I have a BA Hons degree in International Politics, and a Masters degree in Chinese Politics. I have been trying to pursue work primarily as a researcher, though I’ve applied for other opportunities that only barely correspond with my line of study.
In the last year, I have interned at two separate companies with very different standings. One was a UK wide charity, and the other a political pressure group running a campaign in the lead up to the last election. Although both my jobs were very different in their day to day responsibilities, I have found that there are many parallels between my two experiences. Rather than bore anyone with tales of the particular ins and outs of the jobs I did, I feel it would be more appropriate to keep this brief and try and impart some of the lessons I learned.
In both instances, while I did the right thing and was polite and gracious and thankful for the opportunity, I should have been much more forthright. Stand up for yourself.
Never forget that the employer would not be taking you on if they weren’t getting something out of it. This is not work experience, they are taking you on for a reason. Be grateful, but don’t be fooled into thinking you’re a charity case.
Make sure and forewarn your employer at your internship that they are inevitably going to receive a lot of requests for references from every job you subsequently apply for. Don’t be embarrassed to use up your goodwill, you worked hard for pennies in order to earn that reference.
Where possible, try and choose the name of the job that you do yourself. I describe my two positions as ‘Research intern’ and ‘Campaigns intern’ which are deliberately broad so as to be applicable to the maximum number of positions in the future.
Do not let an employer overpromise and underdeliver. If they say they’re going to give you training, or teach you how to do something, make sure they do. Hold them to it; they owe you that at least. In one of my internships the ‘Media training’ I was often promised was eventually scheduled on the one day in an entire month that I had informed head office that I couldn’t do. I was furious, but there was nothing I could do about it.
You will be expected to do menial and mundane tasks – filing, data entry, this sort of thing – this is par for the course. Do a good job and show that you can follow instructions and be part of a team. However, don’t be taken advantage of. You need to be able to learn how to do more than the basic things for your internship to have any value.
Don’t be afraid to claim things on expenses. I was too shy to claim things – silly things, such as balloons for a campaign event, or bus tickets if staying late made you miss a train. Don’t take advantage of expenses but don’t get ripped off.
The most important piece of advice I can give you is unfortunately the grimmest one, and that is, don’t presume that your Internship will lead directly to a job, either with the employer, or elsewhere. Sadly in my experience I’ve found that two long unpaid internships has not increased my employment chances, at least in terms of job opportunities since. What you need to do, and what I should have done better, was focus on genuinely gaining tangible skills that you need to do work in your field. Try and gain the confidence from completing tasks that you wouldn’t otherwise have been able to do. Be as selfish as you can and remember that the only reason you took a job for no money was to come out of it at the other side with better employment chances.