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Finding the right internship and your internship rights: Part 1

In this two-part series, former Careers Director Kate Purcell explores your rights and considerations when looking for or undertaking professional experiences, and what you can do if something may have gone wrong.

Part 1 will outline some of the initial questions you should ask when considering your internship options. Part 2 continues by explaining your rights, available options if something goes wrong, and then concludes with key tips to help you navigate the internship process.

It’s no secret that internships and work placements can offer students and recent graduates a leg up in the job hunt. Given on-the-job practical training and professional experience, they help bridge the skills gap between academic life and employment. They can also provide exposure to new career pathways and open doors to permanent work opportunities. For this reason, internships are often considered a key stepping stone to entering the workforce – and this has made them highly competitive to secure.

Yet, gone are the days where you should expect an internship to involve picking up coffees and printing copies (well… sometimes the photocopier is involved). Internships should provide genuine work opportunities and positive experiences. That said, not all internship experiences are made equally. Internships can offer invaluable work experience and demand high-quality contributions to the organisation – but without the appropriate compensation for that work. This article explores how you can balance the many considerations when looking for internship opportunities to get you closer to your career goals.

Getting your ‘foot in the door’

Young Australians continue to face challenges gaining appropriate work opportunities and secure employment. This can lead to many being underemployed, relying on precarious employment, and informal opportunities while on the path to secure and fulfilling work. While this is not unique to international relations, the field has a highly talented cohort competing for less opportunities. This makes getting experience more difficult and leaves young Australians passionate about international affairs more exposed to unfair work arrangements.

When establishing your career, one of the most important choices is seeking legitimate opportunities to grow your skillset and experience. The best internships enable and empower their interns to:

  • gain first-hand experience

  • broaden awareness of career pathways

  • contribute to an organisation

  • apply knowledge in real-world contexts

  • grow professional networks

  • cultivate positive references for future job applications.

A common mistake is assuming that an internship directly correlates with employability and work readiness. Some can be exploitative, unsatisfying, or simply a waste of time.

Consider the opportunity cost of internships

That’s why it’s important to clarify what you’re hoping the internship can give you, beyond building your resume. A simple way of thinking through this is considering the opportunity cost: the foregone benefit that you are deprived of by choosing one option over another. Put even simpler: what will you miss out on? The internship experience and potential gains should outweigh whatever you miss out on. Whether that be time to relax, sleep, work part-time, study, be with family and friends.

Even while a student your time is the most valuable thing. More likely than not, undertaking a high quality, meaningful experience is the best use of your time if you have certain aligned career goals. For example, if the opportunity is for a social media and marketing intern, but you want to work in policymaking or research, it may not be the best use of your time. Similarly, if the choice is between continuing your paid part-time job in hospitality, and committing to onerous unpaid work, you may find that your hospo job pays dividends (and actually pays). I certainly found that to be the case while studying – I could buy the textbooks I needed for class, developed a good relationship with the owner who agreed to be my referee, as well as developed my transferable skills in teamwork, problem solving, and juggling competing priorities. Arguably, this provided a more meaningful experience than an unpaid internship, even if it was with a prestigious organisation.

Questioning the value of unpaid internships

Early 2022 saw a groundswell of advocacy against unpaid internships. The #GlobalInternStike earlier this year called upon institutions and organisations to pay interns for their work. Other movements such as the Fair Internship Initiative have advocated for the United Nations to pay its interns since 2015. The movement towards remote working during the pandemic has also seen an increase in remote unpaid internships, where interns complete work in social isolation’. This may provide flexibility for those who need it, but for most, the benefits of learning in the workplace are important aspects of internships.

Likewise, unpaid internships are an avenue to building your resume, but can reinforce class, racial, gender, ability and other privileges or bias, perpetuating diversity disparities within organisations. The financial barrier to undertaking unpaid internships is significant, leading to socio-economic injustice in the workplace: by disadvantaging those unable to rely on family support or savings. While they are not necessarily illegitimate opportunities, balancing the benefits versus costs of unpaid internships is key. Budget your time and money – can you complete the internship without reducing your work hours? Will there be enough coverage for consequent expenses, such as commuting costs, technology, lunches, coffees, work clothes? Think about it like this - if unpaid internships end up costing you then you are paying to work!

Alternate ways to gain real-world experience

(Paid) internships, fellowships, volunteering, extra-curricular activities and part-time work are all ways to grow your resume and prepare for your career. You may also check whether your university allows for ‘Work Integrated Learning’. These are generally practical units that are counted as credit toward your degree (and therefore are often considered fairly compensated). Often you may be placed in an organisation or will be required to source a placement at an organisation. The commitment is around 1-2 days each week for a standard semester. Work may be accompanied by essays written back to the university on your learnings and experiences of the placement. This is a great way to derive educational benefit from an internship, while gaining all the benefits an internship can offer. It also doesn’t necessarily add more to your plate while studying, which means you can still have time outside of university for part-time work and other commitments. Keep in mind that the quality of this experience is dependent on the organisation, so do your research and ask for advice from the relevant unit coordinator or student services.

Stay tuned for Part 2, where we unpack our key tips for navigating internships.


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