What are your graduate work options?

Graduates don’t usually have work experience – so what do they need to do to get it?

Internships, temporary work, graduate programmes and jobs are ways in which you can gain good work experience. Photograph: iStockphoto

Internships, temporary work, graduate programmes and jobs are ways in which you can gain good work experience. Photograph: iStockphoto


Experience counts. Employers want it. They want graduates, too. But graduates don’t usually have work experience – so how can they get it?

Internships, temporary work (temping), graduate programmes and jobs are among the ways to pick it up. Last year, the Covid-19 crisis meant that fewer internships were available. Some still happened online, but it didn’t really provide the employer or the graduate with what they hoped for.

Things may be bouncing back this year, experts say.

Edel Kearney and Ethna McGowan are career coaches at TU Dublin.

“Due to Covid, a lot of current students and upcoming graduates didn’t have the opportunity to do a placement or internship in the way that they would normally as part of their programmes,” says Kearney. “Many of our students would have a placement – around six months – in their penultimate year. A lot of students are reporting to me that, because they missed that opportunity, they are now looking for short post-graduation to gain experience and insight that they missed out on. So, for this cohort, internship after graduation might be more common.”

Many internships are advertised on gradireland.com, but some smaller companies may not advertise their internships at all.

“Smaller or medium-sized companies offer great opportunities,” McGowan advises. “Smaller companies can feel less intimidating and, in a smaller company, you get to move around quicker and get greater insights into the area you want to work in.”

Hidden jobs market

There is a hidden jobs market out there where people get jobs or internships through family, friends and connections; this, however, gives students from wealthier backgrounds yet another advantage in life by virtue of the fact that their families may have more of these professional connections.

“Tell everyone you know that you are looking,” says Kearney. “LinkedIn is a good resource but you can also put in speculative applications to companies.”

McGowan advises students to be as informed as possible about an internship in advance of accepting it. “To make the most of it, give a good degree of thought to the kind of work you want to do and the employer who can best manage it. Groundwork at the start sets you up for success or failure. If you’re not being given something to do, perhaps volunteer an idea.”

When someone starts an internship, how should they proceed? “Introduce yourself to everyone,” says Kearney. “Make a point of sitting down with your supervisor and [discussing] what your career goals and what you want from it. Read all the policies and procedures to give you an insight into the company. Keep track of what you worked on so that you can include it on your CV. It can seem scary but, whether or not they are good at giving feedback, ask for it.

Internships should be – and usually are – paid. There are some unpaid internships out there, but graduates should approach them with extreme caution. Everyone has a legal right to be paid and you cannot sign away your right to, at least, the minimum wage.

But even if you are lucky enough to have the financial support that allows you to work for free, unpaid internships may be attached to less scrupulous employers, and if there’s less money on the line, there may be a lack of oversight, structure or management, ultimately meaning that the graduate doesn’t even acquire the skills the internship promised.

“If nobody is directing you, direct yourself and try your best,” says McGowan. “It has to work for you.”

Specialised programmes

Graduates can also look to specialised graduate recruitment programmes. These, typically, are run by larger firms and take in large graduate numbers who go on to sample all different aspects of the business over a year or two.

“These are structured and organised and a good route to develop your career,” says Kearney, adding that some graduates will stay on when the programme ends.

“There are great training and development opportunities in a graduate scheme, where you may be assigned a mentor you can go to for support,” says McGowan. “Some of the programmes have been a little harder by virtue of being virtual.”

For a graduate entry job – as opposed to a graduate training scheme or internship – salaries may be a little higher. While these graduate entry jobs may lack the structure of internships or graduate programmes, any good workplace will have supports in place to help new hires learn, grow and have promotional opportunities.

Aisling O’Neill, recruitment consultant with Sigmar, says that there is another option worth considering: temping.

“Graduates should be open-minded about how they can get their foot in the door and into a new career,” she says. “Contract and temporary work is a really good opportunity for people just out of college who may not know exactly where they want to go. It gives you a feel for a new position without tying you down to a role, while still giving you the chance to build up experience. It’s worth reaching out to various agencies and popping your application in.”

Temp jobs tend to be general admin roles including data-entry and personal assistance roles. While it may not be the job you want, it gives you a chance to see what the company is like.

“A lot of people do two or three months in an organisation, get on well and maybe convert it to a permanent position down the line,” says O’Neill. “If you’re in the door and have established relationships, it may be easier for them to sidestep in the direction they want.”