For many students in the United Kingdom, internships have become crucial additions to their CVs in order to achieve high-flying careers. For professions such as law, banking and finance and accountancy, thousands of students apply each year to prestigious companies. The process is equally stressful for those at university who have not yet figured out their career path, but who nonetheless feel the pressure of the internship hunt. Is this phenomenon unique to the UK? How do our European counterparts deal with the issue?
On my year abroad in Austria, I’ve found that students have a slightly more relaxed attitude towards internships. Certainly, there are hundreds competing for places in large corporations like Bank Austria or Allianz, but many others are content with simply getting a student summer job. Internships are often compulsory requirements of the degree and students undertake them alongside courses. Not only does this decrease the stress of having to go straight from exams into summer work experience, but it also takes pressure off the search for internships. Universities already have a set of contacts to which they can turn to in order to allocate students for work experience, and if the student enjoys the internship, they may be taken on for a part-time job.
The key to this more relaxed attitude may be that most European cities are more affordable than the United Kingdom. The pressure for students in the UK to find internships is partially caused by the desire to get the best possible job offer after graduation, in order to start paying off student loans or to become financially independent from parents. As many capitals in Europe have more affordable living standards, students there don’t have to worry about their finances as much. Student loans are also less of an issue because in many European countries there is only a minimal administrative fee for public universities. There is less pressure to have an internship under your belt, because the societal presumption is that if you have a university degree you have a high chance of being employed full time once you graduate.
In Eastern Europe, however, there is little motivation for students to undertake work experience or even work a student job outside of university. Although unpaid internships are not uncommon in the UK, students generally undertake them because of their passion in that area. However, in Hungary for example, even wages for so-called “paid” internships or student jobs are staggeringly low, payment for the latter averaging the equivalent of £1.53/hour. If any, the main motivation for any work experience is that it will help students on their search for permanent employment in Western Europe.
The proverb “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know” often clouds the internship search. My suspicion is that specific contacts play just as big of a role in the UK as anywhere else in the world. However, the phenomenon becomes more socially acceptable the further East you go on the European continent. My experience as a high school student in Turkey revealed to me that nepotism is an inherent part of Turkish society. It is considered a downright affront if the family breadwinner does not do everything in their power to provide work opportunities for their children. However, the employment thus gained is not set in stone. The company in question will employ the student for work experience, but will blatantly ignore them if they look to be disappointing.
For those students who are extremely dedicated to a set career path and work like racehorses to achieve it, the European attitude to internships may not feel as exciting or challenging. Personally, I feel that it takes pressure off students, leaving them more space to discover what they really want to do in life. After all, there is no point in being pressured into applying for internships you do not think you will enjoy.