Kick-start your career with internships and grad programs

Posted October 13, 2011, by Andrea Riddell

Like training wheels for a bike, internships and graduate programs guide and train you into your first real job. They can be the golden ticket to your dream career. If the technical skills you have learnt at university are itching to be put into practice, then internships and grad programs can be the perfect starting point.

Internships and grad programs fall under the work experience umbrella. While there are no set definitions for either term, internships usually refer to work experience done during study, whereas a graduate program refers to companies taking on graduated students with the expectation to hire. Both types of experience are usually for a set period of time.

All work experience placements, whether with a law firm or a local newspaper, offer hands-on experience in a professional and real setting. In many professions career-related experience counts for more than grades and degrees. And if you impress the right people during your placement, you may just land yourself a full-time, paid position within the company.

How to apply

Applying for internships can be as simple as throwing out a line to the prospective business with an email or phone call expressing your interest. Businesses with structured programs, such as grad programs, usually have an application and interview process. Check the ‘careers’ section of their websites for details and closing dates.

Many businesses have partnerships with universities and offer internship or grad positions directly to students studying the related course. Talk to your course coordinator to find out what placements are offered.

Apply for work experience as if you are applying for a paid position. Make sure you specify your qualifications and your particular interests. Know a bit about the company and state why you are applying for a position with them in particular.

Media and advertising agency OMD requires students to fill out an application form before being selected for an interview.

‘The interview is an aptitude discussion to find out what they know about us and to just basically check them out – because some students may look good on paper, but get them on the phone or get them in person and they’re actually quite different,’ says Carolyn Maloney, Director of People Management at OMD. Once the students are interning, an evaluation process helps to narrow down candidates for full-time work.

Internships and grad programs can be in high demand, so standing out at the initial stages is critical. Bachelor of Media Communications (Public Communications) student, Vivien Luu, was successful in her application for a grad program at advertising agency DDB. Applying for a position in advertising required a creative application.

‘The company’s philosophy was “We don’t ask why, we ask why not?” so I made sure everything about my application screamed this question. Why not present my application as a business suit, and my CV as a handkerchief attached?’ says Luu. (The position was in business management and advertising managers are known as ‘suits’.)

Rights and insurance

As an intern you are at the bottom of the food chain, but you still have workplace rights. Make sure you clearly understand the terms of your internship, especially about hours, pay and the length of placement.

Payment for work is not mandatory when it is classified as work experience. However, graduate programs are usually paid placements. You should be reimbursed for out-of-pocket expenses and should not fill a position previously held by a paid worker.

You should also be covered for insurance. Schools and universities usually provide insurance cover for students embarking on work experience. If your university doesn’t cover you then personal insurance may be required. Universities and schools may also offer application help or even monetary support for work experience students.

Stand out from the crowd

Once you have landed yourself a work experience spot, it’s show time. You should come prepared with ideas and energy, and arrive early. Take the initiative to do things before you’re asked and try to make yourself available to everyone in the organisation. Do everything that is asked of you to the best of your ability.

As Mia Freedman, former Cosmopolitan editor, says, ‘Just because it is getting the coffee, just because it’s filing something, still do it well. Because if you don’t do that well, nobody is going to give you the chance to do anything better or give you more responsibility.’

Proving yourself as a worthy candidate for employment can be difficult if you’re one of the hundred interns that filter through the company each year. Let the company know that you’re passionate and serious about the company and the industry. ‘Attitude is everything. They know you don’t have the skill set yet, they’re just looking for passion and enthusiasm,’ says Luu.

When positions become available, many businesses look towards interns or graduates who have made a positive impression during their work experience placement. ‘For us at OMD the internship is a four-week interview.’ Maloney also gives the example of an intern who made his enthusiasm clear by creating his own sign-off on his signature as ‘hopeful employee one day’. This sort of creative thinking is exactly what made him stick in the mind of his supervisors.

Maintain your connections

While you’re inside a company, get to know anyone and everyone. After your internship finishes, maintain contact with your supervisor or the work experience coordinator.

‘I tell interns, “Please keep in touch with me. Let me know when you finish your degree. Call me, and if there are positions available then you’ll get the job,”’ says Maloney. Keeping in touch also shows your determination and persistence to enter the industry. If you want to use your supervisor as a referee on your resume, ask if it is okay first and let them know when you’re applying for positions, so they are prepared for phone calls.

Andrea Riddell

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