It used to be that you’d finish uni, give your CV a polish and bag a junior job or a graduate traineeship before too long. Now, everyone seems to be talking about internships. In fact, roughly a third of graduate jobs end up going to people who have done them. But what is an internship? How do you find one? Do you get paid? And how do you know if your internship is worthwhile? Learn everything you need to know about them right here.

A young man is doing an internship. This is a full-body image..

What is an internship?

Unlike Apprenticeships, which have to follow certain legal specifications, internships haven’t really been defined. Generally speaking, they’re short-term work placements, such as summer internships, that let you sample your chosen industry – but not as short as work experience, which should last under four weeks. And they’re usually undertaken by students and graduates.

But the technicalities don’t really matter. The important thing to know is that an internship could end up giving you an edge when you apply for jobs; especially with the job market being as saturated as it is right now. You’ll get hands-on experience, and you might even find that you’re first in the queue if a full time job comes up, particularly in competitive industries.

Will I get paid for an internship?

We’re gonna have to dash your hopes and say not necessarily. See, the law says you should be paid if:

  • You’re doing actual work, not just observing
  • The work you do is of ‘real value’ to your employer
  • You have to work set hours
  • You’re not on a government scheme or volunteering for a charity
  • You aren’t doing an internship as part of an academic course
  • You’re not of compulsory school age

Keep in mind, complying with any of these conditions means that you should get the National Minimum Wage, not just lunch and travel expenses. However, the Higher Education Statistics Authority says the number of new graduates doing unpaid work has tripled since 2003.

Should some of those interns be getting paid? In an ideal world, yea. But we’re living in the real world. That means some employers either don’t know the law, don’t want to adhere to it or don’t think they need to.

Should I work for free in an internship?

You might think it’s worth living on baked beans for a while to get that added CV sparkle. And if you could have a shot at paid opportunities that could help you on your chosen career path, even better. That’s why big-game companies often have people queuing out the door (in an orderly fashion, of course) to do unpaid internships.

The thing is, not everyone can afford to work for free. Even if they didn’t think it was such a bad gig. Luckily, if you can’t find an internship that will pay and can’t work for nothing, there are other options. Consider doing work experience offered for a shorter period of time or interning part-time alongside another job.

Can I ask to get paid for my internship?

You can totally ask for payment, there’s just no guarantee of what the outcome will be.

If you do, Campaigning organisation Intern Aware recommends contacting the boss. They also suggest explaining that you can’t work for free and telling them exactly why you’d make a great intern.

Remember, you have a right to the National Minimum Wage if you’re doing actual work. You’re legally entitled to it no matter what you sign or how your employer describes your role. Plus, you actually have up to six years to claim the money. For instance, former interns at Topshop and The X Factor became headlines after being paid hundreds or even thousands of pounds in back pay.

What other rights do interns have?

Paid interns have the same employment rights as any other workers. On the other hand, unpaid interns have far fewer rights and aren’t protected from unfair or constructive dismissal. That means an employer can easily fire you from an unpaid internship for little or no reason. We know it kinda sucks. But the good news is that employers must take care of your health and safety, and protect your personal information, whether they’re paying you or not. And if they don’t, nowadays you can expose them on social media.

For more information, check out our worker’s rights resources here.

Do interns just make the tea?

You won’t gain much from the whole experience or find job offers and future employment if all you do is hang around the kettle and photocopier. “Ideally, you’ll be given some tasks that are good for your CV, although you should also expect some monotonous or repetitive tasks as well,” says Tanya de Grunwald, author of How to Get a Graduate Job in a Recession. “Do everything you’re asked to do (within reason) quickly, but do it well – and never complain. Nobody wants to hire a sulker.”

“Good employers will be on the lookout for potential,” she adds. “So be someone they’d want to have around every day.”

How do I get a good internship?

Look for employers who want to interview you. “It shows they’re taking the internship seriously,” says de Grunwald.

  • Don’t be afraid to tell employers what you’re after. Chances are they’ll be pleased you know what you want and are taking the opportunity seriously.
  • Ask to draw up an agreement with your supervisor about what you’ll work on and learn during your internship.

It’s important to know that most employers aren’t monsters,” says Gus Baker, co-director of Intern Aware. “Don’t be afraid to ask how you’re going to be spending your time working and what they’re going to do for you.”

Next Steps

  • Acas offers free advice about everything to do with employment law. 0300 123 1100
  • Chat about this subject on our Discussion Boards.

By Anne Wollenberg

Updated on 08-Jun-2022