Work experience in alternative sectors

Many students make a big mistake when they regard work experience as just about having things to add to your CV. Some of the most important things about work experience include meaningful insights, the development of skills and the networking capabilities that will help you with your career development. Work experience helps you to make final decisions about what you would like to do for the rest of your life, but also from a commercial perspective it allows you to understand how organisations operate.

This blog post is about encouraging you to be more open minded about work experience and exposing you to how work experience in alternative sectors could actually be very useful.

How can work experience in different industry’s help?

–          It can give you an insight into how potential clients and competitors operate. For example if you would like to pursue a career in media law, it could be a good idea to get some work experience with a media company to fully understand how they operate and what their needs are. Or if you would like to get into Information Technology, some retail experience may give you an insight into developing systems with regards to customer needs.

–          It can help you to stand out from the crowd by presenting you as someone who is flexible and who can adapt to any given situation. Work place flexibility is more and more becoming a quality that employers look for. Employers want to know that you can respond positively to change and take on new challenges, sometimes at short notice.

–          It is a great way of gaining exposure to different working environments and providing you with valuable experiences which you could utilise in your future career.

–          There are some skills that are fundamental in almost every career. For example, team work, communication skills, time management and confidence. As a result, getting work experience in sectors that you perhaps never thought about before, could be a good idea as you will still be given the opportunity to build on and develop these skills.

This kind of experience is important because it promotes a culture of different organisations learning from each other, sharing good ideas, practices and experiences. Even if you believe you have already identified the career path that you wish to take, do not be dismissive of trying out other things – it will give you knowledge and insight into alternative career areas as well as help you to either reaffirm or abandon your previous plans.




Reflections on an internship

This post originally featured on the Mastodon C blog and gives the thoughts of one QMUL Computer Science student on their time as an intern at this data start-up

‘Our latest superstar intern, Max, has just left us to go back to his last year of university at Queen Mary University of London.

He’s been working with us on server automation and on separating out our code base into better modules – heavy work, and with a steep learning curve, but important work for the company. Happily, he’s done a brilliant job. We asked him to write up some thoughts on how he found it, and what he did and didn’t like – and we thought you’d like to read them too:

From the start, I felt very included. Even as an intern I was never left out of anything and that was my first big impression of the team at MastodonC. I remember in my first week when everyone was moving to the meeting room for democake, I was saying that I have nothing to show. But Anna explained that didn’t matter, and I could just talk about what I had learned.

During my internship, I was given the opportunity to work on many different and interesting tasks. From initially learning the basics of Clojure and getting the chance to do some ClojureScript too, all the way to creating virtual machines to allow certain tasks to be run locally for testing. I learned a new way of thinking with Clojure which was different to all of my previous OO experience, and using virtual machines locally to run servers was completely new to me too. In the end I eventually managed to conquer setting up a virtual FTP server, which took me far too long!

A lot of my work over the summer involved writing tests for existing code. I had to check whether given inputs would match a schema. However, the team wanted to tests these in massive numbers, not just a couple of hard-coded tests. So I got to learn about generative testing using Clojure’s test.check library. Through this I got the chance to write my own small Clojure library. The team wanted to generate test data from existing schemas built from the Prismatic Schema library. After a lot of researching I couldn’t find anything that would do this well enough, so I had a go at creating my own. It is completely open source and can be found (and added to!) on GitHub. Doing this showed me how friendly and helpful the Clojure community is, when I had problems I could ask questions on specific Google Groups or the more general London Clojurians, as well as various IRC channels.

Now that it has finished, I definitely miss everyone at MastodonC and I would happily work there again if I get the chance to. Thank you so much for a fun, interesting and rewarding time!’

Graduating into Insurance

Yazmin photoWe recently had the pleasure of introducing Yazmin Lauren Doughty Gachette, the student ambassador from the fast-growing insurance company Catlin, to our students at Queen Mary. Afterwards, we spoke to Yazmin about how she is progressing from a politics degree at Queen Mary into insurance.

How did you get the job? Well, as a politics student I knew I didn’t have a lot of City experience, so I made sure I got an internship.  In the summer at the end of my second year I did more than one. Including a week at PwC as well as an internship at Catlin. I also had some work experience in a building society.  Out of all of these, I think the internship with Catlin made the biggest difference because over eight weeks I got to learn a lot about how the company works and how the insurance business works.

What did you do on the internship? The first week is an intensive course on the insurance market – lots of good lectures that explain how it all works.  The rest of the time I was working in the stream I’d applied for, Human Resources. During my time at Catlin, I worked on various projects that involved working with people from across the business, both within the UK and globally. I also had an on going project that involved me researching the company intranet and making proposals to the senior HR team about how it could be improved; many of the suggestions are now being considered for implementation. I also worked with my line manager to research, and then gain, Catlin its Living Wage Accreditation, which was extremely rewarding. Across the streams, the interns had various projects to deliver on varying scales. One finance intern had to conduct a video conference to senior managers across the globe and explain a section of the half-year financial report.

What difference did the internship make?  Well I think understanding the business was important.  Beyond this developing confidence around a professional environment was key.  Things you never learn on a course: how to organise a meeting, book rooms, send out invitations, making sure the room is ‘prepped’ and, of course, talking to senior people. I really got to understand the company as well – what is important to them and what makes them different.

What tips do you have for applicants? I think the main thing for any application is to be clear in your head why you want to apply for that role, company and field. They’ll know that you’ve probably applied to more than one internship/graduate programme, which could be for different roles and sectors. Usually, the first few questions for any assessment centre or telephone interview (sometimes both) are: Why Catlin? Why Insurance? Why Underwriting? You should be able to answer these concisely without rambling.

  • To really understand the company, follow news stories for both the sector and the company. Sector changes could include market conditions (without being too technical, but just very generally, e.g. the economy is not yet back to pre-2008 levels, or, with the recent airline crashes, 2014 has been a tough year for the aviation insurance industry – you just need an awareness). It could also include new legislation (once again not being too technical), that will affect how the company operates (could be recent EU legislation or changes to the budget)! You could subscribe to Insurance Day for general sector knowledge – not too sure on their price but I think there is a free trial.
  • Company wise, follow their charity events. Catlin is very big on their Catlin Seaview Survey project, which conducts scientific research about coral reefs. The company also support local schools in East London like St Paul’s Way Trust, so have an awareness of the work they do there. Follow key changes to the board – if the day before your telephone interview or assessment centre there is a major board change (for example), it would be good to be aware of this. Follow new offices opening. I found that a good way to do this is to type in the company into Google and then click ‘news’; that way you can get a range of sources which have reported on a range of issues to do with the company.
  • Many companies have ‘values’, so be sure you understand what they are and what they mean to the company. Have clear examples of how you have demonstrated these values – don’t make all your examples from university, try and have some from part-time work or friendship groups or volunteering for example. This is really how they judge if you will fit in to the company culture. After some of my assessment centres, I got feedback that though I displayed good qualities they felt I wouldn’t fit in with their culture. I think this is most likely to be as a result of my answers to the values questions.
  • With underwriting, you have to show that you are confident and approachable because you need to attract business (brokers) and build rapport easily. Different companies like to have this demonstrated in different ways. I know Catlin doesn’t like this to come across in an arrogant way.
  • Get a feel for the sector by researching other insurance companies – such as Hiscox, Aon, Beazley, Ascot, Liberty, Argo and Kiln – so you understand what makes Catlin different. Research LLoyd’s of London, too (the ‘marketplace’ in which all of the above syndicates underwrite business):

Yazmin, you have also had experience of lots of different assessment centres. What are your tips from these experiences?  It is true that I applied for lots of internships and went to lots of assessment centres – between seven and ten before I got accepted. This included lots in the finance sector … companies such as Schroders, PWC, HSBC, M & G Investments as well as Catlin.

I have to say at first my experience was really daunting.  The first one took place in a strange city to me, Birmingham, and I had to spend a night in a hotel which had a great view of where the assessment centre was going to be taking place the next day! That didn’t do my nerves any good.  The main thing about this first, pretty disastrous, experience was it demonstrated the need to prepare on company and sector knowledge. I knew about the company values, but I hadn’t got enough knowledge of the company – their share price, what was happening in their Shanghai office, for example, and I couldn’t place this news in a bigger context – at that time scandals like LiBOR were rocking the sector.

Another one went awry because I didn’t read instructions properly.  A written exercise was meant to read like a narrative report and I submitted a bullet-pointed briefing paper. I know others also made basic mistakes – one applicant told me she hadn’t thought to turn over the page to get the full instructions.

The M&G one was interesting – it worked better because I got through to the next round after my written exercise, I have to say I was surprised!  I had to pick a company and write about what a company is doing to adapt to the modern world. You were given time but no research facilities such as the internet.  I wrote a piece about Apple.  I didn’t think it was that good, but it got me through to the next round.

I got a lot better at assessment centres – SHL provide material for most of them so you can get a good idea how they go with practice.  The other tip I have is about the group exercises. I think it is pretty important to make sure you speak up fairly soon in the group exercise, but you don’t have to completely dominate the group.  What they are looking for is people who can interact well and listen as well as get their point across.  In one assessment centre we all had to make a case for a particular course of action.  It would not have gone well if I had got attached to my recommendation being chosen. It’s all about negotiation and working together.

Useful Links

The website for the summer internship programme is here: – the essential links to Insurance careers

Discover Risk The Chartered Insurance Institute site with jobs, news and case studies

Unpaid internships – why they’re not a good idea

I spend a lot of my time talking to students about how they can find work experience, and more often than not the issue of unpaid internships comes up. Now I know that in certain industries unpaid internships are practically the norm and I also know that when the pressure is on to find a job it can be tempting to accept any kind of work experience you can get, paid or unpaid. However, I would always advise students to think carefully before taking on an unpaid internship, and here’s why:

It’s illegal

The UK has laws on National Minimum Wage which means those who work should be paid a certain wage at a minimum. The exceptions to this are if you are doing volunteer work or a work placement as part of your course. Now sometimes the lines between what is voluntary work experience and what is an official internship can be blurred, but I find the best way to think about it is this: if you were not there doing a certain job would the organisation have to pay for someone else to do it? For example, I had a friend who was doing an ‘internship’ with a fashion house and a large part of her role was taking clothing samples to different offices around London for photo shoots. If she had not being doing this (for free) the company would have had to pay a courier – so why were they not paying my friend?

You deserve better

Although as a student or recent graduate you may feel that you don’t have much to offer an employer, you still have skills and abilities that make you valuable, and you deserve for that to be recognised. If a company is profiting from your work then why should you not benefit in the form of proper pay? And if you really do feel that you don’t deserve to be paid, then why not volunteer for a charity instead, where your work will at least contribute to a good cause.

It’s unfair

Unpaid internships require you to have another source of income in order to pay your living costs while you work (usually help from parents or a partner), so if you don’t have this same support you are put at a disadvantage to those who do. And if the only way to get a certain job is to do an unpaid internship that means a whole section of society becomes locked out of certain careers. The more students who do unpaid internships, the more the practice will continue. But if all students decided to boycott unpaid internships companies would have to start paying. Student solidarity is what’s needed!

It may not be worth it

If a company cannot be bothered to pay its interns properly, how likely is it that they will put in the effort to make sure your internship is a valuable learning experience? How much mentoring will you receive? Will you be treated as an important member of a team or as a courier or tea boy/girl? Will they write you a proper reference? (Not so for this poor intern).

Over to you!

What do you think? Are unpaid internships a bad idea? What is your experience of internships, paid or otherwise?

Internships for First Year Students

Lately I’ve been getting a lot of questions from new students all about finding an internship. Now, it is generally more common for large organisations to seek interns who are in their second year of study. That being said, that doesn’t mean that you can’t find an internship for your first year – just that it might take you a bit of hunting around to do so. To help you out, we’ve put together this handy list of some companies we know do accept first year applicants.

Spring Insight Weeks

You’ll also see on this list a number of ‘insight weeks’. Generally, these are shorter than full internships, and they involve spending a week or two, usually over the Easter break, finding out about what it is like working for a certain company or in a certain industry. Often, doing an insight week in your first year will then help you when you apply to do an internship in your second year, so take the time to have a look at what opportunities are out there.

Other Work Experience

Students often focus on internships because this is what you have heard about and you know they are important to getting a job after uni. However, internships are not the only way to get work experience. Any opportunity to work with employers, to gain an understanding of a certain industry or organisation and to improve your skills, will be of value to you. Volunteering, for example, is a great way of getting experience if you are interested in working in a charity, an NGO or any job in the third sector. Getting a part-time job in a theatre will help you to network and increase your chances of hearing about permanent graduate positions. Tutoring and working with youth groups will boost your personal statement if you want to apply for teaching. QProjects, for example, has some fantastic, unique work experience opportunities that all students should take a look at.

The point is, have a think what type of job you will want after university, then research what skills and experiences employers are asking for, and then find the best way to get these skills and experiences – be that with an internship or through another way.

Getting Work Experience in Your First Year

Even before you start at uni, you will have probably read the news headlines about the importance of work experience in getting a graduate job. Once you start your first year at Queen Mary, this will no doubt be repeated, with (true) statements such as that big companies employ mainly graduates who have already done an internship or placement with them during their undergraduate degree. As someone keen to get a head start in the job race you immediately start looking for that internship. Only to find that they are only available to 2nd year students! So what do you do at your first year? Just wait for the 2nd year to do something besides attend lectures right? Wrong.

We recommend getting at least 100 hours (two and a half weeks if full time) of extra-curricular/work experience in your first year. One of the main reasons is that competition for those internships in the second year is likely to be fierce, and you will have an edge if you have done something besides working towards a 2:1 or a 1st in your first year. But more generally, your first year is the ideal time to start exploring professional options and work environments, which might give you different ideas of what kind of work experience you want to do in your second year. Finally the skills most valued by any employer, such as communication skills, customer service and initiative can be developed in a variety of ways, without needing that specialised internship.

So here are some of the ways you can get experience in your first year:

Insight weeks – the closest to internships but for first years, these are hosted by big organisations, usually in the Easter but sometimes in the Summer/September. A list can be found here: but other organisations are adding to this all the time, such as Teach First or the Civil Service.

QProjects – several different opportunities to contribute to a local charity or social enterprise project. These volunteering projects, usually half a day a week for three months, are exclusive to Queen Mary students and last year won a Guardian employability award. They can be found here: – search under keyword QProject.

Part-time work – being a shop assistant on Saturdays, or a bartender in the evenings, are great ways to develop professional experience in your first year, plus earn some money. Don’t forget, verbal communication and customer service skills are in high demand by all employers.

Tutoring – you have proved your academic credentials by getting into a top university, now pass on your knowledge to others – it shouldn’t be hard to find a tutoring agency in your area.

Student Societies – if you are active in your society, and take responsibility for achieving something in your first year, this will look impressive in your CV, and give you the opportunity to progress to a top position of responsibility by the time you graduate – a sure way to impress any employer.

Class Rep – representing your classmates’ issues to academic staff is a great way to develop negotiation and communication skills.

Start your own business or social enterprise – have an idea for a service, product or way to help the community? Several Queen Mary students started developing their idea in their first year, and got some money to try it out – find out more here:

Volunteer – work experience doesn’t have to be paid to be valued by employers. There are lots of ways to find volunteering opportunities, but probably the best place to start is with the Student Union –

Register for relevant career events – for example, Experience Works on the 2nd October will have loads of opportunities –

Speculative applications – a lot of companies, specially the smaller ones, might be able to give you some work experience or shadowing opportunities but will not have them formally advertised. Find a start-up or local company that could give you some useful experience and write to them asking for it!

And don’t forget, for all of this, book an appointment at Careers first for us to help you with your applications. See you soon!

Maya Mendiratta

Careers Consultant, QMUL Careers & Enterprise Centre



There’s something about September…

Maybe it’s a hangover from the days of the old schoolyard?  Somehow September holds potential, possibilities, prospects, promise. Of course nowadays it’s less about a brand new blazer and spiffy, scuff-free shoes, more about toning up the tablet, igniting the iPad, and firing up the phone.  But the feelgood factor persists – so capitalise on it now or it may turn sour as the year grows old.

Because why? 

#1. September is a good time to kick start a CV.  It’s that time of year: campus jobs on offer, voluntary opportunities in view, roles and responsibilities up for grabs.  gives you a lucid lowdown on what’s out there.  Aimed at newbies, but scoff not, you older hands.  You could learn (and earn) a lot just by watching this.

But there’s more

#2.  Early autumn is the time when recruiters come out to play on campus as the application season swings into gear.  Yep, nearly a year ahead of time, you need to give more than a shy and tentative nod to the future.

For instance? Freshers will might muse on spring insight weeks, penultimate years could research summer internships and soon-to-be graduates should step up to the plate marked “Jobs and post grad study”.  Here in Careers, we have events and advice galore. We also have wall to wall students jostling for a place.  Book now to avoid disappointment.

What’s not to like?

Absolutely nothing.  But just one potential fly in the ointment.  In the back ground lurks that lary old lag, Procrastination, thief of time, lulling you into thinking that tomorrow never comes. Hello?

Reality check ahoy

Wait till winter?  You’ll be up to your eyes in assignments.  Suspend till spring? The revision will be knee deep.  Come next June, which seems delightfully far off, the boat has sailed, the bird has flown, the river’s dry, the cupboard’s bare.  Do I exaggerate?  Maybe.  Just a little.  But internships, if not defunct, are definitely thin on the ground then, and graduate gigs even harder to find.  It can take 6 months (and counting) to find a job – which means that if you leave it till midsummer, we may be into 2016 before you are gainfully employed.  Spooky eh?

Remember September. Or regret in December.

Gill Sharp

Careers Consultant, Careers & Enterprise Centre