Whenever internships are mentioned these days, a tornado is not far behind to whip up strong emotions.  The sound of values being trampled becomes deafening.  Critics can become like scolding parents, leading to childlike and sometimes abusive responses from others – at which point the listening stops.

For unhealthy conflict to become healthy contention, it can help to remove personal agendas and focus on facts.   This blog takes an objective look at the differences between internships in the UK and how they differ from work placements, work shadowing, a paid job while studying and volunteering.

Paid Internship 

  • Where you work to gain relevant professional experience and understanding of a profession before embarking on a career or deciding if it’s a career for you.
  • Internships are not work tasters or work shadowing where people do not perform work for the organisation, but simply observe a profession for a brief period to learn about the practical aspects of a possible career.
  • It differs from a paid job while studying, i.e. part-time, full-time or vacation work unrelated to the pursuit of a professional career.
  • At its best, an internship is a two-way learning experience where you and the employer benefit from each other’s contributions.  We learn best by doing.  You contribute by doing tasks of value to the employer and in the service of your learning objectives.  They can, and often do, lead to permanent paid employment.
  • Employers evaluate you ‘on the job’ for a set period of time or for a specific project and are also able to access new skills and talent in a cost-effective way. It can help them identify the best candidates for vacancies within their organisation.
  • An internship tends to last at least 6 weeks to be meaningful and can be up to 12 months (3 months is typical).
  • The most successful and transformational internships involve a genuine mentor-mentee relationship.  Here are 11 tips for being a brilliant mentee and 10 business benefits of mentoring for an employer.
  • If you a “worker”, as defined in UK law, you must get paid the National Minimum Wage (or more if the employer chooses). The NMW Act 1998 defines a worker as “an individual who has entered into or works under a contract of employment.”  A contract will state hours of work and responsibilities for work you will do in the name of that employer.

Unpaid Internship

  • The Trade Unions Congress through its Rights for Interns campaign and opinion-formers like GraduateFog both say that ‘unpaid’ internships are illegal.  They argue that the taxman (HMRC) is not taking its responsibility to enforce the NMW.  Some commentators argue that some students are colluding with unscrupulous employers by taking up ‘unpaid’ internships either out of desperation for work experience or because they can afford it, contributing to the social mobility divide.
  • You are entitled by law to be paid for your internship if you have a contract of employment.  Without one, students take a risk with their legal rights to fair treatment and employers take a risk they won’t be sued either by a student (for pay), a customer (for something done by the student in the name of the employer) or prosecuted by the taxman (for breaking the law).
  • Government has remained equivocal on the issue, prioritising the under 18s with its policies rather than higher education students.  In practice, some employers have exploited the inertia on this issue and treated students as cheap labour to fill the gaps left by redundancies or paying lip service to genuine two-way learning, resulting in students becoming serial unpaid interns, experiencing ineffectual or simply unpleasant treatment.
  • Having said that, many a successful experience of the workplace has been gained from a quid pro quo (a mutual agreement between two parties in which each party provides a good or service in return for a good or service).  Until the Government and employers get their act together on this issue, the choice is yours.  This blog aims to help you go in with your eyes wide open.
  • If you can’t afford to live without being paid, feel you are being exploited in what is being asked of you or simply disagree in principle, then pull out of it or pursue your rights or simply don’t do an unpaid internship.  Deal with what is in your control, think about your motivations and be true to your values in making that decision.
  • If you decide to take an ‘unpaid’ internship for whatever reason, keep it to 4-6 weeks maximum, otherwise you may find it unaffordable.
  • Unpaid internships are very common abroad, such as in the US and Canada where no NMW exists.  If you decide to take one abroad, they work best when the value of the experience is your highest priority, there is a genuine, mutually beneficial relationship with the employer and you can afford to do so, financially.
  • Check out this advice on what you really ought to expect from a responsible employer before, during and after an internship, and what helps you to be a successful intern here and abroad.

Work Placement

  • A compulsory component to a further or higher education course, which has been contractually agreed between the employer, student, and college or university.
  • You work on study-relevant projects or support the general work of the employer for your professional development. There are no expectations of a job with the employer at the end of it.
  • Individual students undertaking work placements of up to one year as part of a higher education course of study are not eligible for the National Minimum Wage.
  • You share your expectations jointly with the employer.  Elements of skill progression are built in. The employer acts as a mentor, provides review and liaises with your placement tutor.  Placements are 4-6 weeks typically (other than a sandwich year).


  • You give your time and skills to work for free with an organisation, group or cause.
  • A volunteer is not eligible for the National Minimum Wage where you are under no obligation to perform work or carry out instructions: you have no contract or formal arrangement and so can come and go as you please; you have no expectation of and do not receive any reward for the work you do.

The challenge of graduate employability has been well documented as demand outstrips supply.  Employers want to hire people with some degree of work experience.  The variations above all provide options depending on your personal circumstances, values, preferences and your attitude towards them.

What has worked for you?  Which of these types of work experience would help you right now?