a factor in him getting into a top consultancy firm. You might also like to read this blog about increasing your employability.
  • In short, pursue what you already love or feel passionate about, whilst taking risks to try new things. 

    Be brave and have fun.

    Seriously! You won't get everything perfect every time. But take regular steps. When you aren't getting results; review, get feedback, tweak your strategies. It's a great time to explore and you have nothing to lose by asking, spreading the word and trying your best. Soon you will gain momentum and others will help and work for you. Then you will truly find some amazing experiences and learn so much about work and yourself.

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