Work integrated learning: the dullest jewel of the academic crown

Finding a job is really a job in itself.

I’m writing this article after having groggily woken up from what was intended to be a quick, snappy 30-minute cat nap after getting home from my internship before walking my dog. The doze ended up being two hours and ended with me hazily going downstairs, pillow lines creased into my cheek only to discover my dad brooding over the stove attending to a pot of trout soup – yes, with whole peppercorns contained within.

Unfortunately, this article isn’t about Piscean foods or my ability to sleep for hilariously unmanaged amounts of time, but more to do with my experiences of interning; or in more academically-forward terminology, ‘work integrated learning.’ The WIL process has exhausted me, drained me, nay, plagued me, for the better part of six months; despite my placement being only around six weeks.

To provide some context, I’m a third-year political science student at the University of Melbourne and will be graduating soon. At the beginning of this year I identified that I had a loose bundle of skills picked up during the past two years of my Arts degree: reasoning skills, analytical skills, critical thinking skills (essentially everything I should have by now according to the University handbook).

I knew that I wanted to intern during the second semester to nicely tail-off my degree, so I planned my semester accordingly. Since the internship was two whole units worth of work, I planned one September intensive to undertake during the mid-semester break and booked in my compulsory capstone subject to undertake after hours like a true professional. Therefore, I would only be at uni for one subject. As Aleksandr the meerkat from Compare the Meerkat always says, “Simples!”

I also knew that I’d be overseas for all of July and would return two weeks into second semester, so I thought it wouldn’t hurt to start looking and applying to positions in around April or May. I polished up my curriculum vitae and began sending out applications to potential host organisations. This is where the fun began.

Most of my applications did not even warrant an acknowledgement of receipt or a small “thank you for your application, but we are currently not taking interns at this time.”

After semester finished and my July trip was coming near, I was still in the throes of sending out applications for internships. Most of my applications did not even warrant an acknowledgement of receipt or a small “thank you for your application, but we are currently not taking interns at this time.” Almost all of my custom-written cover letters and CV’s were got nowhere. The follow-up calls I tried to pursue were either left to ring out on the receiving end, or I was erroneously told that someone would call me back capable of handling my request.

I came to the sombre conclusion that the unattended email servers which are often the destinations of countless student internship applications are where they go to die. Perhaps all my applications were simply lost in the corporate hum drum of office life. While I was away I was sending out applications in my spare time – on planes, in hotel rooms, whenever I got a minute to myself. Alas, to no avail.

Each of these set back felt like a proverbial slap in the face by a soupy trout. Embittered and frustrated at the process I withdrew my enrolment from the internship subject at the university and picked up two other regular ones instead.

At the end of this saga I did however manage to secure a placement, a really cool one actually – involving policy work relating to the introduction of automated vehicles in Australia.

All the while unpaid, my internship turned out to be really interesting and challenging and validated my skills as an Arts student. I was encouraged to work at an exceptionally high standard at a very well respected boutique statutory body, but the extended process of applying and applying and applying for the better part of six months left me disheartened. Having only been offered my placement five weeks into the semester, a few days shy of the census date I had no choice but to undertake a 40 hour work week to fulfil the 200 hour quota of the internship subject.

With a strong CV and a competitive transcript repetitive rejection feels awful. The university was very helpful: they threw at us CV writing workshops, mock interview sessions, seminars on professional conduct and so many other incredible initiatives. But at the end of the day despite all the help I sought and the continual polishing of my professional profile, many organisations are simply unwilling or uninterested in hiring students.

“…many organisations are simply unwilling or uninterested in hiring students.”

I don’t intend on speaking on behalf of all students nor on behalf of industry, but I think something can be said in favour of universities going to extra lengths in informing and educating potential host organisations about the value of taking students onboard.

I understand industry’s reluctance of taking on students. Students come with other commitments and international students often eventually return to their country of origin after their studies.

But if universities can go to greater lengths in convincing host organisations of the benefits of WIL, insofar as WIL enhances, not compromises, an organisation’s mission, it’d make my job far easier when it comes to applying for placements. When applying for placements half my cover letter was written to convince the host of the value of taking on students.

Despite everything negative I’ve said about my internship journey I implore you to seek them out where they may exist.

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