Job, work placement or internship?

Grad Week: Should you consider an internship considering the jobs economy is doing well?

“Increasingly, placement in academic institutions is doing away with a time when people came from college with no work experience.” Photograph: iStock

“Increasingly, placement in academic institutions is doing away with a time when people came from college with no work experience.” Photograph: iStock


With jobs plentiful, is there still any need for graduates to consider internships or work placements?

Gavin Connell, head of careers at the University of Limerick, says many third-levels, including his own, have a work placement as part of their undergraduate degrees. “We don’t advocate for internships, whether paid or unpaid. We want to get jobs for our graduates. Increasingly, placement in academic institutions is doing away with a time when people came from college with no work experience, and the Higher Education Authority is mandated to increase work placements in academic programmes over the next five to 10 years.”

What if there’s no work placement element on a course? “I look to the summer periods for those students: they can work, travel or get experience and exposure to an employer who may end up keeping them as a graduate. If I was doing a final-year project, I would link to employers to make it relevant and gain an understanding of how those industries work.”

It’s worth remembering the difference between a graduate programme and a job, says Connell. “A graduate programme is a specific, fixed-term programme that will probably lead to a permanent role; some of the programmes are clear that it will whereas, for others, it’s a chance to try before they buy.”

A placement, meanwhile, differs in that it is focused on learning new skills and is accredited. UL says it will not promote unpaid placements, although other universities do. In some industries – notably journalism and sports science – there may still be some unpaid internships, but most do pay at least something.

Paid internships

Shaz Oye, president of Trinity Graduate Students’ Union, says that paid internships are a rite of passage for the university’s postgraduate students. “PR, journalism, law and medicine students can expect some placement. There are many areas, especially in the arts, where it seems to be expected that actors or musicians will, when in the business for the first time, work for little or no money.

“I do think paid internships can be very beneficial – they’re often the only way to secure experience and upskill. But there is no question that they should be paid: unpaid internships are characteristic of a dysfunctional model of hyper-capitalism. They are economically unsound and they undermine the social fabric, as well as damage the company’s reputation both internally and externally.”

Stepping straight into a permanent job is rare these days, and it’s not something most graduates want. “I speak to students all the time and they’re not necessarily looking for a 20-year-role; they’re happy with a job for two or three years while they consider travel opportunities, postgrads and a job,” says Connell. “They are usually happy to do a job for a year or two and then consider their options. Recruiters, too, are changing how they work. Increasingly, accounting firms are letting people take a break during the three years of training to travel, or allowing them to complete the three years and then return.”

This flexibility is not only a good way of attracting and retaining staff – it’s also a benefit to the employer to have a happy, well-rounded employee who has travelled the world, experienced diverse cultures and enriched themselves as a person.

Job, work placement, internship: What’s what?

Job: Contracted or permanent, salaried with benefits.

Internship: Usually paid but sometimes unpaid where newly or almost qualified graduates take on a role, usually for between three and six months, giving them experience of their industry.

Work placement: An enrolled student is placed in a company where they can learn skills relevant to their course of study. Sometimes paid, sometimes not.

Graduate programme: Graduates recruited straight out of third-level onto a programme, often about three years in duration, where they are a paid staff member who learns on the job, often rotating between different divisions of the company. Some programmes include elements of further study and exams.