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How can I make the most of my internship?

Blogged by Callum Livermore on 08/03/2018.

If you’ll be embarking on a micro-internship in the next couple of weeks or another placement soon (or if you just want some food for thought), in this blog you’ll find some tips and advice on how you can get the most from your experience: before, during and after, and in the context of your wider career ideas.

First thing’s first: why do an internship?

There’s no one right or wrong answer to this question. If you have already applied for or secured an internship, then you most likely have an idea as to why you are embarking on one. However, there may be other reasons that you haven’t considered, and realising these could help you to maximise your opportunities. In brief, here are some of the main reasons:

  • Direct focus on or pursuit of a particular role
  • Insight into an organisation or sector
  • Add experience to your CV
  • Make contacts within the industry
  • Develop professional/employability or personal skills
  • Pursue an interest (this doesn’t have to be career related)
  • Gain commercial awareness
  • Complement your academic work
  • Explore and try something new

Before the internship

Your internship doesn’t just begin on your first day: there is plenty you can be doing beforehand. It’s a good idea to be prepared – Michaelmas 2017 micro-interns reported this sentiment in their feedback – but this doesn’t necessarily mean devoting hours to prepare, particularly with a busy academic life. Grab a piece of paper and write a quick to-do list depending on your upcoming project and what you already know. It’s a good idea to think about the following:

  • Research the sector and organisation – what can you find out online or from previous interns?
  • Do you need to brush up on any skills?
  • Do you know details such as hours of work, location, the dress code?
  • If interning abroad, do you know what the working culture is like?
  • Do you have any questions? Don’t be afraid to contact your supervisor. Often, they are willing to help and this also shows how proactive you are.
  • What goals do you want to achieve? It’s worth discussing these with your supervisor before, and you can evaluate your development in a debrief at the end of the internship.

Commercial awareness (and other jargon)

Terms such as ‘transferable skills’, ‘employability’ and ‘commercial awareness’ are often bandied around – but what are they and how do they impact you? We recommend our Octane: Develop Your Employability Skills webpage, which gives a wider understanding and can help you with the next steps. During our recent ‘Making the Most of Your Internship’ workshop, commercial awareness was explored at length. Employers consider this skill as needing significant development among Oxford students – therefore, it’s worth emphasising as something to think about when doing your research. Commercial awareness is understanding the context in which an organisation works, and how this affects its daily activities and decision making. There are various short and long-term activities you can be doing to build this up over time (see Octane for ideas); but don’t worry if you think that you aren’t very commercially aware in advance of your micro-internship, as this in itself is part of building the skill.

Accommodation: check. Travel: check

Practicalities are important, so make sure you begin organising these as soon as possible. This may include logistics such as accommodation or flights, and the finer details such as research into country culture and picking up a bit of the language if interning abroad. Funding is a major aspect to consider – do you know where you can source it if you need it? For visa advice, you can go to the Student Information and Advisory Service. The Internship Office has information on our webpages about practical arrangements and funding through our own programmes and some external sources.

During the internship

Placements go by quickly, so it’s beneficial to have in mind the goals you want to achieve. During your placement, make notes (perhaps keep a diary) of what you are doing, what you are learning, and how you can develop for next time. This diary can also be used for other snippets of information – perhaps that conversation you had with a colleague about the industry – to boost your awareness and knowledge.

Ask questions! Working in a new environment can be daunting, particularly if it’s your first internship. However, it’s important to remember that generally, employers are welcoming, willing to share their experiences and answer your questions. Showing an interest demonstrates your proactivity – remember, employers are looking for interns who are genuinely interested in the role and organisation, and who demonstrate enthusiasm. An internship isn’t just about getting the work done, but getting to know your colleagues and any fellow interns, even if you aren’t directly working with them. Many people love talking about their jobs, and it’s a great way for you to gain some commercial awareness, too.

Networking

Networking is seen as another daunting prospect, but it isn’t always formal receptions with CEOs in suits. It can be as simple as an informal chat over coffee – sometimes you don’t even realise that you’re ‘networking’. Remember, though, that networking = building AND maintaining contacts. We recommend that before you embark on your placement, you read our insightful networking briefing, written by one of our Careers Advisers.

Remote working

Previous micro-interns have commented on the self-discipline required for remote working. You are often responsible for your own work structure, which isn’t always as easy as it sounds. However, you can use the skills you already have in organising your academic work. It might be helpful to set personal deadlines – as long as you stick to them. Make sure you have a clear separation between your academic and internship work, and organise other activities carefully around it. And don’t forget the importance of having a break!

After the internship

Just as the internship begins before your first day, the experience continues after your final day. So you wrote that diary during the week, but now what? Read your notes after the internship and write a list of everything that you could add to your CV, before narrowing it down and tailoring the evidence depending on what the CV is for. Keep hold of your list – you never know when it might come in handy. Updating your CV straight away means that everything is still fresh in your mind.

A few tips:

  • What were your responsibilities? Be specific – CVs aren’t job descriptions.
  • What did you achieve? Don’t sell yourself short. Achievements, for example, can be represented by numbers. An employer will see the difference between ‘organised a conference’ and ‘organised a conference attended by 300 researchers’.
  • What were the outcomes of your work? If you wrote a report, how was it used? If you’re not sure, contact your host to find out (maintaining that connection!)

Tailoring CVs and cover letters for each application is vital. You can find advice on the Careers Service website on CVs, cover letters, demonstrating that you fit the job criteria, and more.

Networking (again) and job prospects

So we talked about maintaining that network. At our workshop, ‘Making the Most of Your Internship’, our guest speaker completed a micro-internship which then translated into a full-time position. How did she achieve this? In part, by constantly demonstrating her enthusiasm, initiative (some of her ideas were implemented at the company), and work ethic throughout the week, but also due to maintaining contact afterwards. The speaker talked of how she was proactive in updating the host organisation on her academic projects that related to the company’s work, and openly discussed with her host that she would like to work for them. It’s important to pick your moments and perhaps get advice on how best to go about this (one of our Careers Advisers would be happy to help), and you may wish to firstly consult our briefing on making speculative approaches.

If you take away one thing, it’s to enjoy the experience

It might feel that there is so much to remember and pressure to have a ‘perfect’ internship, but if you remember one thing, it’s to enjoy yourself! Yes, it is a time to develop and learn, but also to go for it and have fun with the experience. If your internship isn’t quite what you expected or not the role for you, then you will have still gained something along the way. If you’d like any more pointers, our handout from the ‘Making the Most of Your Internship’ workshop collates key advice from Michaelmas 2017 micro-interns. There is also plenty of helpful advice on the Careers Service website (including our essential internship guidance), and our Careers Advisers are happy to discuss with you your careers ideas and any upcoming internships.

Good luck with your placements!