After attending one of the many career and postgraduate expos that students tend to go to in their final year, I learned about internships overseas. So in my final year I booked one in Shanghai, China.
However after I finished my work experience (or internship, the words are interchangeable here) and moved on to further travel, I felt like I had jumped in without thinking everything through. I wondered whether interning overseas was, overall, a good decision.
So these some questions I think prospective interns should ask themselves before deciding to pay to do work experience overseas:
[I'm not naming the program I did. These are just questions that I have gathered from speaking with other interns and my experience which I wish I had thought about more. If you want more information about mine specifically, I'll happily respond more via email.]
Wait, isn’t interning just the same thing as volunteering?
Essentially yes. These internship programs offer English teaching, or working in a third-world country hospital. Other programs offer work for huge businesses, law firms and even magazines and radio stations. The latter programs would be marketed as internships - aimed mostly at university or high school graduates. For most of these programs that offer corporate work experience, you need to be completing (or have completed) a university/college degree, but some also take high school students.
Companies such as Projects Abroad (http://www.projects-abroad.com.au/), CRCC Asia (http://www.crccasia.com/), Go Abroad (http://www.goabroad.com/intern-abroad}, CIS Australia (http://www.cisaustralia.com.au/intern-abroad) provide work experience overseas. There are plenty more out there. Do your research on the company before potentially picking one. Look at which countries they go to, what companies they typically partner interns with and so on. All of this information should be found on their websites or by speaking to them directly.
Can I afford to do work experience overseas?
Work experience means you’re working for free for the experience the company provides you. This still applies wherever in the world you decide to do work experience. Look carefully at what your program fee covers. Does it cover accommodation? Food? Transport? Wifi!? Do they book and pay for your flights for you? Do you get language classes included in your program? Is this all this stuff listed above extra? What about insurance?
You need to really evaluate the costs of interning overseas. The companies are not paying you. You are not their employee. Also you are paying the organisation that’s setting up your internship for you with a company in the country to make that point clear.
Here is a cost breakdown of two companies who both offer a month internship in Shanghai, China.
Internship option 1: CRCC ASIA | One month China Internship Program
Price: $3245USD/1995GBP/3395AUD (shared apartment with other interns which provides changing towel and bed linen service)
Included in program fee: Accommodation, orientation, visa help, social and culture events (these usually entail dinners, classes and other social kinds of stuff like games), beginner Mandarin lessons,
NOT included: Food, transport, additional Mandarin lessons, insurance, flights, visa fee
Internship option 2: Projects Abroad | One month China Business Internship Program
Included in program fee: Food, Accommodation, beginner Chinese and cultural lesson, welcome pack including phone credit card, visa help, cultural activities, orientation, insurance
NOT included: Additional Mandarin lessons, flights, visa fee
If you get down to the nitty gritty, Projects Abroad includes a lot more than CRCC Asia. Through CRCC Asia, you’ll be staying in quite flashy apartments (judging by the photos on the website) with other interns on the program with you. The accommodation style is also shared for Projects Abroad. The added insurance that comes with your Projects Abroad fee, and the food budget are what is pushing the price of it up.
You should do this price comparison, after you have decided on a country/city, out the best option for you in the field you want to get work experience in. With Projects Abroad, you don't get to pick insurance, and your food budget provided by them is already determined, with CRCC Asia it looks like you'll have more control over your food and insurance.
Examine the exact details of what each organisation covers and work out exactly what you are going to get and what you’re going to pay for. It might work out that the more expensive program fee benefits you in the end.
[My internship program fee with covered shared accommodation with other interns (with no towels provided), insurance, and I was given back RMB2600 as a food/transport allowance. I then had to give money for a deposit in case of room breakages which I also got back. The RMB2600 covered me eating at local restaurants (not ones aimed at tourists = over RMB60 per meal) and occasional snacks at about RMB50 a day (which I found easy and delicious). It also covered four weeks on the Shanghai metro. However my room in my apartment didn't have heating for the first four days during Chinese winter (which would have been included in accommodation fee), and my safe deposit box didn't work for the whole time (also something included in accommodation fee). Overall the apartment was really simple but really nice and was within 10 minutes walking distance to two metro stations. The problems with the heating was fixed; the safe deposit box never was. As with everything, I just had to take what I could get.]
One important point about the fee and insurance: Pay close attention to the dates you start/end your placement. I left home on a Friday morning (which ended up actually being Friday night but that’s another story) and didn’t start my actual Monday - Friday internship until the Monday after I arrived. But my ‘program’ as such, already started from the Friday I left home even though I was just flying to Shanghai. This meant that my insurance cut out on the last Thursday of my four week placement, and I couldn't stay at the accommodation they provided me for the last day unless I paid extra. The company counted it as four weeks from the date my program began, not four weeks actually interning plus the days it took me to get there. I would have had to buy extra insurance, on top of the program, to cover the day I hadn't been covered for, but I had done this anyway as I planned to travel around afterwards.
Look carefully at what dates your program fee covers. Also remember that refunds are offered under their discretion. They don't normally give you the full amount you've paid back depending on when you change or cancelling your internship.
Could I organise the internship myself?
Interning with something like a news organisation/business/school? It definitely seems possible. Significant research will need to be done on top of all the other research you need to do. You will also need to be contacting several organisations months in advance. Being bilingual will help immensely here if the organisation doesn’t do business primarily in your native language. In saying that some placements, such as hospitals in rural communities, would probably prove a significant challenge to organise yourself.
But that only covers the job part. The next bit will be finding out where you’re going to sleep. Again in a remote village in Africa, this might prove too much of a challenge. But in big cities, options such as hostels could work if you negotiated. (Might even be cheaper if you did some cleaning for them after interning!). But you'll need to check whether you can stay in a hostel and still intern in regards to government requirements around volunteering/working.
Visas and insurance should already be an integral part of your travel plans. But do check with all the government requirements and the organisation you want to intern for about visas and whether you interning will count as ‘work’ or not. China, for example, is a bit harder to negotiate visa-wise. I needed invitation letters and such to get a visa which would allow me to do work experience even though I wasn't earning any money.
I found it a lot easier to have everything already organised for me in regards to which visa I required and finding a placement, but that meant I couldn't pick my placement and my apartment. Also as mentioned above, when things don't work out, you usually don't get your money back.
How helpful are the staff who organise your project?
One thing I was thankful for was the staff, all of whom could speak the local language. They helped me get a train ticket, a SIM card and picked me up from the airport. Although these were all things I could have done on my own, (with a few struggles over the language barrier), it was nice for them to help me out. They also took me around and showed me local restaurants, places to get wifi, supermarkets and where the metro was.
Although I could do this myself, having the knowledgeable local around to help you out is a nice feeling. But, although having the staff is great, it’s not something that can't be replaced in other ways.
How is the communication between you and the project staff?
Communication is definitely something which needed improving. With mine specifically, there was a person looking after you while you’re home preparing you to leave, a separate person who looks after the visas, then another who looks after the information you put on the website, and the staff actually in the country when you get there. Phew. No wonder stuff and information got mixed around.
There was confusion about the day I arrived even though I had provided this information months in advance. Also no information about where I was going to stay and my placement was provided was given until a month before I departed. I also had no idea what my food/transport allowance would be until I received it. I booked my own flights, but if I didn’t book them, and I let the company do it, I would have found out about them much later.
Another intern I was staying with had a huge problem paying for something with the program after she arrived in China. It meant her going back and forth between the head office in the UK and the staff in China. Communication was all over the place.
Just keep the fact that someone else is booking this whole experience for you in mind.
What are the placements like?
For me, it wasn’t completely different to what I was used to doing from previous work experience I did at home. I’m not sure what I expected to change... On the other hand, some of my fellow roommates, who were also on the program, said their internships were very different to what they were used to back home from university and working. However the culture in the organisation I worked for was very different.
A common theme among all of us was that it was a slow buildup from getting the small jobs to bigger more challenging tasks. This is typical of work experience everywhere as many places don't really throw you into the deep end on day one.
I really did enjoy myself though and I learned a lot. It was the combination of being in another country and doing editorial work which I love doing. Best of both worlds in my mind.
So... Are overseas internships worth it?
It depends what you really want to get out of the experience. Personally, I liked the idea of working overseas and I did really enjoy the work I did. Seeing that experience on my resume makes me feel proud that I accomplished living in a foreign city and working there, even if it was just for ‘the experience'. Something that might look promising to future employers at home and overseas.
Also everyone bangs on about networking. (It is very important.) Doing work experience overseas is a great place to start to help you in looking for work in your field overseas if that interests you. I've kept in contact with my supervisor in Shanghai and I would feel comfortable popping back into the office and grabbing lunch when I go back.
However if that feeling of wanting to be outside exploring the world will consistently bug you while you're looking at it from your placement's window? Might want to reconsider. It did get me down sometimes, but then I did plan travel afterwards so I had that to get excited about.
If the cost is a concern, there are ways you can keep your costs down while interning including buying cheaper food (if you are the one paying for it and it isn't provided), catching public transport (if you can) and spending less money on other necessities. Could you bring soap/shampoo with you if you’re just interning for the month? Do you really need that expensive lot of souvenirs? Is there a low period when you can leave and get cheaper flights? Could you walk to your placement and not bother with public transport at all? As with all travel, costs can always go down somewhere, but make sure the program is in your budget as refunds are normally not fully provided.
The best bit of advice I can give to any future global intern? Research everything about the projects, the companies you could intern for and the company that’s doing the organising for you. Consult volunteer forums, university groups and check reviews online. There’s no over-researching here. Try to speak to someone who might have done an internship overseas. (Like me!) Look at guidebooks and see how much it might cost to stay in the city you’re looking at. Look at the kinds of companies you might be partnered with. Do they interest you? Ask yourself whether you would actually enjoy working at a law firm in Malaysia, or at an accounting firm in London, or a HR company in Shanghai.
Make sure you ask yourself these questions before you say yes. You're paying for the experience so ensure that it makes you richer in what you're going to get out of it.
Have you done work experience overseas through a company such as this? If you have I would love to hear from you about how yours went, your expectations and more!
~ Olivia (WM)