Internships. For some (more productive) students, this word brings to mind memories of a high-flying summer in which they dressed up like proper grown-ups, pranced around a brand new city, and were given an insight into the ‘real’ world of work. For other students (myself included), hearing the word internships creates a similar feeling to the dreaded 4th year question posed by far-flung relatives you’re seeing for the first time in years at a family BBQ – “So what are your plans for after graduation?”.
Every summer, millions of University students have to make the same decision. Do you take a paid summer job, with the likelihood of unstable zero hour contracts and pulling endless pints? Or do you put your CV first, and take the plunge into the often intense application process for real-life work experience?
As competition for graduate jobs becomes more intense, alongside rising university populations and an increase in students wishing to enter the workforce immediately after graduation, many argue that work experience has become an essential element of preparing for the employment market. As hoards of students pile back onto the streets of Edinburgh, I took to investigating how they spent their summers, in a bid to find out if those aggressively sought-after internships are really more valuable than a summer job.
Warning: if like me, you spent this summer mostly watching the new season of Orange is the New Black in your dressing gown, then you may be in for a shock at the productivity of your fellow students. Ranging from work experience at top law, banking, and finance firms and even a leading broadsheet newspaper to working jobs at huge music festivals, big sporting events, and the non-stop madness that is the Fringe festival, Edinburgh’s student body has definitely been put to work.
There’s no doubt that the competition is fierce for internships, with the Financial Times recently reporting that the Goldman Sachs summer internship has an acceptance rate of around 2%, standing lower than Harvard University’s 5.4% acceptance rate for the class of 2020. And with this competition comes a number of application hurdles to jump over.
One 4th year History of Art student, who recently completed a 6-week summer internship at the major accountancy firm Grant Thornton, explained how each firm had a basic application form, online numerical and writing tests, a telephone interview and an assessment day. She stated that “the process was mainly hard simply because of the time it took revising each one – learning about the individual firm and the current market trends”. Juggling all of this alongside third year life at university can be a struggle – especially if, like me, you spent third year on international exchange, with an added issue of time difference. Let’s just say that telephone interviews at 5am my time were not an enjoyable experience.
Despite the effort students have to put in to get their foot through the door, once there, professional work experience can give a valuable insight into an industry you’re passionate about working in – something waiting on tables may not achieve. A stand-out example of this is a 4th year Philosophy student who recently completed an unpaid work placement on the Sports Desk at The Guardian. When asked if his main role at the newspaper was simply shadowing, he explained that “I was really lucky, as I picked a good week to go into the newspaper – it was in the middle of the Olympics and during the start of the football season. That meant I was given actual responsibility for a lot, mainly the content for the ‘Brits to Watch’ and highlights preview page in the newspaper, alongside panel work.” This hands-on experience runs contrary to widespread beliefs that interns are mainly responsible for the production line of tea and coffee in an office. Having said that, the student did state that he had landed that job during placements at different newspapers, claiming “top tip, journalists love a good biscuit!”.
Similarly, if you’re studying for a degree that is linked to a specific industry, then tailored internships can be vital for your CV. This appears to be the case with most Law students I spoke to, including one 4th year speaking highly of her internship with the Legal Department of Hutchinson Port Holdings, a major shipping Port Terminal Operator. She stated that “my internship in the legal department was extremely valuable because it is a stepping-stone in my path to hopefully become a lawyer. I got to experience what an In-House Commercial Lawyer does on a daily basis”.
However, if, like myself, your degree is non-specific and you’re still unsure of your post-graduation life, then a summer job can be a valuable way to gain responsibility and progress to a higher position early on.
One 4th Year Law & IR student experienced this when working as a student caller at Edinburgh University’s Development & Alumni Office. Although he originally chose it as a summer job, being promoted to Shift Supervisor meant a guaranteed well-paid, part-time job during term time. He described his new role as “involving a great deal of responsibility, as supervisors have to arrive 90 minutes prior to the commencement of a shift, set up the calling software, and prepare a ‘pep-talk’ for callers”.
Ease of promotion to more senior roles was also the case for many students I spoke to who worked a variety of jobs at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival: behind the bar for EUSA, in a local café, and at the box office.
All of them spoke highly of being part of the largest arts festival in the world, referring to it as a fun working environment which meant that “going for post-work pints at 3 in the morning was a novelty that never really wore off”. One student stated that “because of the length of the Fringe, the team I worked with and the venue I worked at literally became like my family and home for a month”. Each of them felt they had gained transferable skills for the job market, such as managing a team, dealing with conflict, gaining confidence in talking to strangers, and the fact that “being able to work under pressure is a must during the Fringe!”.
However, as with many summer jobs, many students admitted some downsides. One EUSA bar worker explained that the worst shifts for her were when a customer was rude to her: “they can forget about it as soon as they’ve walked away with a drink in their hand, but it can stay with you and really ruin your night”. Perhaps worse than this, one student discussed how, “for EUSA, the house job can be pretty unglamorous. Sifting fermenting meat juice out of the bottom of a broken raw meat fridge was a low point of this year’s festival”.
That’s not to say that interns don’t have their difficulties too. Students working away from home for big banks such as RBS admitted that London could get lonely sometimes.In addition to adapting to new cities, interns have to get used to often difficult working environments. One 4th year student described her vacation scheme at a boutique corporate law firm as “very elitist”, explaining how, despite the firm paying double the industry average, she still wouldn’t choose to work there after one trainee lawyer developed a daily running joke and prize for ‘the most working class lunch’, involving making fun of employees who brought in Tupperware boxes.
She expanded on this firm’s culture, stating: “I was quizzed about my accent, state school, and outfit in my interview – But I hear that the boys who were interviewed were not grilled in the same way”. This gender divide was also felt by a 4th year Economics student who completed an internship in Commercial Banking, stating that “within the Commercial banking sector as a whole, it was mainly males – many times I was the only female in a meeting”.
As semester starts again, many 4th years will be touching up their CV with internship experience in the hopes of securing a dream graduate job (unless they were one of the lucky few who has already been offered that job – such as the student who completed the internship with Grant Thornton). Internships clearly provide students with a great insight into a sector they are interested in, look great to interviewers, and can confirm career choices for when the next application season comes around.
However, if you don’t have a clear career path ahead of you, then a summer job can be a great way to learn transferable skills, meet lots of new people, and perhaps do something more exciting or niche than sitting at an office all day long. This can be seen by the 4th year History student who spent her summer meeting celebrities such as Daisy Lowe and Laura Whitmore, whilst working as Head Receptionist at a boutique camping company (which included free tickets to Glastonbury, Latitude and V Festival). Similarly, one student’s waitressing job at the VIP restaurant at Wimbledon included serving Tinie Tempah and a close encounter with Kate Middleton.
To all 1st, 2nd and 3rd years, whichever path you choose, make sure you’re going to enjoy it – because there’s nothing worse than sitting in an office, being scared about revealing your “working class” packed lunch.
Image: Brian McNeil