What is an internship?

An internship is a period of work experience, offered by an organisation, usually lasting for a fixed, limited period of time. They are typically undertaken by students and graduates looking to gain relevant skills and experience in a particular field.

Employers frequently use these placements to assess a student's or graduate's capability and often recruit employees from their interns rather than advertising their vacancies externally. The Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR) Annual Survey 2016 revealed that 36% of graduate intakes were comprised of previous interns, which is up from 31% in 2015. You should therefore apply for an internship which you have a real interest in.

How long does it last?

Internships can last from a few weeks during the summer holidays to a year depending on the sector and employer. Student internships tend to be shorter in length than graduate internships. In the case of medical training, for example, you might be labelled as an 'intern' until you progress to the next professional level.

Usually internships are not accredited by universities as part of courses but may be accredited or formally acknowledged by professional training organisations. For example, experience gained on an accountancy internship may count towards The ACCA Qualification, which is required to become a qualified accountant.

Are internships paid?

You should receive at least the National Minimum Wage in the UK if you're performing the role of a worker. The vast majority of interns are classed as workers and you're usually only not a worker if you're shadowing someone. The most telling factors of a worker are set hours, duties or responsibilities. However, you should consider the arrangement as a whole in determining your right to pay - work experience should be for your benefit, not the employer's. If you're part of the commercial operation of a business, you're likely to be entitled to payment.

However there are exemptions:

  • a sandwich placement that is part of a higher education course
  • work shadowing
  • working for a registered charity
  • undertaking work experience as part of 'Back to Work', or similar schemes with the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).

Where can I find an internship in the UK?

To find internships in the UK:

  • search for internships on this site
  • Graduate Talent Pool - a government website designed to help new and recent graduates find internships across the public, private and third sectors
  • speak to your careers service
  • communicate with potential employers via social media such as Twitter and LinkedIn
  • try your own network of family and friends to see what connections they have
  • contact companies speculatively.

For international internships, search:

  • AIESEC UK - facilitates international student exchanges through paid traineeships and other schemes.
  • Absolute Internship - matches university students and graduates with international work experience in elite cities around the world.
  • City Internships - leading provider of structured internship programmes in the world's greatest cities. Placements are offered across all sectors including banking, consulting, law, marketing and technology.
  • CRCC Asia - Internships - leading provider of internships with prominent Chinese and multinational companies in Beijing. Positions in law, finance, business, marketing and more.
  • i-to-i - spend up to five months teaching in the best schools in countries such as China, Thailand and Vietnam.
  • ImmerQi - provides international internships in more than 200 companies in three major Chinese cities: Beijing, Shanghai and Chengdu.
  • Intern jobs - a global database of internships and entry-level positions for students, recent graduates and career changers.
  • The Intern Group - leading provider of international graduate internship programmes in New York, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Latin America, Madrid, Berlin, Dublin and Australia.

What experience do I need?

The majority of employers will not expect previous experience of the working world but they will ask what experience and skills you've gained through your degree. For example, to do a graphics design internship you would most likely need previous experience with Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator.

As with many graduate jobs, the subject you've studied is not the most important thing but rather the skills you can demonstrate.

How do I apply for an internship?

The application process can be as competitive as applying for a permanent job especially in industries such as healthcare, law, media, social care and teaching and education, where experience is essential. According to the AGR Survey 2016 summer internships are getting on average 40 applications per vacancy. For this reason you should aim to apply at least six months in advance, although companies may set specific deadlines so make sure you do your research.

Requirements will differ between companies, for some you may need to complete an online application form, attend an interview or an assessment centre, where you could be asked questions about your qualifications, skills and past experience. For other opportunities submitting a copy of your CV and a cover letter will suffice. You can also submit speculative applications to enquire about available opportunities, in this instance use your initiative and call the company beforehand to find out who to send your enquires to along with their specific contact details.

While methods can vary all applications should:

  • demonstrate that you have the knowledge and motivation to benefit from the internship
  • outline what you can offer the company
  • emphasise why you want to work for that particular company
  • show that you match what they’re looking for in an intern.

Is there an age limit?

When you think of an intern the image of a university or college student usually comes to mind but while some opportunities may come with an age limit, often 18 to 25 years old, not all work experience will be so restrictive.

If you're a mature student or a career changer it's best to do your research and check with the internship provider to find out whether any age restrictions apply.

Why should I do an internship?

Doing an internship will: 

  • increase your skills and knowledge
  • improve your understanding of a particular job or industry
  • show you other roles you may not have previously considered 
  • help you to gain an insight into the way organisations operate and the challenges they face
  • provide you with networking opportunities
  • give you and the employer a chance to 'try before you buy' and clarify whether this type of work is really for you.

The benefits of internships can include:

  • payment, by law the National Minimum Wage is the least you should expect
  • subsidised travel or lunches
  • attendance at in-company training courses
  • a supervisor who might be able to act as a referee for you in future job applications.