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Considering an internship? Read this first

“Minimum 3-5 years’ experience required.”

It’s a criterion almost all employers seek in an employee; someone that can start a new job and fit in seamlessly. But as a graduate fresh from university, such experience can often be hard to come by – this is why internships during study can be a priceless commodity. They are competitive and intensive, providing an opportunity to separate yourself from the competing cohort.

But how do you know if an internship is the right choice for you? We spoke to Dr Matthew Lister, Senior Lecturer at Deakin University, to help us understand why internships are important, what you should expect to gain from one, and how to get the most out of an internship experience.

What is an internship?

There are two kinds of internships – paid and unpaid, and Dr Lister says both can be useful. ‘An internship is an opportunity to work for an experienced professional for a set period of time. Ideally, you’ll be able to observe the experienced professionals, see what they do, and do some forms of work while under their supervision.’

What are some issues with interning?

Dr Lister outlines three main issues with student internships:

  1. Workload: Some internships do not do a good job of giving students exposure to real work. ‘Internships often have interns do “busy” work, or even work that’s not relevant to the job – making copies, getting coffee, etc.,’ Dr Lister says.
  2. Responsibilities: When it comes to what’s expected of the intern, some internships throw too much responsibility on students too quickly. ‘Some internships leave students without proper guidance or supervision, potentially raising ethical issues but at least raising stress levels for everyone involved.’
  3. Structure: Unfortunately, some internships can be too unstructured for most students, with few clear goals or responsibilities. ‘These can be good for certain students, but leave many “floating”, without a good sense of what to do,’ Dr Lister notes.

While there are always things you need to be vigilant about when it comes to any type of employment, there are just as many positive aspects as well.

Why internships can be useful  

Finding the right internship is obviously important, but it’s also vital to consider why you want to do one in the first place.

According to Dr Lister, simply undertaking an internship to gain experience shouldn’t be the only reason to do so. He argues that an internship should, rather, be an opportunity to find out if a specific line of work is a good one for you.

‘If you don’t know if you’d like to work for a government agency, or for a workplace lawyer, an internship is a good way to find out about the work that is done in such a place. Students may also make some useful contacts, and acquire some practical skills. This seems more likely to be of use than fulfilling any period of experience requirements.’

How to get the most out of an internship

Dr Lister’s advice? Treat the internship as you would a full-time position.

‘Getting a good reference may be the most important thing to get out of an internship. Volunteer for work, but don’t be afraid to ask questions while you’re doing it. Finally, treat everyone well, including, or perhaps especially, the administrative staff. They keep offices running!’

Hard work, a good attitude to learning and making a good impression can be key to going from intern to landing your dream job.

Gaining experience outside an internship

Volunteering can also be a good way to learn about an area of interest and get some good experience. In comparison to a more formal type of internship, volunteering opportunities are likely to be less structured and have less of a mentoring aspect.

However, Dr Lister believes this isn’t always a bad thing. ‘There’s just more pressure on the student to make it a useful experience. But, nonprofits and public interest organisations often need help, so they may be willing to take on volunteers. For a self-motivated student, this can play much the same role as an internship would.’

Learn more about Deakin’s workplace learning opportunities.

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Dr Matther Lister
Dr Matther Lister

Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Business and Law, Deakin University

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