International students often ask about internships and how they can do one at university. We’ve spoken to a student placements expert and share with you here 12 great tips from her – on why you should and how you can do a student internship.
Liz Coombs is the Director of the Centre for Workplace Learning at St. Mary’s University. Liz and her team work closely with businesses and other organisations to offer work placement opportunities to students. In this interview Liz shares with us why internships are so useful to students and to companies – and how you can make the most of your work placement.
Work experience doesn’t just look good on your CV or resumé – it helps you to develop and better understand your degree subject.
Whatever you want to do when you graduate, your future employer will want to see that you have the skills they are looking for. They want evidence that you can use in the workplace the things you’ve learned at university.
If you’re an international student, another benefit of doing a work placement is that you gain experience and understanding of working in different cultures.
2. What is the difference between a work placement, work experience and an internship?
An internship is usually paid and can be competitive. You can apply for an internship on your own or through your university.
Work experience is any work that you do, whether paid or unpaid. The work may not always be relevant to your degree course or career ambitions.
Work placements, the way we offer them at St Mary’s University, are work opportunities that are part of your degree course. You not only gain experience and practical knowledge, but you also earn credit, meaning the work placement counts towards your degree.
3. What companies offer work placements to students?
That can really vary. For example, the companies that we work with here at St Mary’s University to offer our students work placements range from large multi-national corporations to small and micro businesses.
Remember that the big name companies don’t always offer you the opportunity to learn the most – doing the photocopying at a huge multinational is far less useful than working closely with the Managing Director of a small organisation.
At St Mary’s we match your experience and ambitions to organisations that can both make use of your talents, and help you to learn and to develop the skills you need to be successful.
4. When hiring graduates, why are internships and placements important to employers?
Employers want to see evidence that as a graduate you can do the job, fit in with the organisational culture, and act professionally. It is not enough just to be able to say you ‘know’ things – your employer will want to see that you have experience and that you can ‘hit the ground running’. A work placement proves your abilities to your future employer.
5. How long should a work placement be – to be useful and to make a difference to your CV?
Workplace experience is never a waste of time. But a placement needs to be longer than just a few days or weeks for you to really see the difference.
What you do during your work placement is also very important. If you just shadow an employee but don’t do the work yourself, that’s not as helpful as having a real job to do.
What we’ve found works really well for our students are part-time placements alongside their degree studies. Students work one day, and sometime two, per week over 1 – 2 semesters. This gives them a good amount of experience and they take this experience back to the classroom to share with other students and their lecturers.
6. Do companies care about having student interns?
Employers who work closely with universities find internships and work placements very valuable. For an internship or placement to be successful, it is important that it benefits both the student and the organisation.
As an intern, the more you put into the placement, the more you will get out. If an employer sees potential in you, they will give you the best opportunities and involve you in the most interesting projects. Sometimes, they may even be able to offer you a position when you graduate.
7. Some people say that all interns do is a lot of photocopying and making tea and coffee …
If your placement or internship is organised through the university this probably won’t happen.
However, if you feel that you could be doing more, why not discuss it with your supervisor – maybe they don’t know about your knowledge and experience.
But my advice is, whatever you’re asked to do, however small the task, always do it to your best ability. If the employer sees how good you are, that you’re willing to ‘pull your weight’ and do your part – you will quickly be promoted. Adopt a positive attitude: by providing refreshments for the staff you are also contributing to the success of the company.
8. How can an internship make you ‘special’? Isn’t everyone doing internships these days?
It is certainly true that employers, universities and students across the globe are starting to realise the value of placements and internships. So, it is important not just to gain the experience but to make sure that your placement/internship programme gives you the most benefit.
The placement programme at St Mary’s is embedded in the academic curriculum. This means that as well as the practical experience you gain, you are also supported in reflecting on your experience and developing a deeper understanding of yourself, your abilities and the contribution that you can make to the organisation. Doing this not only helps you to be a better employee and gives you the tools to articulate your learning to future employers. But it will also greatly improve your self-awareness and self-confidence, helping you to present yourself at your very best when you come to apply for graduate positions.
9. But…isn’t it a better option for students to do a paid part-time or summer job?
Sure, all work experience is valuable. But graduate level employment is often much more demanding than a summer or part-time job. It requires a deeper level of commitment, greater technical skills and knowledge, and using what you’ve gained from your degree studies.
A university-approved placement ensures that you get the right type of experience and that you understand the demands of graduate employment. It will expose you to the networks and organisations that you will need to be connected to in order to gain that much wanted graduate position.
10. What can students do to find a work placement or internship?
This can vary depending on where and what you are studying.
Most universities will have a placement office sometimes even within each faculty. At St Mary’s, we have a dedicated team of academics and support staff who will guide you through the placement process from the first step to the last. This starts with us finding out a bit about you – your experience and knowledge, and your interests and ambitions. We will then work with you to help you identify the best fit placement for you – either from one of our contacts who are looking for a student just like you, or by approaching other organisations for whom you might be a good fit.
Along the way, you will learn how to construct your CV or resumé and write a letter of introduction, and how to prepare for interview or initial meeting. There will always be someone at the university that you can go to for advice.
11. What’s your advice to students thinking of applying for a work placement?
Apply early. The later you leave it, the more difficult it will be for you to find a suitable placement.
If you’re applying through your university, be prepared to send lots of information and to respond quickly to all communications. The university will want to know as much as possible about you (good and bad), your personality, your grades, your likes and dislikes, your previous work and voluntary experience, so they can help you find the perfect fit.
When meeting your placement advisor, ask lots of questions. Check exactly what you need to do to get a good placement. And be prepared to be flexible – there are thousands of opportunities out there, not just the one or two you may have heard about. Be prepared to find out more about them so that you can get the perfect placement to suit you.
12. Finally, how can students make the most of their work placement?
A work placement is a great opportunity – value every minute of it. Be professional, listen and learn from everyone you meet, take on board advice and always ask if you’re unsure.
Employers love to give opportunities to students who are keen and interested. They don’t expect you to have all the answers or to know exactly what to do – but they do expect you to want to learn and to be positive about the opportunity they have given you.
For many students, their work placement and what they learn during it is the best part of their degree. It can be the one thing that makes the difference to their chances to get ‘that job’ when they leave university.
About St. Mary’s Univesity
St Mary’s University was founded in 1850 and has a 165 year history of teaching and research excellence. The university offers 500 degree options on a single campus in the beautiful and safe London Borough of Richmond – just 30 minutes from central London.
St Mary’s has around 6,000 students from all backgrounds. Join in on their conversation on Twitter and Facebook @yourstmarys and see why they are proud to be part of St Mary’s.
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