Comment asked Redbrick’s writers and editors to share their insight into paid and unpaid work experience, revealing how students are shaping their career paths
Internships and work experience are a quintessential part of the university experience. As vital as living in substandard accommodation or participating in pervasive university party culture, the internship is a staple of undergraduate life. Often it is a student’s first glimpse at life beyond university, the real working world that their years of education have been preparing them for. Inevitably when asking for experience for this article, many had been involved in some sort of work experience opportunity, whether that be paid or unpaid. Some had had their career paths affirmed whilst others had decided against their initial dreams entirely. Redbrick’s writers and editors have offered their experiences of internships or more loosely defined ‘work experience’ to reveal what they did, or in some cases did not, get out of it.
Abby Spreadborough – Comment Editor
In my first year I completed two weeks of unpaid work experience. The first was at a small industry magazine and the second was at a major national newspaper. I had speculatively sent my work to journalists and desk managers at the publications I later visited and was shocked, excited and admittedly a little apprehensive when I was offered a chance to see a newsroom in action.
During my first week of experience at the smaller publication, I spent much of my time looking for stories and trawling through press releases. I found multiple stories but as I had expected many were rejected. After all, I was not a qualified journalist and I had heard stories about interns being treated as a glorified baristas so I was grateful I even had the chance to look for stories at all. As the week drew to a close I was able to write up some news stories and run the magazine’s twitter feed. In the meantime, I worked on a feature about recently released statistics on the demolitions of inhabitable social housing despite the UK’s housing crisis. I spent days compiling quotes from MPs, architects and charities and submitted it at the end of the week with the promise of feedback and payment for my story once it went live. This felt like a huge success. After all, I had paid to no less than £100 for a week’s worth of travel and endured a two-and-a-half hour round trip each day to get to the office. Yet weeks turned into months and my feature never appeared online.
Undeterred, I began another unpaid opportunity, this time at a much larger paper in central London. I was sure my previous experience was not representative of the industry as a whole. I went into my following chance promising myself I’d be more assertive when pursuing stories and pitching them. Before I knew it, without much of an introduction, I was at a desk not finding stories but cutting out clippings and pasting them into a scrapbook alongside another so-called ‘workie.’ Later in the day, I had a brief chance to search for stories but this was cut short when I was sent across London to collect a press pass paying for the tube out of my pocket and with little guidance at all.
Unpaid and once again paying for travel to even access the opportunity I felt discouraged, to say the least. Nevertheless, I preserved spending much of the week having what I believed to be interesting and important stories about protests, cuts, crime and healthcare rejected or ignored in favour of stories about tweed and reliquaries or in favour of transcribing interviews. At the end of the week, I had one small story in print but my mind was made up. I love writing but more importantly, I love the freedom to write what I care about and have a direct impact on things. Perhaps what was most valuable was a new found self-awareness of my values and motivations I left the newsroom with.
Fathima Abdullah – Comment Writer
When studying English Literature, there always seems to be an impending concern of what career you will go into after studying. For me and most people, teaching seems like the obvious route but from first year and this summer, I wanted to research what was out there in terms of career options and expand what I could do with my degree. I had a paid work experience lined up in the summer in the publishing sector and unfortunately it was a fairly negative experience. I was not welcomed into the office or introduced to anyone on the team, I wasn’t told basic household rules such as where or when lunch was and most of all, I wasn’t given anything to do; I was left sitting at my desk for hours in a cold and uninviting atmosphere. As a young person going into an adult office space, I already felt quite nervous, but the poor treatment I received made me feel horribly anxious throughout the day so much so, that I decided to drop out the next day. I contacted the work experience co-ordinator, who I didn’t even get to meet that day, and gave her the reasons as to why I was dropping out along with some very poor feedback.
Although it was a negative experience for me, I did learn a number of things. The main thing is that I knew I felt incredibly anxious in that environment so I made the decision to not put myself back in it the following day. I learned that no matter how prestigious the company was, or how much I was getting paid or how it would look on my CV, no place is worth sacrificing my confidence and my self-esteem. I also learned to not be ashamed in giving back negative feedback, and that this work experience is one possibility out of many. I continue to look into other fields and apply to various things not only to see what’s out there but also so that I don’t place limitations on myself. The key thing I took from this, is that your mental well-being is always the first priority and to keep on trying in different career areas and not just one. Even if one door closes, you can open another one.
Hannah Lay – Comment Editor
This summer I spent eight weeks at the Marks and Spencer head office interning in their Human Resources department and I had a brilliant time! I was really apprehensive going into the internship that I would be asked to do all the menial tasks like basic admin or tea-making. My experience was fortunately far from this. From the get-go it was clear that the team looking after us had put together a bespoke programme designed to give us a detailed insight into the world of HR at M&S. I was really lucky to be assigned to some great teams during the internship who were really keen to bring me to interesting meetings and give me proper work to do. As well as this, we were given a really exciting group project to work on which meant if there was any downtime during the day we always had something to do. I met some great people during the internship and had an extremely positive experience, so much so I have applied to their graduate scheme for next year. I know others were not so lucky during their internship experience so I am glad I have a good story to report!
Catrin Osborne – Television Editor
Last January, I spent a fortnight at an experiential marketing agency. The experience was positive: the women I worked with were lovely, I was given an allowance to spend at the café downstairs, I gained knowledge about my field, and I scored a new section on my CV. However, I ended the week with a sense of dread due to the monotonous cycle of office life. Throughout my childhood, I’d heard my father complain about the repetition of work but never understood it until this experience. Although the agency I worked at placed a large focus on redefining the workspace, many of the employees fell into bad habits. One of my tasks involved writing articles focusing on wellbeing for the agency’s newsletter which alerted me to how damaging sitting at a desk for hours on end is for oneself. Amidst the trivial chats, fag breaks and endless staring at screens, I wasn’t left with a desire to begin working. Whilst my main purpose was to learn about marketing, I left the two weeks with an awakening that the office is an aspect of our society which requires a radical change.
Tom Leaman – Editor-in-Chief
I’ve worked for two different internship providers to gain experience for a career path I’m interested in following, working approximately 196 hours in total without getting paid a penny. For context, in the job I was doing before coming to UoB, I would have been rewarded with a tidy £1,274 for my efforts at £6.50 per hour. I don’t want to suggest that my work for a fish and chip van (which, incidentally, once burnt down) didn’t require effort and skill, though I do think it’s fair to say that the work I did using my developing professional skills during my two internships was perhaps equally deserving of some kind of financial retribution.
Worse still, I actually made a significant loss from my internships from my travel expenses, particularly when you take into account the fact that railcards inexplicably don’t come into effect until 10 am on weekdays, making my daily 8:20 commute that bit more painful Fundamentally, internships are supposed to provide young people with a solid foundation to get into their chosen career, but unpaid internships ensure an uneven playing field; unfortunately, not everyone can afford to give up their time without pay, which only worsens the diversity issues present in some industries. As an example, The National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ) estimates that 94% of journalists in the UK are white. Their data also shows that journalism students are also more likely to find work if they are male, do not have a disability, come from higher or middle socio-economic groups and are not from a low HE participation neighbourhood.
Harriet Laban – Food&Drink Editor
Almost every article in the style of ‘Top Tips for Making the Most of University’ will tell you that one of the most valuable activities you can undertake during your undergraduate years is a work experience placement or internship. Therefore, when I discovered Penguin Random House did two-week placements, I jumped at the opportunity to apply, and was fortunate enough to secure a place.
From the first moment, all staff members were supportive and encouraging, giving us multiple ideas of what we could achieve in our fortnight, and pushing us to seek out and grasp every opportunity we could. It was fantastic to feel so welcome to explore. The team I was placed with were welcoming, and instantly had me getting involved with their projects. I felt as though I was actually contributing to the industry I aim to work in and was able to collect some exclusive experiences which should help build up my own careers repertoire of capabilities.
Work experience is invaluable for gaining an insight into potential future lines of work, for making contacts, and especially for building confidence. It made me realise that despite Penguin’s prestigious reputation, I have a place in that environment, and I am able to succeed and make a difference, no matter how small. I now have a firm insight into what it would be really like to be part of a publishing house, which will help guide my graduate plans away from fantasy and into reality.
Holly Pittaway – Deputy Digital Editor
Over summer I was offered some work experience with a local radio station, Touch FM, and, though unpaid internships rarely yield positive results, I can wholeheartedly say that my week of work was extremely fulfilling.
I worked as part of two teams; the first half of the week with the news team, writing news bulletins, researching local stories, and even going out on interviews. The second half I spent with the broadcasting team, specifically on the Jason Moss breakfast show, where I was able to enhance my audio editing skills and even make a (pre-recorded) guest appearance announcing the showbiz news, which thanks to the free-rein I was given ended up being mostly about Love Island. The team at Touch FM were incredibly accommodating and helpful with any questions I had, and overall it was an extremely rewarding experience!
I think the positivity of my internship stemmed from the fact that the organisation was small and local – many of the people I worked with came from the same area as I did – and as a result there was a much more community-based feel to it.
This is not to say that experiences at larger news corporations, such as The Guardian and the BBC, are inherently worse, but if you’re looking to really get stuck into the journalism industry I recommend going local first.
A Word From the Careers Network
The main thing would be to make students aware of that they have a dedicated internships and work experience team within the Careers Network to support them in finding work experience, internships or placements. There are College Internship Officers that can offer tailored support on how/where to find opportunities in certain sectors – students can book appointments to get some further advice. The Internship Officers regularly upload vacancies to our vacancy portal Careers Connect (employers can also upload vacancies too), and there is lots more guidance on our website.
We also run work experience workshops and events, including ‘Top Tips for Work Experience’ and ‘Internship Meet-ups,’ and February is ‘Work Experience Month’ with a series of activities designed to get students engaged with some sort of work experience – this includes the internships and work experience fair.
We also have a number of exclusive work experience schemes just for UOB students including paid internships with local SMEs, start-ups and social enterprises via our Impact Internships programme, or internships with renowned companies oversees via our Global Challenge Programme. We have also innovated with our Virtual Internships scheme, where students can get international work experience without leaving the country!
For those not quite ready or sure of what to do, they can take part in a Company Trek, where we will take you for tour of a company and where you can gain insight from some of the employees, or our Insight Into series of workshops and panel events, to hear and network with people in specific sectors i.e. finance, arts, science, etc.
Finally, there are our work experience bursaries, designed to support students with funding to cover costs/expenses for their work experience or internship opportunities in the UK or abroad.
Overall, the message to students would be to engage with us in some capacity (the above are just some of the different options), and know that they have some dedicated support to help them with work experience, no matter what stage they are at.
If you would like to find out more about the Careers Network visit intranet.birmingham.ac.uk/careers.