width=280Is it worth spending thousands of dollars on a graduate degree when most recruiters prefer real-world experience? David Williams investigates how internships are becoming a crucial part of a graduate's profile.

Internships are fast becoming an essential part of the university experience for ambitious undergraduates.

We recruit against competencies rather than skills, says Vanessa Gough, Graduate Manager for Industrial Trainees at IBM UK. It is the people who have done an internship who are able to come up with better evidence of possession of those competencies.

Hannah Slaney, Graduate Program Manager at the UK's mutually-owned financial and retail conglomerate The Co-operative Group says, People come up to me on careers fairs who ask what opportunities I have for people with graduate degrees. Unfortunately I can only point them to the graduate recruitment program, which is for anyone with a bachelors degree and above.

What is an internship?

An internship can be defined as a period of work experience which includes an educative element. The value of an internship lies in the fact that it gives us an opportunity to look at a potential full-time recruit quite early in their development, explains Jane Clark, Head of Campus Recruitment, Europe and Asia with Barclays Capital. It is really a ten-week interview in which we get to see them in a range of work environments.

Internship - what is in it for you?

The opportunity to be hired is the first advantage of the internship. If they come in and do a fantastic job, we will definitely maintain them, says Slaney.

However, even if you fail to secure an offer of employment, an internship still gives you transferable skills. Slaney says,An internship gives you the work experience, the industry knowledge and the political awareness you need to succeed in any organization.

Sean Lynskey is on the second year of a BSc. in Information Management and Business Studies at the University of Loughborough in the UK. He is currently on a year-long industrial trainee internship in the sales-operations department of IBM. My primary role is supporting an extension of the IBM sales team, he says. This involves tracking the pipeline and meeting with our business partners. I am also receiving education in tools such as MS Excel and in areas such as presentation skills and personal branding.

Making the right choice

A third advantage to doing an internship is that it allows you to experience for yourself the reality in the career you are interested in. An internship certainly gives you something valuable to put on your CV, adds Burns. But it is really useful for helping you discover whether you really want to be in the business.

Lynskey admits this was his absolute main focus in choosing an internship with IBM. In a year's time, I am going to have to choose my career path. The internship has taught me which areas I do and don't want to pursue.

Another advantage is that the selection process can often be less rigorous than their full-time recruitment program. If you have a particular career goal in mind, it may be that an internship can show that you might not necessarily benefit from going on the graduate program.

One difference between the internship and graduate programs is that the internship roles are very specialised, says Slaney. So, if someone had a very specific career aim, for example marketing, it might be better for us to offer him or her a junior management BAU (business as usual) role within the marketing team.

Companies - what's in it for them?

Employers see internships as primarily a form of cheap recruitment. We find that as we have a year's worth of being able to evaluate the intern against our competencies, our process for returning them as a graduate is therefore shorter and less expensive, confirms Gough. The other cost-saving is that interns bring with them the latest knowledge from universities, and at a fraction of the cost of hiring consultants or other experts.

Graduate degree versus internship

Internships appear to be the ultimate win-win for job-seekers and employers. But is an internship so beneficial that it cancels out all you gain from a graduate degree?

It may be a cliché, but we are looking for well-rounded graduates, reflects Clark. While any qualification you do is valuable, in order to be a well-rounded person you do need a balance of academic achievement and real-world experience, she says.

It's easy to see the benefits of an internship, cautions Burns. But remember, graduate school is absolutely essential if the career path you are looking towards says graduate degree preferred or required.

Want to apply for an internship?

If you wish to gain experience at a particular organization, speak with their HR department about opportunities. However, don't narrow down your search. TopInternships.com is a site dedicated to undergraduate and graduate internships. It's a free and easy way to search for internships from graduate recruiters in the UK, USA and Europe. From administration to finance, engineering to equity, you'll find a match. Topinternships.com is also the key point of information for internship and placement news, features and application advice.