Many things in life follow cyclical structures. As a student, you are often tired, so you nap during the day. By the evening, you can’t sleep, and lose precious hours in the night, resulting in a groggy morning the following day. You need a good degree to get a job, but you need a job to pay for your degree, or to get that something extra to impress potential employers. But then, spending that time working might jeopardise your degree…
Work is also cyclical: you need experience to get work experience to get work, but you can’t get that experience without work.
So, how do you break the cycle? What internships are useful, compared to those where your role might be solely to man the coffee machine and photocopier?
Many of us are lucky enough to have had something in our lives that breaks the cycle, be it some extra funding, a family contact, or maybe a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that happens to come your way. But the socioeconomics of our society are a cycle as well, equally as difficult to break out of, if not more. With no contacts or “brilliant” opportunities, to break out of the socioeconomic traps takes courage – “confidence is key” might be a cliché, but it is also true.
I spoke with some 3rd years going into their ultimate or penultimate year at St Andrews, and asked them how they broke out of the cycle and gained internship opportunities. What are these three students doing, and how did they break out of the work cycle?
Management student Kirsty Rogers kept herself extra busy this summer. “I have two things going on – firstly, I volunteer for the National Trust of Scotland in a Charles Rennie Mackintosh building as a guide and PA to the estate manager, and I also interned at a Public Relations firm in Glasgow,” she said. According to Ms. Rogers, getting these positions is all about being innovative, and she was able to make initial contact with the PR firm thanks to a friend at her yacht club. However, she clarified that this did not do her any additional favours, “I still had to go through the interview process, so no nepotism!”
Entering her final year as a philosophy student, Alice Fanner spent this summer exploring her options. “I am doing a 12-week internship in the transaction advisory (TAS) team at Ernst and Young in Dublin. I have been here six weeks and have more responsibilities than I expected. My daily activities vary significantly, but primarily I have been setting up payments and doing bank reconciliations.” She makes the process sound simple and easy, as the job actually is, once people are able to get past the initial application apprehensions. “Once I decided that I was interested in working at Ernst & Young, I applied for an internship through their website. I was subsequently interviewed and was successful, with the whole process taking approximately two weeks,” she said.
Also entering his final year, chemistry student Andrew Dickson has been working for Barclays in their tech department, an internship he secured through the Saltire Scholar initiative. The Saltire Scholarship program is an offshoot of Entrepreneurial Scotland, focused on getting young people involved in Scottish business by assigning them placements here and abroad. He said, “I’m basically assigned to a team, but I’m working on my own project – I’m designing a system to track the progress of all the information that comes through when things like apps and software on your phone are updated. I’m designing a system to track the progress of what’s been done.” Mr. Dickson notes that his job requires web design skills, something he had not done before. However, the job includes other aspects he is accustomed to, such as data manipulation and problem solving.
Whilst at university, most students do not know what we want to do with our degrees, let alone if they will be useful, or how we can use them. Both Mr Dickson and Ms Fanner’s experiences demonstrate that you do not need to do something that’s directly related to your degree – although, as Mr Dickson says, it might turn out to be more relevant than you first expect. He admitted, “If you look at the stats, the number of chemistry students who actually go into the chemicals industry isn’t that large, a lot of them go into financial services, because having a science degree shows you have a lot of problem solving, numerical literacy and analytical skills, so it’s really common. I thought, since it seems to be such an accessible field for someone in my degree route, I should try it as well!” Furthermore, Ms. Fanner encourages fellow students not to feel limited by their degree. She said, “I am studying philosophy, yet with no experience in accounting and finance, landed a three-month internship at one of the ‘big four.’” With passion and a bit of knowledge on the subject area and firm in question, you have a good chance of being offered an internship.
So how do the rest of us get there? Based on their experiences this summer, these three had some valuable advice for fellow students.
“I would recommend the saltire scholarship route to anyone. I think there’s hardly a better way in Scotland to get an internship where you can instantly get as much respect as we did,” confessed Mr Dickson. Indeed, Saltire has a reputation across Scotland and abroad within business circles, and people are genuinely keen to have saltire scholars and treat them well. He continued, “When people heard we were in the office, they were genuinely keen to meet us.” This is certainly a change from being treated as the coffee-maker or copy machine queen. One way to break the cycle of monotonous and useless work experience is to go through an established channel, such as Saltires, or the work shadowing programme set up by the St Andrews Careers Centre. But, as Ms Fanner points out, you need to give your decision some thought, “Before you apply for any summer internships, I would recommend that you research them thoroughly to make sure that you actually want the internship, and that it is right for you. An internship is a big commitment, and if you are going to be working 10-hour days it is crucial that you enjoy your work.”
Being bold is also a common thread in these individuals’ stories, and something they recommend. Mr Dickson says, “Don’t be afraid to ask for things and to say if you want to do something, or are unhappy with something.” As he perfectly summarised, if you’re there as an intern, people definitely want you there, so there is no need to be afraid of asking. Ms Rogers confessed how greatly her confidence helped with her internship experience too, advising others with the phrase, “if you don’t ask you don’t get.” She reminded me that you never know where an opportunity is going to come from, and how it might benefit you.
Aside from the potential value to a future career, what else can you get out of an internship, and what sort of experiences did these three have during their summer internships?
Sometimes, as in Ms Rogers’ experience, you learn some unexpected lessons. She said, “The funny thing is that answering the phone feels like the most valuable skill I have gained. We are all going to have to do it in our careers, and knowing how to put calls through and speaking professionally is something I’ve totally avoided in the age of social media!” Ms Fanner also makes the valuable point that the experiences you gain might not be work-related. She said, “Going to live and work in Dublin has given me the chance to make lots of new friends and learn about a new culture, also increasing my independence.” Maintaining a good work life balance can be challenging at times, but this is similar to what graduate life will be like. It is important not to fixate too much on your expectations as well. As Ms Fanner’s experience shows, it can be extremely hard work, or, as in Mr Dickson’s case, a completely different job than the one you thought you were getting. Nonetheless, the challenge, freedom, and responsibility an internship can require from the intern are fulfilling enough.
As illustrated by these three, you are not required to journey to the Big Smoke for valuable work – London isn’t everything, and it is often easier to get internships in smaller cities. Mr Dickson mentioned how others interning alongside him started to reconsider their original mentalities of needing to go to London to succeed. Ms Rogers also noted that in her time volunteering, she has met some fantastic and reputable individuals. “Fascinating people have visited the Hill House, such as the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) and Ikea. I think this stands to show that there can be interesting internships outside of the FTSE100 and London.”
For me personally, speaking with these peers has given me the valuable advice to be bold and confident, try and take every opportunity available, and, if there does not seem to be any, make one for yourself. Additionally, volunteering can be as valuable as a paid internship, London isn’t everything, and sometimes, internships can actually be fun.