How To Find A Paid Internship

For those graduating from university today, entering a crowded careers market could involve striking a tricky balance. Many companies need to see experience in a given role on your CV before they’ll even consider interviewing you, but if they won’t give you a chance, how do you get the experience?

To some, the solution is trial and error, chipping away until they land their big break. For others, especially newer graduates with sought-after degrees, their way in comes in the form of an internship.

Many firms, especially larger ones, have the odd intern rushing around looking bright-eyed and keen. But for those who haven’t gone through the process, it could be unclear exactly who they are, where they come from, or what they get out of the deal.

In the interests of clearing things up, and providing a few tips on finding a paid internship for yourself, let’s investigate.

What is an internship?

As far as UK employment law goes, there’s no set definition of an internship. An internship is not regulated or protected in the same way as apprenticeships (which are a totally separate thing), and might last anywhere from a few days to a period of months. Generally speaking, any short-term work placement carried out by a young person, paid or unpaid, could count as an internship.

Internships are intended to perform a mutually beneficial role. They help young people get a foot in the door and gain vital experience in an industry they feel drawn to. It also helps them decide whether this field is the right fit for them without committing to it long-term and needing to retrain if they decide their passions lie elsewhere.

For the employer, internships provide a comparatively risk-free means to provide entry-level opportunities to enthusiastic young people, giving them a taste of what is often their first proper graduate career. It’s also a great way of spotting talent and letting people demonstrate what they could do during their career, sometimes leading to longer-term or even permanent employment with the firm.

A history of the internship

What we’d recognise as an internship today stems from the 11th Century practice of European guilds employing apprentices. Young people, usually boys, would be taken in by masters of a particular trade or craft, not just to work but to live. In exchange for food and lodging, they’d spend the majority of their teenage years working for their master, picking up the skills which could eventually make them craftsmen themselves.

This idea has resonated through popular culture, from Oliver Twist getting apprenticed to the parish undertaker (and later, Fagin) to Terry Pratchett’s definitive fantasy novel, Mort, where the title character is apprenticed to the Grim Reaper. So, it’s no wonder that the idea took hold and evolved throughout history.

Industrialisation lent a different weight to the value of labour, with professions like medicine employing apprentices to combine the effects of academic and practical experience. Fast forward to today, and we have a wealth of examples of household names who started off as interns.

Bill Gates spent time as a congressional page as early as 17 years old. Oprah Winfrey worked at CBS while at university. Steven Spielberg was given an unofficial internship at Universal Studios when he was a teenager, just to stop him breaking into the studio to network with directors. Perseverance pays off.

Paid vs unpaid internships

Of course, the complete lack of regulation and oversight means that the internship process nowadays often favours the employer. Nowhere is this more clearly demonstrated by the fact that interns don’t have to be paid.

With most graduates needing to find work immediately in order to sustain themselves, the luxury of an unpaid internship is usually only for those whose family are able to support them financially over that period. This negates the chance for social mobility that comes with having a better-educated workforce.

The argument is so contentious that campaigns like Intern Aware have risen to the challenge of standing up for those who they see as being exploited by unpaid internships, both those working without pay and those denied opportunities to enter their chosen field.

Naturally, if you find yourself offered an unpaid internship, and you have savings or support which could enable you to do it without starving, weigh your options carefully. Ask yourself what the company in question is giving you in exchange for free labour, things like:

  • Direct, relevant experience of the industry (just doing the filing for three months doesn’t count).
  • Mentorship from an established professional.
  • A chance to expand your network and gain useful contacts, both in the company itself and beyond.
  • A reasonable chance of permanent employment once you complete your internship.
  • A glowing, personalised reference detailing your responsibilities while interning.

Tips for finding a paid internship

With so much competition surrounding any internship, let alone a paid one, it’s important to do your homework and put yourself ahead of the pack. Applying for a position like this could, in some ways, be trickier than applying for a permanent career.

You’re not just selling yourself as you are, you’ve got to convey a sense of what you could become, given the opportunity to develop your skills. In a sense, you’re trying to convince someone to buy into something that doesn’t exist yet. To give yourself the best possible chance, consider the following:

Work out exactly what you want from your internship. This could help you narrow down your options, and prevent you from chasing positions which might not do you much good. Your internship should do a lot more than just fill your CV. Questions to ask yourself include:

  • What does success look like? Where do you plan to be by the end of your internship?
  • How could you apply your existing skills to this industry to focus and develop them?
  • What are your chances of finding permanent employment going to be at the end of your internship?

Look in the right places. Internships tend to be very niche positions, so you’re unlikely to find them on standard career sites like Monster or Indeed. While researching the industry in depth (you’re doing that, right?), pay attention to any online hubs where specialist or high-profile careers, including internships, might be posted.

Tailor your CV. We’ve produced an article on coming up with the perfect graduate CV, use those tips to rewrite from the ground up, producing a CV and covering letter which are geared specifically to this role.

Brush up on your interview skills. As above, our article on nailing your graduate interview contains pointers for making the best possible first impression, once you get to the interview stage. Use those tips and wow your interviewer. Put huge emphasis on your flexibility and willingness to pick up new skills.

Get proactive. If you’re aiming for a summer internship, get started applying in the summer… the summer before. The earlier you begin contacting your favourite firms and making enquiries, the better your chances of getting noticed. Even if the firm replies to tell you there’s no vacancy available, ask to speak to someone about the possibility of one being developed (and funded) in the future. At this stage, you can’t look too keen.

Show off your best qualities. In every communication with your prospective new employer, demonstrate what a fantastic decision bringing you on as an intern might be. Proof read every email for typos, speak in a professional, enthusiastic tone, show them that you’re savvy with the dos and don’ts of the world of work.

By getting to grips with exactly the type of experience you want from your internship and taking positive steps to craft that experience, you could add huge value to yourself, and to a company that wants to see you succeed.

We don’t currently have a paid internship scheme at Beagle Street part of the BGL Group, but check out the current opportunities on BGL Careers site.