Working or interning: How students should choose between both over the summer

As the graduate jobs market becomes increasingly competitive and the cost of living rises, there's pressure on students to spend their summer working and interning - but it's just not possible to do both

Caitlin Doherty
Friday 08 July 2016 16:19
They can provide great experience but, with many intern or work experience roles being unpaid, how should students spend their summer?
They can provide great experience but, with many intern or work experience roles being unpaid, how should students spend their summer?

At last, the dissertations are completed, the exams are over, and the endless stream of sleepless nights are gone. Instead, the long student summers are here, but that doesn’t necessarily mean life is going to be plain sailing and stress-free.

With the graduate jobs market becoming increasingly competitive, and the price of living in the UK’s student towns and cities increasing year-on-year, there is an immense pressure on students to spend their summer working and interning. However, a lot of the time, it just is not possible to do both.

Part-time employers can be inflexible and reluctant to even give you enough time off for a weekend in Cornwall, let alone a two-week work placement. Sometimes, placements can last all summer, leaving little time for work. Or maybe in all of this madness, you just want to spend a couple of weeks with your family or buried in a good book. Whatever the reasons, managing to squeeze in some work, work experience, and a holiday into one summer is no mean feat.

So, when you find yourself having to choose, which is better? Interning is not for everybody, and having personally experienced the benefits and the hindrances of both working and placements, here are the main points to take on board when deciding bewteen work and work experience:

Personal finances

Let’s be honest - for most students, any summer jobs are taken solely for the purpose of making enough money to get out of that overdraft, pay a couple of months’ rent, and maybe have some spending money left over for the first few weeks of term. They’re not the most enjoyable jobs in the world, but they put money in your back pocket and make life a little easier in the long September to Christmas term. Plus, a lot of employers - especially those in the service industries - are willing to rehire their summer student staff over the busy Christmas period. Flexible working that fits around holidays and provides handy bank account top-ups is a definite benefit of the summer job.

The same, though, cannot be said for interning. The majority of intern or work experience roles are unpaid, and, as most offices are located in larger cities, travel and accommodation for the duration of your work can be quite expensive. That’s not to say placements are unaffordable for everybody. Some companies, such as Macmillan, Goldman Sachs, and Santander provide their interns with a salary or an expenses account, but, while that is not the case for all businesses, there are still other ways of getting help.

Most universities are able to help fund students through internships should they meet certain criteria, and several organisations including the Prince’s Trust and Santander run bursary schemes to help young people in unpaid work. Plus, in contrast to most summer jobs, internships tend to run for a month or less, so the time and financial commitment probably won’t fill your entire break.

Going back to university

Returning to university after a good internship can be a great experience; with a post-graduate job to aspire to, you feel motivated with your studies and some of the horror of that ‘what’s next’ question has disappeared. However, having spent a summer doing unpaid work, you may feel the pressure to work during term time, meaning some of that motivation may have to go towards waiting tables rather than revising.

But, summer work can leave some in an equally annoying situation. If a large proportion of the summer has been spent working - especially if that work was during unsociable hours or overnight - you could find yourself at a disadvantage in comparison to your coursemates who may have had greater opportunity to study. This is especially true if you’re beginning a dissertation term or a Master’s course, both of which require some study time over the break.


One word: networking. The networking opportunities available when you intern are second-to-none. Business meetings, project partners, and desk-mates, you could quite easily meet hundreds of people on any placement. After graduation, it’s really helpful to be on a first-name basis with some people and have a few email addresses to hand. A quick email asking for some more experience or another placement may turn into an interview. That’s not to say a part-time job will not put you in good stead when beginning your career. If you are undecided on a career path, then it’s important to have a CV that showcases a wide range of workplace skills. If you have spent your last two summers interning for a law firm, but then decided law is not for you, then an otherwise empty CV will put you at a definite disadvantage when applying for other positions.

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