I did my first internship when I was in the middle of an undergraduate degree in Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Cambridge. I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do once I left; I certainly had no plans of becoming an accountant or a consultant. I just wanted to earn a bit of money over the summer to pay for travelling later in the year. I looked at a couple of different retail jobs, before a friend made a recommendation – why didn’t I try applying for an internship? A series of applications and interviews later, I was offered a six week placement with the Audit and Indirect Tax teams at a regional office of a Big Four accounting firm. After my placement was up, I never went back. So if I didn’t join the professional services industry after graduation was my internship a waste of time? Not in the least.
There is this prevailing impression amongst students that internships are only suitable for people who are dead-set on entering the industry in question. Going to career fairs and networking events can leave you with this impression; you’ll be surrounded by some very keen and ambitious people. Internships are certainly an invaluable source of experience and contacts; a way of priming yourself for entering your dream career before you even graduate. Many internships are structured so that, if you perform well, you are offered a job at the end.
But don’t let the enthusiasm of others put you off if you are still making up your mind. Lots of people use internships as a helpful exploratory opportunity to try out a sector they are considering, before they fully commit to it as their chosen career path. And even if you don’t decide to seek employment in a sector after completing an internship within it, there’s a host of other benefits you’ll accrue along the way.
Firstly, many internships are paid, giving you a great source of income, that also brings valuable experience. Although unpaid internships are very common, it’s definitely worth looking for what paid opportunities are available, not least because earning some extra cash can really help with the costs of studying. Working in a corporate environment early on looks great on your CV, regardless of what sector you end up moving into after graduation. It demonstrates that you are motivated, professional, and possess general skills like working within a team and dealing with deadlines. Although potential employers won’t be disappointed if you’ve interned in their sector prior to applying, they won’t turn you down if you have interned in other industries – indeed, having a breadth of experience is evidence that you’ve been actively developing your career and exploring different opportunities, rather than simply going through the motions. Some more competitive sectors do expect candidates to have gained some direct experience before applying – such as within the media, fashion, or legal sectors – this is by no means universal, and is perfectly complemented by internships in other sectors. When you’re right at the beginning of your career, any work experience you can get is valuable.
Internships also teach you a great deal about yourself; what kinds of work you enjoy, and what kind of working environment you prefer. Learning that you hate sitting behind a desk, that you find large organisations reassuring, or that you enjoy pitching to clients over data processing, are all important considerations, that should have a bearing on your future career choices – and working these things out without directly experiencing them is rather difficult. Even if you like the sound of a particular career path, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll actually enjoy the day-to-day reality that job involves. It’s far better to discover that you’re not actually suited to a specific career pathway through a temporary internship, than it is when you’ve made the commitment to a permanent position.
Internships are widely available, with a great many companies offering short-term placements for students and recent graduates. The Independent has profiled six sites you need to know for internship opportunities – each of which are well-worth investigating if you choose to take our advice, and shop around for a paid opportunity. To this list, you should definitely add your own university’s career service. Many universities have close relationships with particular sectors and employers, especially with companies based in the local area, as well as a great deal of wider support for important tasks like writing your first CV or cover letter. It’s also increasingly common for universities to build a strong network of alumni, some of whom contribute to their alma mater by offering advice and guidance to current students, and even providing work experience opportunities. All of these things are invaluable when getting that first foot on the employment ladder.
Once you’ve embarked upon your internship, there’s one final thing to remember – make the most out of it. It became pretty clear from the first week or two at the firm that accountancy wasn’t for me; but that didn’t matter. I put all my energy into learning everything I could, taking the initiative, and socialising with my fellow interns. The contacts you make, and the lessons you learn, at this stage of your career are formative, and you’ll never know when they might come in handy, somewhere else down the line. If you’re looking for some advice about this, the Financial Times has some excellent tips on how to max out your internship – at any age.
Through my time at the firm, I discovered that professional services wasn’t for me – my interests were in much more creative fields, such as writing and research. Although I had suspected that this was the case before, my internship confirmed this impression, and gave me renewed confidence to pursue my true passions in life. Furthermore, it gave me enough money to travel abroad, and equipped me with invaluable experience that has contributed to every position I’ve held since. Rather than a waste of time, trying out professional services for six weeks was one of the best choices I made as an undergraduate. So no matter how unclear you might feel about your future career, apply for internships – the best way to work out what you want to do, is by doing!
If you are unsure what to study check out the MastersAvenue’s Global Degree and Career Survey (GDCS) ©. We have analyzed the career paths of more than 7.5 million graduates from all over the world. Look what others have studied and what they do know. You will be surprised!
Jonathan Woolley is a scientist at the University of Cambridge, specialising in the study of education, folk culture, and the environment. He recently completed his PhD on land management practices and common sense in the Broads National Park.