Internships: A Guide to Starting Your Career

internship guide

An internship is more valuable than you think. Apart from the work experience you get, it can also land you a job. Here's some advice to get started.

An internship can be a great way of starting your career since it’s an important stepping stone between university and work. Internships equip you with valuable work experience that gives you an advantage over other skilled candidates. In this competitive job market, graduates who have some level of experience are preferred by employers.

Some even argue that the internship is the new entry-level job. The AGR Graduate Recruitment Survey 2015 shows that many graduates find work opportunities with employers they have previously worked with through internships, gap years or placements.

The survey found that between 2013-14, 3,865 out of 16,953 graduates recruited, filled a vacancy with an employer they had previously worked for. Interestingly, 2 out of 169 companies said that they filled all of their graduate vacancies with graduates who had worked with them previously, whereas only 16 percent didn’t recruit any graduates this way.

Work experience has indeed become one of the most important determining factors employers take into account when making important hiring decisions, and those hoping to get a job in their field need to start from somewhere. That said, as an entry level opportunity, an internship can offer a lot regarding planning and developing your career.

While your internship might be unpaid, it will probably give you unique and valuable experience that can help you kick-start your career.

What is an internship?


An internship is a program that is intended to provide practical experience to beginners - primarily students and recent graduates - within an industry or profession. It’s a short-term period of employment that aims to equip individuals with the professional skills they need to be able to enter and succeed in the workplace.

When integrated into a university program, internships are also known as ‘work placements’ or ‘industrial placements’ and provide individuals with the opportunity to develop their knowledge and transferable skills e.g. communication, teamwork, and leadership skills. An internship is usually related to someone’s field of studies or interest and is different from work shadowing schemes and volunteering.

Who is it for?

Internships are for college or university students who are looking for ways to expand their current knowledge on a field, but there are also many opportunities for graduates as a way of getting in the industry of their choice. Internship opportunities may come with an 18 to 25 age group limit, though it’s not impossible for career changers and mature students to become interns.

In the UK, internships that are built into academic courses are a popular route to employment and have become as essential as first class degrees. Currently, many academic departments offer the option of a four-year degree – that includes a work placement in year three, rather the standard three-year degree. This initiative aims to help students get a feel of what it's like working in their industry and get them to improve their career prospects in the long run.

How long are they?

There are lots of different types of internships, and their duration depends on the type of internship you want. Quite often internship programs can last from a few weeks up to a year. For example, summer internships might last from four weeks to three months.

A student internship can take up to six months or a year and form part of an undergraduate degree. But this depends on your degree, the industry, institution and employer. Student internships usually tend to be shorter than graduate internships.

When should you apply?

Most of the internships take place during the summer, and most opportunities are advertised in September. If you are in university, you will need to apply for an internship through the careers service and be expected to do it at the end of year 2 or the start of year 3.

For graduate internships, this depends on each employer. Companies like Deloitte for example, advertise internship opportunities all year long (September to August), but because they get so many applicants, you may need to send your application early.

Why intern?

Internships have both disadvantages and advantages. However, the good are more than the bad. An internship helps you make the first step towards working life and get into the industry you want. It helps you develop your transferable skills and build work experience in the field you are interested in. Completing an internship means that you are giving yourself the best chance of securing a job and gaining valuable work experience. As such, there are lots of reasons why you should intern:

  • It helps you find out if you have made the right choice in terms of careers.
  • It helps you explore future career opportunities in the industry.
  • It equips you with relevant work experience and technical skills.
  • It allows you to expand your professional network.
  • It improves your long-term career prospects.
  • It can pay you.
  • It can get you a full-time job.

Apart from these, an internship can increase your employability making you a more attractive candidate to employers. Sir Tim Wilson, the PhD professor at London South Bank University, says that internships can help students improve their employability prospects. In an interview with the Independent, Wilson said, “I think we’re beginning to see internships being used as part of an extended interview process. The evidence that a placement year improves employability opportunities is strong while a lack of work experience appears as a key barrier.” If you have no other work experience in your field, an internship can be a real jewel on your CV.

Internships help employers assess your capabilities, motivation and interest in the field. If you meet their requirements, they are more likely to keep you on as a full-time employee without needing to advertise the position externally.

As an intern, you ideally are the perfect employee since you learn how things work at the company, and you get trained to do the job from start to finish. An internship also helps you determine whether you are going to be a good fit for the company or not. This internship-trial-period gives both you and the employer the time to find out if you are the perfect match for each other.

What’s great about internships is that employers are picky with the people they recruit. That’s a good thing for two reasons: a) they want to make sure you are the person they need, and b) they need to be sure that you fit in with their company culture. Internships allow them to assess all of this.

Types of internships

There are many types of internship programs, and some industries offer more frequent internship opportunities than others. The most popular industries that offer internships and work placements are marketing, IT, banking and finance, recruitment, administration and engineering. If you want to become an intern in any of these industries, you will need to check out what type of internship suits your needs and long-term career goals best.

Student internships

Student internships usually take place during third year. If the university offers an industrial internship or work placement as part of your course, it can give you valuable insight into the industry you have chosen. For most careers, these types of internships aren’t accredited by universities as part of their courses, but may be formally acknowledged by professional training associations such as ACCA (e.g. for Accountants) and other awarding bodies.

Most student internships in the UK require you to be studying at a UK university, have an excellent academic record and a work permit (for EU and international students). There are also ‘insight days’ that are less common than normal student internships (1 to 5 days) and run during the Easter.

As a first-year student, these can help you get a taste of what a day in the profession you have chosen looks like and decide if that industry is for you. If you succeed in this short-term internship, you will then get invited to participate in a summer or an industrial internship towards the end of your second year.

Graduate internships

‘Graduate internships’, ‘graduate jobs’ or ‘graduate schemes’ are intended for graduates, and it is ideal for people who haven’t had the chance to gain any work experience at the university. If you have completed a three-year degree, didn’t have any part-time jobs or get a work placement opportunity during your university studies, you can benefit a lot from graduate internships. A graduate internship gives you an opportunity to apply your knowledge to practical situations after you finish school, giving you something to write about on your CV and prepares you for the ‘real job’.  

Summer internships

Summer internships are the most common type of internship. These opportunities may be full-time or part-time, paid or unpaid depending on the arrangement you have made with your employer. These internships often start in May or June and continue until August. Many summer internships are open to undergraduates studying any degree throughout the year and employers are more flexible in terms of recruiting in contrast to other types of internships.

Paid internships

Not all internships are paid, and there is a lot of controversy regarding whether interns should be paid or not. The good news though is that the majority of employers throughout the UK are now paying their interns a decent salary. In fact, some companies offer competitive salaries to graduates, to encourage them to join an internship program.

According to RateMyPlacement’s Top Undergraduate Employers guide 2015-2016, the average student salary was £17,509. The lowest average salary on paid internships was £15,371 (in Yorkshire and Humberside) and the highest £19,870 (in Greater London and The City), and this is just an indication of what you could be earning as a student intern.

Less-known or small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) may be able to offer the National Minimum Wage. So, if you were to become an intern you need to learn what employment rights you are entitled to.  GOV.UK says that an intern gets the National Minimum Wage if they are classed as a worker and if they are promised a contract of future work. Being classed as a worker means having a list of duties you need to fulfil and fixed times when you have to work. If you are being paid less than the National Minimum Wage, this is illegal and you may be able to claim back the correct pay from the time you started working. 

Unpaid internships

For internships that don’t offer pay, more strict labour rules apply. Unpaid interns can’t benefit the company they work for economically or be used to displace the work done by paid employees. Despite that, unpaid internships can provide an excellent learning opportunity for any intern. Some student placements are seen as internships, and unpaid interns are required to undertake this as part of their course. So, instead of getting paid an actual salary, they receive college credit for their work.

Having said that, there are some exceptions to schemes with the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) where you are not entitled to  pay. An internship is unpaid when:

  • You are undertaking a sandwich placement as part of a university course.
  • You are work shadowing.
  • You are working for a registered charity.
  • You are undertaking work experience as part of ‘Back to Work’ etc.

Volunteers, for example, aren’t entitled to National Minimum Wage because they are simply providing their services to an organisation of their own accord, and can’t be viewed as company employees.

How to find an internship


There are various methods you can implement when looking for internship opportunities, whether in the UK or abroad. These include:

  • Searching specialist websites and job boards
  • Registering with trusted recruitment agencies
  • Using your professional network
  • Attending job fairs and other networking events
  • Using your university’s careers service
  • Contacting the companies you’d like to intern with directly

It’s important to note that competition for internships is incredibly high. This is especially the case for opportunities in industries such as healthcare, social care, law, media and education. You can expect to be asked to join a waiting list in some cases or be advised to apply for opportunities about six months in advance.

Planning your internship

As a student, the safest option for you would be to apply for an internship through your university’s career service. Networking may be more of a long shot, but it can work if you have a big circle of contacts and don’t mind going to a couple of career fairs and other networking events until you meet the ‘right person’.

Either way, you will need to plan your internship. So, here’s what you need to do step by step:

1. Search for employers

When searching for an internship you should be examining the type of internship, location, company, salary information (if there is any) and job description. Once you find the employer you want to work for – or the one who gives out the most attractive offer, look into the possibility of that job turning into full-time employment. Ask your friends or anyone else in your network that has completed an internship with the same company and get more details. Alternatively, you can always check some reviews on Glassdoor.

Determining whether an internship opportunity is good or not is essential because you want to choose one that offers you the best career prospects. Making internships work - an intern’s guide by GOV.UK points out that a good internship opportunity that offers high-quality learning experience usually provides the following:

  • A contract: a document that explains details of your pay, responsibilities and what you are required to do as part of your internship.
  • Induction: an introduction to the organisation and staff members; an explanation of how things work at the company and what are the resources you can use.
  • Support: you are treated with the same amount of respect and support given to other employees.
  • Challenge: the role offers a challenging opportunity that helps you learn and develop as a professional.
  • Supervision and mentoring: you are given guidance to help you carry out your job effectively.
  • Feedback: you are given feedback that can help you improve professionally.

When you are out looking for an internship opportunity search for these elements and ask other interns and professors to help you choose the best one for you. 

If you are based in the UK, I would suggest starting your search from London. As one of the biggest capitals in the world, London offers a range of internship opportunities. Popular companies such as Apple, Google, Shell, HSBC, PwC, GSK and Unilever are headquartered in the centre of London and offer a range of internship programs providing easy entry to working in large enterprises – in contrast to applying for a job the traditional way.

2. Complete your application

When you decide on an employer, the next step is to prepare your CV and the documents you need to complete the application form. Different employers ask for different things so depending on whether the employer is a small-medium enterprise or a Fortune 500 company, application requirements are likely to vary.

Some may ask you to complete an online application form or send your CV and cover letter. But, others may ask you to attend an interview or even an assessment centre.

Since there is a lot of competition for internships, you need to show your excitement and willingness to benefit from the internship in your application. Not only that but, like applying for a job, you also need to show your interest to employers and focus on what you have to offer that other candidates don’t.

3. Get ready for the interview

As soon as you complete your application, you need to make sure that you prepare for the interview invitation. Just like applying for regular jobs, it might take a while before you get a response, though learning how to prepare for a graduate job interview is crucial. Find out what the recruiting process for graduates with that specific employer is and wait for the reply. Practice important interview questions and get some vital tips on how to dress for an interview to make yourself a more desirable candidate.

Checklist: Making the most of your internship

internship checklist

Once the employer decides to take you under their wing, the real work begins. Getting the internship is one thing but succeeding in it is quite another. Being a good intern is vital to your professional development because this is the starting point of your career. It helps your reputation in the industry grow and shows employers that you are a valuable asset to any company.

If you want to make a good start as an intern, you have to be willing to offer your help the best way possible. You need to be proactive and take initiatives to support the rest of the team you will be working with or providing assistance to.

To help you out, here’s some brilliant advice to do great in your internship:

1. Show an interest in the company

Don’t take your internship for granted. You may have won the battle, but you haven’t won the war. While you are there, make sure that you learn everything there is to know about the position. Offer your services and get to know the company inside out. Find out what your role is and why is it important. If you manage to become an asset to the company, it’s unlikely they will let you go.

2. Be a professional

You should always present yourself as a real professional. This includes dressing up smartly, being organised and having good manners. Although this sounds like basic career advice, many young people end up losing a long-term opportunity with a company because of their unprofessional behaviour and attitude. Arrogance, irresponsibility and resistance to work won’t do you any favours.

3. Keep a learning journal

If you want to make the most of what you get as an intern, you have to keep a learning journal. Writing a reflective diary is a common practice for teaching professionals and people in social science, but it can be useful for any professional. A learning journal forces you to think about your workplace behaviour and helps you come up with ways to improve. It’s so important to be able to identify your strengths and weaknesses since it’s the only way to become better at what you do.

4. Ask a lot of questions

As an intern, the most important part of your job could be asking questions. Why? Because that’s the only way to find out what’s going on, who is responsible for what and what your role in the company is. Every small task is an opportunity to learn and grow, and that’s what you should be aiming for. Internships are short-term, and that’s why you need to make the most of your time there. Get feedback on your work, get to know what other people are doing and how they behave in the work environment. This kind of experience will stay with you forever.

5. Don’t settle for the minimum

The secret to succeeding as an intern is giving 100 percent. Instead of just doing what you are told be prepared to go the extra mile. Show your willingness to try new ideas, volunteer to go to a business meeting or an event, go to the office early and leave late, be resourceful and offer your help to supervisors whenever they need it.

6. Get a project

Rather than being the jack-of-all-trades, you can show your worth in a specific area of work. While doing many types of work - and ‘filling the gaps’ is common for interns - that’s not what you want to do for the rest of your life. Taking charge of a project is an excellent way to showcase your skills and experience in the field. A project can also make it easier to show your value to an employer because it demonstrates initiative and meaningful contribution.

7. Ask for references

When thinking long-term, an internship is all you need to get a job, along with perhaps a degree. Apart from the work experience it provides and all of the other benefits listed above, it can also prove that you are the kind of professional you aspire to be, and that can be done with a glowing reference.

For entry-level job positions, employers usually ask for two types of references: a professional and academic reference. Provided that you do well in the position, you can ask your employer to write one for you.

While an internship isn’t a real job per se, it can lead to one. Most students think of internships as an opportunity to explore their career interests while in university, whereas graduates see it as a ticket to full-time employment.

Either way, there are many things you get to learn as an intern. Internships are an excellent way to fast-track your career as it can get you job-ready, expand your horizons, gain real-world skills and build a strong professional network. So, is there a reason not to do one? If you are thinking about it but aren’t sure yet, check what other interns are saying about their experiences! If you have any queries, let us know in the comments section below.