The value of interning

Nicholas Williams

Nicholas Williams is a graduate business analyst at Optus. We initially met Nicholas at a UTS mentorship event, and was drawn to how he kick-started his career – from dropping out of university, then re-enrolling a few years later, to hustling a few unpaid jobs in between and now doing very well as a business analyst at Optus. We welcome Nicholas as he shares his personal experience and insights into the value of internships.

I started my professional journey a little later than some of my peers, after dropping out of university after my first year out of high school I worked several casual jobs for a few years until I finally returned to university as a mature age student at 21.  I do not regret this decision at all, as I gained valuable experience and perspective that shaped the direction of my studies and enhanced my focus on my goals. 

What I have learnt in the past 5 years? From starting my undergraduate studies and eventually graduating into a corporate graduate program, is that experience is everything.  Knowledge and theory are great, but the true value is applying it in context to achieve real world outcomes, and that’s where experience is unique from any learning environment.  For those of you who are currently studying and thinking “I don’t have any experience” or “how do I get experience?”, there is a simple solution to that problem; interning and volunteering.

During the past 5 years I’ve had multiple opportunities, both paid and unpaid, to develop professional skills that have developed me into the young professional I am today.

I started in my first year of studies by volunteering in an accounts and finance team for a not-for-profit, working 1 day a week for 3 months (unpaid).  My role was assisting with their bank reconciliations and other administrative tasks.  Yes, it was boring, but valuable none-the-less, as it led me into my first paid corporate role as a cadet at a large accounting firm just a few months later.  Having touched on the basic accounting concepts and jargon during my volunteering, I had a better understanding of the job I was performing on my first day. Most importantly, it gave me something meaningful to talk about with my prospective employer.  

After 18 months in the cadetship role, I decided that an accounting career wasn’t for me and I went in pursuit of another opportunity.  I applied & was offered a place on the Jakarta overseas internship program offered by UTS careers, and was lucky enough to intern for 6 weeks at an online start-up in Jakarta Indonesia.  This was also an unpaid role, but taught me many valuable professional and life skills, as well as making strong connections with the other interns I shared the experience with.  Less than a year later, after completing my internship, I was offered a role in a corporate graduate program which is where I am today.

What are employers looking for? To all students and aspiring professionals out there, the reality is that your future boss ultimately doesn’t care about your University grades.  It’s a prerequisite to getting the job, but they don’t want to waste time talking about it.

If your future boss is smart (they most likely are) then they will want to know about you. What motivates you? What do you like to do in your own time? How do you react when faced with a challenge? … and so on.

That is where interning and volunteering shines brightest, because they reflect what you chose to do with your time and resources.  It’s in the choices that you make, that are not expected of you, that you demonstrate your character, motivation and skills. This is what differentiates you from the others, and it’s what any person (or employer) would rather discuss than your university grades.

So if you are in the situation I was in, inexperienced and lacking real-world skills.  The solution is simple; you need to get some experience.  Put a higher value on experiential learning than the opportunity cost of a paid job whilst you are young and have the time and motivation to learn.  Opportunities are everywhere, and they don’t necessarily need to be ‘advertised roles’.  

If you are willing to work unpaid, you can make your own opportunity.  Simply identify what skills and experience you would like to get, then set out to identify where you may find that opportunity to learn.  Then last but not least, you need to make it happen.  You need strength of will and resolve to put yourself out there, even if it ends in rejection, because ultimately the worst they can do is say no.  You have nothing to lose and everything to gain, and you only need 1 person to say yes to make forward progress on your goals.

Here is my advice to anyone looking get their foot in the door:

  1. Attitude trumps knowledge and skills in an internship. Be positive, roll up your sleeves and don’t be afraid to try things you have never done. 
  2. Speak with people in the organisation whenever possible.  Conversations are an opportunity to learn, so use them to your advantage and ask meaningful questions.
  3. Be yourself and tell the truth (as cliché as that sounds).  Rarely will you get a job for pretending to be someone you are not, and employers are smart, they will know if you are lying, so don’t.  If you don’t know something, just say so, you will not be expected to know everything.
  4. Not-for-profit’s are a great place to look for opportunities for unpaid work. They are always stretched for resources, and will almost always offer you some valuable work related to your field.  If you’re lucky you might even get a nice reference out of the experience too.

To find an internship or work while you study, then take a look at the jobs on the Ribit platform. Any kind of work you take on is a great way to build your knowledge and skills and can help increase your chances of finding full-time employment after you graduate.

Connect with Nicholas Williams​