The good, the bad and the ugly of student internships

Róise McGagh

70 per cent of DCU students take part in INTRA work placement or study abroad, according to DCU.

Every year, a large amount of Irish students go on placement or complete internships, with universities such as DCU, NUI Galway and University of Limerick providing designated programmes to do so.

It’s no longer a case of placements for medical students and trainee teachers only.

DCU was the first Irish university to introduce a work placement programme as part of its undergraduate courses with its INTRA programme. 70 per cent of DCU students take part in INTRA work placement or study abroad, according to DCU.

These internships range from two months long, in the case of the journalism course, to 11 months for students in the business school. The idea is that employers benefit from the fresh skills and new ideas from students and that in turn, students get to put what they have learned in theory, into practice.

Third year science student from DCU, Daniel Cox, started his placement two months ago in Pfizer. His contract is for eight months.

“It’s interesting in the way that it has improved skills that I thought didn’t need improving, or i wasn’t aware were going to improve… things like interpersonal relationships, communication and project planning” he said.

“It was difficult at the start, it was my first full time job, at the time,” said Cox. “I’d say that after around a month I started to get my footing and now that I’m two and a half months in, I’m in.”

One of the main difficulties for students can be switching from the lecture hall to a work environment. Cox said he felt this himself, “for a student with projects and assignments and continuous assessments coming up all the time, there’s never really a time when you can fully switch off. Whereas when I leave here at 5pm, I’m switched off.”

“It’s very nice to have a very hard, very clear boundary of you don’t work now.” he said.

While the routine is beneficial, it can be a stark contrast to life as a student.

“The opposite of that is that there’s less freedom in my day, I can only go to the gym at night… I have to commute a lot” he said.

When asked what he thought about the length of his placement contract, he said the longer the better. He said he was happy to be working in it for eight months.

“My aunt says you don’t know if you like a job until you’ve done it for six months. I’m tending to actually agree with her.” he said.

“It’s beyond beneficial, I think it’s a wonderful opportunity not just for action learning and for reflection.” said Executive Dean at DCU Business School, Anne Sinnott.

“Also it makes a big difference to students attitudes and their maturity when they come back and I think also almost 50% of students end up getting their first job with the organisation that they’ve done their placement with.” she said.

Sinnott said she noticed a big change in the students after they had returned to lecturers after their placement.

A business student going into final year, Eoin Treacy who is currently on INTRA placement in Volkswagen also found placement to be a worthwhile experience. His contract is for 13 months

“It is very useful to get your foot in the door, not even in a specific company but a professional environment in general,” he said. In his opinion, the most beneficial aspect was “for me at least experience doing the job itself, in a professional environment.”

The College View asked how it compared to a summer job. “It is significantly better on multiple accounts, because the hours are consistent so you can actually have a routine, the pay in also consistent, which is very helpful for financial independence and freedom,” Treacy said.

“There was no way I was getting a health insurance benefit from working in a cinema for the summer, or a bike to work scheme.” he said.

Volkswagen take on around 20 DCU students every year. He said he and his fellow student colleagues felt it was a total switch in lifestyle.

“Everybody else seems to acknowledge that it is a very challenging switch to go from complete freedom basically to regimented routine, early mornings as well.” he said.

The problem with some internships is that they are unpaid, or remunerated below minimum wage. Particularly in media internships there tends to be a lack of paid placement

“The options were limited depending on what you want to do, particularly in radio” said final year journalism student, Orla Dwyer. “Especially paid placements. It’s difficult for those who can’t afford to live on basically nothing for two month, while paying rent in Dublin.”

Students from DCU’s schools of science, computing, business and engineering are almost guaranteed paid placements. The nursing school,however, has come under criticism recently for not supporting students with regards to placements in terms of hours and pay.

Recently, student nurses and graduate nurses have begun to strike in their thousands for better rights and pay, and student nurses in particular have called for fairer placement options. . They are often unpaid and work shifts that are too long to sustain a part time job.

With the nurses movement and organisations such as Media Interns Alliance campaigning for fair, well paid internships, we have seen a shift in mood towards student work placement. One which is asking for a change. However, to many DCU students the experience they gain through INTRA placement is invaluable.

When asked whether placement, commuting, hard work, and swapping in his student lifestyle has been worth it, Cox said,“Yes , I think it is a worthwhile experience, purely because there’s no module that can compare to this.”

Róise McGagh

Image Credit: Chloe Rooney