The ideal filling- Expert advice on sandwich-year internships

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It’s getting to the time of year when the best and brightest start looking to the best and brightest to make them even better and brighter.
Thousands of PR, marketing, communications, media, and journalism students across the UK are finalising sandwich year placements for September 2017 onwards, hoping to bolster their chances of full time work upon graduation. Here at Smoking Gun PR we’re no strangers to working with academia, and helping the next generation of pros get the skill sets they need.
But how do tomorrow’s stars make the most of these priceless opportunities, what advice do tutors think is important to take on board, and what does the industry expect from candidates if they are going to make a truly awe-inspiring impression? We asked current and past interns, university lecturers, and business leaders to tell us exactly what they think, in the hope of offering guidance.
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Former sandwich year intern – Meabh Crehan

Meabh was taken on as a Smoking Gun PR intern in June 2015, with a view to finishing in September 2016, but was so good she remained with us on a part-time basis until graduation when she joins full time.

Why did you decide to take a year in industry?
During the second year my university was running workshops with employers, and to me it seemed like a no-brainer in terms of making you more employable. It was hard to get back into studying afterwards but definitely worth it.
 
How prepared were you going into the placement?
A lot of stuff I had been learning at university was relevant, but I don’t think you can expect to go into a job straight from university and it will be the same as studying. I’ve learnt so much as an intern as it’s so different to an educational situation.
 
For those about to go into a year in industry, what advice would you give?
Ask as many questions as possible, and don’t be afraid to speak up. If you have skills show them off and let people know- if something could be done slicker, then just say it- even full time staff are always learning new skills.
 

Current intern – Rhianna Tudor

Rhianna is Smoking Gun PR’s current sandwich year intern.
 
Why did you decide to take a year in industry?
We were told about the benefits in terms of making you more employable, and it just seemed silly not to do it- the opportunity to be more hands on with the job is really beneficial.
 
Was it difficult to settle into the expectations of a work situation, where speaking up can often be beneficial for your progress?
All agencies are different, but here things are so fast-paced there wasn’t much time to be worried about that. Within a few days I was running around with a headset on getting fully involved. Not getting involved isn’t an option really.
 
For those about to go into a placement, what would you advise the most?
I’d say really just make the most of every opportunity that is available to you. I’ve done  training sessions with the PRCA, which I would never have had the chance to do without a placement, and that has been really useful. Don’t let things pass you by as you should be trying to get everything you can out of the time.
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The academic – Carmel O’Toole

Carmel is course leader and senior lecturer in PR at Sheffield Hallam University
 
How important are placements for students in general? Would you ever advise students not to complete time in industry?
Getting work experience, including year-long work  placements, can give students a real boost to their employability. These days, sadly, getting a good degree result is not enough to give students that extra value for recruiters. Demonstrating real work experience shows potential employers what students have done outside the classroom.  
 
What should students take into consideration when it comes to maximising their experience whilst on placement?
Take the chance to try everything that comes your way. Don’t be frightened to take on news skills and try new challenges. You’ll probably make mistakes along the way but so long as you stick your hands up to doing so and learn from the experience, that’s fine. Above all talk to people, listen to advice, learn from your professional colleagues and shadow professionals whenever you get the chance.
In your experience, what are the most common learnings your students report back from their placements?
Sometimes the feedback is surprising. Talking to clients and personnel outside the organisation is certainly a new skills area and one which is very important. Client relations generally is undervalued and you can’t really provide that experience during the degree course apart from through guest experts and industry facing events.
Then writing for different formats and audiences is a good learning curve for them, and dealing with the unexpected. It is without exception, though, an experience which broadens student horizons and allows them to put into practice some theoretical concepts.
Very occasionally, a placement will prove not to be a good fit and breakdown. We do try to reconcile students and placements but sometimes this is not possible. Having the confidence to recognise the placement is not working out is not necessarily a bad thing, but we would always try to support students to resolve issues before withdrawing from placements.
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The business leader – Rick Guttridge

Rick is Smoking Gun PR’s MD, with more than 10 years in the industry behind him before setting up the UK’s most ingenious public relations and digital communications agency.
 
What do you look for when it comes to choosing which students you offer internships to?
Attitude, attitude attitude. We teach all the skills but if they aren’t open to being challenged, pushed and given responsibility they’re in the wrong place.  We desire motivated, self starters who can play a part in the team. I like to know what part time jobs students have had  – this gives me insight into their work ethic and commitment.
It takes time and effort from existing staff to manage an intern’s workload – taking them away from client work – so  we want bright, inquisitive people who we can help grow but also give a little back in return.
 
Can you give some examples of when students have exceeded expectations whilst on placements with you?
We’ve had interns have the seed of an idea which we’ve developed and pitched to clients before which we certainly weren’t expecting.
Those that continually as what else they can do to help and make suggestions can make themselves invaluable and we’ve rewarded several with short term contracts as a result ad even our very first employee back in 2010 started with us a an intern.  
 
What are the benefits to the agency of taking on placement students?
With the current ‘war on talent’ raging employers must utilise all means to help them find, recruit and retain the best talent.  
Gap years help us find bright young things who we look to employ post graduation but also helps us spread our reputation amongst other students and Universities to build our brand amongst other potential future employees or even clients.  

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