Internships: Guide for Graduate Students

Internships: Guide for Graduate Students

Laura Bridgestock

Updated July 14, 2020 Updated July 14

If you want to bag your ideal job, one of the most effective things you can do is to get some relevant work experience under your belt before completing your studies – and growing numbers of students are doing just that.

At King’s College London, UK, the university has responded to an increasingly challenging employment market by stepping up support for students who want to obtain work experience.

Internships officer Belinda Price says the combination of graduate study and relevant work experience is a strong recipe for success: “With a higher level of competition for each graduate role, a student with proven work experience in a relevant sector and demonstrable graduate-level skills will be more equipped to secure employment after graduation.”

Of course, internships are much more than just a way to impress potential employers or flesh out your CV. “Interns can apply their academic knowledge in their work, will build a network of contacts and get to understand their sector better,” says Zuzana Gombarova, recruitment coordinator at health and hygiene products company Kimberly-Clark.

Other benefits, she adds, include: “Hands-on real-life experience, responsibilities and involvement in project work, experience working in a corporate environment for a known company, and introduction to different areas of business.”

Improved career prospects?

Gregg Carnaffan, emerging talent and executive recruitment manager at international banking company HSBC, agrees that internships offer many useful experiences, not least simply working in a professional environment. As he points out, this requires interns to maintain appropriate standards of self-presentation, time management and communication.

Carnaffan also emphasizes the importance of getting inside experience of whichever career you’re considering, so you can make sure it’s the right choice, and also refine ideas about which part of the sector you’re most interested in.

Do internships really improve your chances of getting a good job? It seems so. In a recent UK report from High Fliers Research, more than half of surveyed employers – across a wide range of sectors – said they would be unlikely to offer a job to a graduate with no previous experience.

There’s also a growing trend of employers using internship schemes as a key part of their assessment and recruitment process. At large international companies in particular, it’s common for a high proportion of interns to receive an offer of a place on a graduate training scheme.

“Internships are a great opportunity for us to assess talent over an extended period of time,” Gombarova says, estimating that around half of interns at Kimberly-Clark are likely to be offered a place on the company’s graduate scheme.

Elsewhere this figure is even higher; Jennifer Whitehouse, talent acquisition partner at electronics company Siemens, says the conversion rate from intern to graduate trainee is as high as 80%, and Carnaffan gives the same rate for penultimate-year interns at HSBC.

“It’s a win-win situation really,” he says, “as both sides get a look at the other to see if they are right for each other. Fortunately in our case a lot are!” 

A foot in the door

If you are keen to work at a particular company, gaining work experience there before applying can really pay off – and that’s particularly true in certain sectors. According to the High Fliers report, investment banking had the highest conversion rate, with 71% of vacancies filled by graduates who had previously completed work experience at the company.

Law, media and banking and finance also reported high conversion rates, while at the lower end of the spectrum were retail and public sector jobs; in the latter, just 9% of vacancies went to graduates with previous experience at the organization.

Reports such as the QS Global Employer Survey also show that a majority of employers place value on international experience when assessing applicants. Even if you’re already studying abroad, an internship could be an opportunity to gain some additional overseas experience. In response to the growing preference for graduates who are “global citizens with an international outlook”, Price says the internships team at King’s works closely with the university’s Study Abroad Office to facilitate international work placements.

Other universities have similar schemes, and there are also national and international programs available, such as Europe’s Erasmus (European Community Action Scheme for the Mobility of University Students). This provides support for students to complete work placements of between three and 12 months in participating countries.

Finding the right internship

While most of the benefits mentioned above are likely to apply to the majority of internships, it should also be stressed that there is a huge amount of variation between work placements – in terms of timing and duration, degree of support and supervision, level of responsibility, and whether interns are paid or not.

In some industries, such as finance, it’s possible to find internship programs that pay relatively well – allowing you to boost your bank account while also gaining valuable experience and contacts. Other sectors – charities and media, for example – are more likely to offer unpaid internships, or a nominal/expenses-only payment.

Differences could also arise from the size of the company. Larger firms are more likely to offer more structured programs, where you’ll be part of a group of interns taken on at the same time. As well as the prospect of a graduate place, Carnaffan says larger companies can also offer greater exposure to a wide range of experiences, and opportunities to make contacts of many different nationalities and specializations.

However, he qualifies this: “Any internship or work experience is an advantage. Employers are looking for real-life examples of students being able to apply the knowledge and skills they have to solve problems or improve performance.”

Indeed, while you may meet fewer people at a smaller company and get less of an industry overview, you might find that a more intimate atmosphere suits you. The relationships you forge could turn out to be longer-lasting, and as part of a smaller team, you may have the opportunity to move more flexibly between different roles and tasks.

The key is really to assess your own priorities, and then do some research. Price says, “It is important for students to think about what it is they want to achieve from their internship – whether developing transferable skills, growing a professional network of contacts, using the internship as a basis for a dissertation or having relevant experience to put on a CV.”

Applications advice

Whitehouse recommends asking lots of questions throughout the application and assessment procedure, and even asking if you can visit for a day “to ensure it is the right environment and type of position for you.” If that’s not possible, then the next best thing might be to attend campus-based events, such as careers fairs and talks, where you’ll be able to meet representatives of the company and find out more about the internships they offer.

Once you’ve found an internship that you really want, the good news is that having done the research and made an informed choice means you’re probably already halfway to getting the place. Showing yourself to be passionate and well-informed about the company and the internship is vital, Carnaffan says.

“At this level, employers are not looking for the finished product – we know that interns won't be financial experts or great leaders when they join – but we are looking for potential and enthusiasm. Showing a genuine and passionate reason for applying for any organization can really help you stand out.”

For this reason, he advises “fewer, well-researched applications”. You may think you’re improving your chance of getting a place by applying to 20 different organizations – but as someone who sits on the other side of the interview room, Carnaffan says this will be immediately obvious. And since the company is looking for “managers and leaders of the future”, they’re looking for interns who seem eager to stay on in the long term.

Making it count

With this aim of nurturing future employees, companies like HSBC provide plenty of support for interns. “All of our interns attend a one and a half day induction where we cover HSBC, our values and give them some background on the area of the business they are going to be placed within,” Carnaffan says.

“Each are assigned a mentor from our current graduate population, and they can additional have support from their placement line manager. A dedicated programme manager is also on hand to provide further guidance and advice if necessary.”

Similarly, at Siemens, Gombarova says mentoring, team leader and ‘buddy’ support schemes are provided. However, she warns that starting an internship may feel a little overwhelming at first, especially if you’re in a large company, and – as you would hope – being given real responsibilities. But, she urges: “This is a challenge: be up for it!”

After all, having put in so much research and effort, you want to make the most of the experience once you’re there. This is particularly true if you’re completing an internship during your graduate course; if you’ve set aside time that could otherwise be devoted to course work or exam preparation, you want to really make that time count.

The key to this, Price says, is forward planning and preparation. “Before starting their placement, we encourage students to research the organization’s background, current employment trends, issues and points of discussion in the specific role or industry sector.”

Take the lead

On arrival, she continues, interns should set themselves goals and targets, regularly reviewing their own progress and making a note of key achievements. “These will be crucial when students speak about their experience at future job interviews.”

Two points all contributors agree on are the importance of asking questions, and of making the most of opportunities to build a network of contacts. “Even if you don’t choose to have a permanent role at that organization, you may bump into them later in your career – it’s a small world,” Whitehouse says.

She adds that useful contacts may be professionals already working in the industry, but also other interns. “We try and build a community with our interns and graduates so they can support and learn from each other.”

As you might expect, employers are also looking out for interns who go the extra mile, using their initiative to bring extra value to their work. Even within more structured schemes, Carnaffan says, there are opportunities to widen your role, and to excel within it.

One final point to remember: even if the experience turns out to be not quite what you expected, or you realize your priorities are actually different to what you thought, these are still useful outcomes. As Carnaffan comments, “It’s better both for the employer and for you if you decide it’s not for you after an internship, rather than after joining as a full-time graduate!”

This article orginally appeared in the QS Top Grad School Guide. Read the guide online >

This article was originally published in January 2013 . It was last updated in April 2020

Written by

The former editor of, Laura oversaw the site's editorial content and student forums. She also edited the QS Top Grad School Guide and contributed to market research reports, including 'How Do Students Use Rankings?'


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