Internships and Work experience: Navigating Risky Waters
Experience: companies demand it, we are all told to get it, and this creates an overwhelming demand side compared to the readily available opportunities. Interesting fact – the situation vastly changes from country to country! In Italy, my home country, there is nowhere near as much pressure to get yourself out there before you graduate, and I would say that both situations have positives and negatives. Nevertheless, in the UK the expectations are real, especially for students at a top university. But how should you go about finding opportunities to get experience, and what should you look out for when doing so?
Many students try to make use of the long summer break to save some money while gaining valuable experience. There are many full-time paid work opportunities out there; most large companies have internship schemes for penultimate year students, and smaller companies often have placements that are also accessible to other year groups. Jobslive, Gradcracker, and LinkedIn are all great ways to scout the job market; for smaller companies, an effective way of generating those opportunities is through networking and contacting the companies directly. They can benefit from increased flexibility, and will often be able to either tailor a position to your needs or create a dedicated one! A great alternative, mainly for Year 1 and Year 2 students, is Undergraduate Research Opportunities – also a great way to understand if research is something you would enjoy pursuing further.
When it comes to unpaid experience, you need to be more careful, as what you can find online can cross into grey areas; it is really important to get informed on your rights as a worker in order to critically evaluate what you stumble upon. You will find innocuous, self-paced “Virtual Internship Experiences”, such as those offered by InsideSherpa, designed to give you a taster of what working in sectors like Consulting and Data Analytics (recommended to kill some time in Year 1!). You will then find a large number of volunteering openings with nonprofits and charities, some of which can be really interesting experiences abroad. You do, however, need to pay attention to the many companies that try to exploit the high demand for experience by requesting unpaid, or underpaid work, potentially to the point of illegality.
In general, structured schemes with bigger companies are really safe, and you mainly need to be careful with smaller companies and nonprofits. A good approach is:
Inform yourself on work retribution regulations in your country. These can vary and are usually the function of the level of responsibility in a placement. In the UK, the general rule of thumb is that if your work brings a benefit to the company, it must be remunerated. This excludes things like work shadowing or volunteer work for a charity. Regulations can change from country to country, so make sure you check your local government website! In some European countries, for example, interns are guaranteed a right to a benefits allowance, rather than a wage
Have a full understanding of what responsibilities a job opening involves. If you are working for a charity, or just shadowing an employee, you will most likely not be entitled to a wage. If the job is with a for-profit and involves actual responsibility towards the productivity of the company, then it should be paid! If the job opening is unclear, act carefully and ask for clarifications
Ultimately, make an informed decision. Once you know more about your rights, are aware of what type of organisation you are facing, and the level of responsibility of the job, decide whether you want to consider applying. Many unpaid openings out there are for charities operating for good causes; if after a bit of research you are still unsure, it is probably a good idea to just avoid it