With jobs increasingly hard to come by, Faye Docherty explores what students have been doing to improve their employability this summer
Students returning to UCD this year will probably spend the first few weeks engaging in conversations about their summer, which for most people consisted of spending time with friends, enjoying the odd sun holiday, and holding on to their part-time job. However, another option that students are increasingly availing of is summer internships. More and more students have come to realise that internships really can form the cornerstone of an impressive CV and are looking to take advantage of what is on offer.
Brian Mahon, a final year History, Politics and International Relations student, spent the summer working in The Institute for Cultural Diplomacy (ICD), a non-governmental organisation based in Berlin. “You get to meet people who have the same kind of ambition as you and want to go places,” Mahon explains when asked what motivated him to spend his summer interning. With a strong interest in politics, and international relations in particular, an internship in ICD seemed an excellent opportunity to put what he had learnt into practice. His future studies and a possible MA after his degreee also had a big role to play in the decision, however he did concede that “everything that everyone does at this stage is for the CV too.”
Mahon worked in the news section of the Institute, producing articles for their website. “If I was writing a piece it would be sort of for my own satisfaction, making sure that it was digestable and that I was happy it was readable for whoever was going to read it”, says Mahon, continuing that the small readership and target audience did not provide huge motivation. As a result, he doesn’t feel that he was challenged as much as he could have been, a complaint which many students make about their internships.
Despite the disappointment that some interns experience with their placements, there are many established internships which gain widespread praise from their participants year after year. One of these internships is the Washington-Ireland Program for Service and Leadership. Jack O’Donnell, a final year Law and European Studies student, was fortunate enough to spend eight weeks in Washington DC as part of this internship last year. “Whilst the internship was a major part of the program it also involved Leadership Development, Professional Development and service both at home and in DC. The internship is only one part of the program that students do. Fundamentally the internship involved working with Senator John McCain in the US Senate,” he explains.
After asking O’Donnell if he learnt a lot and whether he felt he was challenged he responded in a hugely positive manner; “I had access to one of the most powerful politicans in the USA. I also had exposure to the workings of the American Senate and House of Representatives. It was a hectic eight weeks of hard work but [there were] many fantastic moments,” he commented. These moments included everything from sharing a lift with John Kerry to having breakfast with Senate leader Harry Reid. Other unique experiences were not only getting to say ‘good morning Senator’ every day, but soon realising that coming in an hour early meant having a few precious moments of the Senator’s time. “Personally, knowing I was not out of place in Senator McCain’s office has given me huge confidence. It has also given me a better work ethic and drive. The office, and indeed the Senate, was full of hugely dedicated people, who, through hard work, dedication and conviction change the lives of millions of people in a way they believe to be positive.”
Another UCD student who had a positive internship experience was Rowan Lacey, a final year French and Archaeology student. He spent the summer on an archaeology excavation site in France, just outside Montpellier. “I was on as a student excavator digging through the site which was a site from the Celtic period”, he says. Most of the work involved “removing layers of earth at a time” and recording each new layer as he reached it. Lacey’s four weeks of work were unpaid, but his costs were reduced by bed and board being covered as part of the internship.
Payment is an issue that arises for interns every year, particularly now that students are more strapped for cash than ever. Yet when they are told in advance that they will not be getting paid it seems to reduce the annoyance of spending a whole summer doing potentially low-status work for little pay. A sense of exploitation only tends to arise when interns are misled about potential payment, whereas by being given prior warning of the lack of remuneration they are fully aware of what they are getting themselves into and can plan accordingly.
Despite the fact that he was unpaid, Lacey felt that his experience was worthwhile, especially because it presented him with new challenges. “The thing with the Archaeology degree is that there isn’t a lot of time or scope to do any practical stuff, it is fairly academic so it was a case of trying to get some practical experience under my belt before I finished up.”
However, not all internships go as well as students would have hoped, and interns are often dissatisfied with their experience. In order to ensure that this doesn’t happen, companies must make preparations to accomodate an intern, as if they are is ill-prepared the entire experience may seem completely counterproductive to the student who has commited to their programme.
On the other hand, negatives experiences can occasionally help students to learn something significant about their future career – they realise what they don’t want to do. Internships can completely change a student’s perspective on a specific field of study or a whole profession in general, a fact which supports the idea that internships are best done while still at college. Mahon agrees that it was best to do his internship before graduating, saying that he “could not have done this internship after college; I wouldn’t have stayed for the three months.” He puts this down to the attitude in the office and stated how over the course of the three months he realised that working for an NGO was not something he would like to do long-term.
Ashley Humenik, a fourth year Chemical Engineering student who spent the summer in Janseen Biologics in Ringaskiddy, Cork, also felt that she gained more from doing her internship while still at college instead of attempting to do it after finishing her degree. “It definitely gave me a headstart in trying to think about what I want to do,” she said. “Even the interview practice beforehand, writing your CV and your cover letter was really good preparation to have before going in to your final year.”
The benefits of doing an internship while still at college are evident, even if students feel that they aren’t receiving worthwhile training or that the company they are working for isn’t gaining much from them. Experiencing the negative can end up fuelling positive changes in their career path in the future and push them towards more suitable professions.
However, it’s no secret that getting an internship in the first place can be a difficult task. Many students are disheartened after spending weeks sending email after email to companies across Ireland and the rest of the world to no avail, never managing to secure an internship in their desired career area. “I do think that internships are a vital element to a person’s degree,” muses O’Donnell, “And it is a pity that some students don’t get the chance to work in their chosen field.”
The promotion of internships seems to be an issue that is handled differently in every school across UCD. For example, Humenik found that “our school is really good for helping people do that, [a] lecturer in our school nearly makes sure that everyone who wants an internship gets an internship, but I have friends in different schools in UCD and it appears that they don’t have that sort of support at all.” However, when Mahon was asked whether he felt UCD needed to do more, he said that while perhaps they should push the benefits of internships, he also feels that the culture in Ireland in general might explain why not everyone is seeking this opportunity; “To be honest, I don’t think it is much the culture in Ireland to do internships, and companies in Ireland might start taking advantage of it.”
Yet O’Donnell explains that his experience in Washington was only possible because of UCD’s assistance; “the Washington-Ireland Program is supported by UCD so without them I would never have had the chances I had this summer.”
Internships will always end up educating students in one way or another. They are an excellent way of shedding light on reality, showing what the world of work is really like, and what many people’s dream jobs are actually all about. Countless numbers of students benefit from these career-building opportunities year after year, while the companies who take them on enjoy a supply of enthusiastic workers, some of whom could prove to be future full-time employees. Internships are often challenging, but most are rewarding in equal measure, and well worth signing your summer away for.