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My friend’s younger sister started university this year and I took her out to coffee to impart some well meaning advice. The obvious came up – don’t leave assignments to the last minute, study for exams and avoid all-nighters. My last piece of advice was for her to consider doing an internship.
She looked dumfounded. “Why would I want to work for free?” Internships are slightly like McDonalds. They are a big phenomenon in America, don’t always sound appetising and make you suspect them slightly of capitalist exploitation. While there might be some truth in that, doing a professional work placement is highly beneficial.
As a student, you’re faced with a dilemma. University keeps you occupied, you are working one or two days a week to pay the bills and whatever free time you might have left is spent on being involved with university societies or socialising. Unless you are one of the very few lucky ones, your paying job probably has little to do with your interests or field of studies.
Here is where internships come in. Should your university offer a work placement unit or credit for structured work experience, take it. Find a company or organisation that you like and get in touch with them with a proposed project or place a request for a placement.
In Australia the legality (and ethics) of unpaid, not-for-credit work placements are being debated. Whether there is any financial compensation is up to you and the placement provider to discuss. In cases of where there is no or little remuneration, you should ask to at least receive a letter of recommendation. In either case, the internship should be a structured and educational experience.
First and foremost, being an intern provides you with invaluable work experience. University is a highly sheltered environment whose function is to impart theory based knowledge to students. Being in a professional environment is far more rigorous and you are faced with very different expectations.
You are exposed to more ‘hands-on’ learning and you pick up different, yet just as valuable, life skills. The application of class room learning in a real world situation is an extremely empowering and confidence building experience. Not only do you develop a great foundation of what you have studied but it also allows you to identify any gaps you might have in your skills set.
The development of an insider’s perspective on just how your particular industry or field of choice really works is the pinnacle of the internship experience. If you are undecided about what you wish to pursue, an internship is a great idea. Most placements are short term, hence allowing you to ‘test drive’ a potential future career without a firm commitment.
Some internships may even lead to a full time paying job after you graduate, however that may not always be the case. Avoid thinking of this as the ultimate goal – instead just enjoy and make the most of experience. While there, network as much as you can.
Networking is a term that has been tossed around much these days and more or less refers to the building of professional relationships. Build a positive rapport with your supervisor and the people you work with. Leaving behind a great impression means you can receive a supportive letter of recommendation and industry contacts, both highly valuable.
Lastly, having professional work experience before you graduate looks great on your resume. Employers are increasingly searching for candidates with practical experience as well as academic achievements. Internships offer the perfect opportunity to gain this kind of experience whilst still studying and demonstrate experience of teamwork and development of interpersonal skills.