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Internships and other work experiences
Internships and other work experiences

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1.1 What’s the difference between work experience and an internship?

Work experience is a generic term that can refer to a wide range of opportunities, from volunteering and work shadowing to internships and work placements.

Depending on the industry that interests you, your initial work experiences might be pretty informal, e.g. helping at a show or event, or running errands for an entrepreneur. Although these often won’t be structured experiences with designated points for reflection and feedback, they will help you to build up evidence that you understand how your chosen industry works – which is vital for future job applications – and allow you to meet and network with people who can make a difference in your future career.

The word ‘internship’ is often used to refer to more structured work experience opportunities. An internship might involve training, mentoring and networking with senior staff, as well as project work and customer liaison. In some circumstances, the employer might use it to assess your capability for potential employment in the future, and to give you a valuable opportunity to learn and develop. If you are a university student, these opportunities are commonly available further on in your studies, e.g. during the summer holiday after your second year.

Case study 1 Internship confusion

Gemma is a first-year design student. She regularly meets up with a group of economics students who want to work in the banking sector when they graduate. Her friends are already applying for internships in a range of investment and high street banks.

She contacts staff at her university careers service and explains that she needs to organise a banking internship but is worried because she isn’t interested in banking and has none of the skills they seem to require. She’s also unsure about how this will directly benefit her career plans to be a product designer.

After some discussion, it becomes clear that Gemma thinks that every student should undertake an internship in a bank or similar institution in order to impress future employers, regardless of their sector. She doesn’t realise that she would benefit much more from gaining experience relevant to design and that her course placements are essentially internships under a different name.

Gemma’s story is not uncommon. There is a perception, particularly among new university students, that internships are the only type of work experience that matter and that everyone needs to have at least one on their CV. In some industries, such as finance or IT, there is more of an emphasis on formal internships but there are many others where the knowledge and skills that you gain are what’s important – regardless of the environment in which you experience them.

In Week 3, you’ll focus on choosing the right work experience for you, which might be a formal internship, or it might not!