Internships – How Important Are They?By Jamon Windeyer in HSC
7th of May 2018
When you leave high school and head to university, it gives this sense of security. That finally, the things you will learn and do will have direct relevance and impact for your long term future. No more studying something purely for the ATAR, or because the subject you actually wanted clashed with another one, or whatever. You’ll be doing stuff that will give you the skills you need to actually make it in the world. Doing what it is you want to be doing. internships
This is certainly how I felt walking into university on my first day. It felt reassuring – Partially because I knew I’d left the world of english essays behind me forever (until I ended up on ATAR Notes marking a heap of them on the forums, go figure!). Mostly, though, because this was stuff I didn’t just think might be useful one day – This was essential to my career path.
What I realised really quickly though, is that university isn’t as close to that as we might believe in high school. There is still a disconnect between your university studies, and how you will actually use the knowledge in a real world job. Recent surveys seem to suggest that the disconnect varies heavily depending on your field of study. If you are doing a degree relating to healthcare, for example, many graduates say that their studies relate heavily to their industry. For engineers, like me, many say there is a huge difference. Whatever your field of study, the thing bridging that gap is internships.
It should be pretty obvious that work experience is really important. University is great, but nothing will beat actually being immersed in a work environment. That is the opportunity that internships provide.
I’m fortunate enough to be on a scholarship program that allows me to complete three internships throughout my course. I’ve spent the last four and a half months working for an Engineering company in Newcastle (I’ve kept a journal, which you can read here). I’ll do another six months at another company in Sydney in the back half of 2018. I also spent the summer of 2015 at an Engineering consultancy.
These internships have taught me a tonne about my industry, but have also made me realise just how important internships are for university graduates. The knowledge your degree gives you is great, but internships have so many positive impacts on your learning and on your career.
1. They give your degree context.
When you learn something in a lecture theatre or a tutorial room, it is on a whiteboard. Or a piece of paper. Or a computer screen. No matter how hard you or the lecturer try, it is super tough to actually give the practical context of that theory. Internships provide that context. They actually enhance the value of what you have learned at university. You’ll gain a greater understanding of your theory having applied it in practical ways.
I’m not saying you’ll come back from your internships and automatically be getting HD’s on all your exams. But hey – A man can dream, right?
2. They develop transferrable skills.
While you study, the focus is on knowledge and academic skill. No doubt, this stuff is important – Makes sense.
Consider two people you could potentially be working with. One is pretty decent at their job, they know their way around the tools and stuff. They are friendly, they communicate well, they are organised and work well in a team. The other is an absolute machine, they are a wizard with their work and know the field inside and out. But, they are a jerk – They refuse to work with anyone because it slows them down. Plus, they rock up when they want and leave when they want. Who would you want to work with?
Pretty obviously, the first candidate. This is an exaggerated example, but this is a hiring decision managers are making all the time. They are choosing how they want to prioritise various aspects of an employee’s worth.
Transferrable skills are the ones that are useful in any industry. Communication skills, organisation, teamwork skills, leadership. These are going to be prioritised by hiring managers in almost every instance – And you can’t learn them at university. Internships are the best way to develop the skills that will make you the most attractive employee. Teaching someone skills and knowledge takes time, but it can be done. It’s a lot harder to teach someone how to be organised, or how to communicate appropriately.
3. They teach you the tools of the trade.
Every industry has these in some form. For me, as an electrical engineer, it is stuff like CAD Software. Computer scientists? Programming languages. I’m sure accountants have big, fancy suites of software that they use for their work. It just makes sense – You need to know how to use the tools you’ll be using in your work. Sometimes, university doesn’t give you this – Internships will.
Perhaps the single greatest benefit I’ve taken from my internships so far is experience with these sorts of programs. I went into my current position with virtually zero experience in CAD. Months later, I now have that under my belt. Future employers don’t need to invest time teaching me that, so I’m far more attractive as a hire, and far more useful as an employee.
As a throwaway, something I think virtually everyone needs to be familiar with is Microsoft Excel. I can’t think of a single career that involves work at a computer, that wouldn’t also involve Excel in some capacity. My scholarship office told me this and I was dubious – In my first placement, I probably spent more time in Excel than any other application. It’s more powerful than I think people realise, and used more often than I think people imagine. So, if you’re looking for an easy way to (probably) improve your employability – Make sure you know your way around Excel (and the whole Office suite, really).
4. They form meaningful connections.
We’ve all heard it. “It’s not what you know, it is who you know.”
Cliched as it may be, this is resoundingly true. Even in my few short months of being in my current job, I’ve heard this exchange numerous times:
Hiring Manager: Hey Senior Engineer, do you know Bob Bobinson?
Senior Engineer: Oh Bob? Yeah I worked with him at such and such.
Hiring Manager: How is he? He reached out, he’s a potential hire.
Senior Engineer: He’s good – Great programmer.
Etc, etc. People remember who they work with, and the people hiring you will try and get an opinion of you in any way they can. By completing internships (and, you know, actually doing good work), a bunch of your coworkers become your advocates. Not just at that company, but wherever they head next. If your name shows up, they might just remember you fondly.
Plus there’s the obvious one – Interns get jobs. It makes perfect sense, why hire the unknown graduate when there’s another one who worked for you a couple of years ago. They know your company, they know your work, they know the team. No brainer.
5. They help you decide if you’re in the right career!
Let’s be clear – Studying something is a whole lot different to doing it.
Someone I currently work with said something that really stuck with me. I think for any profession, people go in with an image of that job that is based on the upper tier of said job. For example, engineers go into the industry expecting to be designing circuits and managing projects. That is the practical context that university gives you. However, we only need so many designers. From there we need people checking those designs, drawing them in CAD programs – Hell, we need people receiving orders of networking equipment and copying the serial numbers into an Excel spreadsheet (yes, I have done this).
The point being, a lot of your time in a job will be spent as the ground trooper, doing the little jobs. I think a great sign you are in the right career is when even the rudimental, more routine aspects of a job are something you can get fulfilment from. Not every day at work will be the big, exciting project or revolution like university might make it seem. Internships are a chance to immerse yourself into the real job, and decide whether it’s what you expected, and whether it is what you what.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with changing your career path based on internships. I’d say it’s a good move. And maybe it isn’t a total flip – Internships help you decide the sort of company you want to work for, the sorts of work you want to do, the cultural aspects of a workplace that you find important. This stuff can only be figured out as you go, and internships are a chance to get going sooner.
So the point is?
To not have at least one internship under your belt before you don your graduation gown is a serious missed opportunity. Make work experience a priority while you study. For many institutions and courses, it is compulsory, but even if it isn’t – Treat it like it is. You’ll learn heaps, make connections, and gain an understanding of your work that university could just never give you.
That’s not to say that university is useless – Think of it like training in the gym before climbing a mountain. It is something you need to do to get yourself fit for the climb. But when it comes to climbing mountains, there’s really only one way to know what that’s like – To climb!