Getting the best out of your internship

A Working for an MP Guide
Internships
First Published 7 May 2010 w4mp
Last Updated 30 January 2012 w4mp
Last Reviewed 1 January 2014 w4mp
Unamended version copied from old Guide

This guide is primarily focused on interns in Westminster, purely because there are so many
of you, and because of the increased challenges posed by moving to London.
However, most of the guide should also be useful to interns in constituencies too.


  1. Introduction
  2. Getting an internship
  3. The Interview
  4. New to London?
  5. Starting Work
  6. Making the tea
  7. Making the most of your internship
  8. Getting to know you, getting to know all about you…
  9. Moving on

1.  Introduction

Internships have had a lot of flack recently; parliamentary internships in particular. But despite their problems, we keep doing them. It’s estimated that there are roughly 450 interns working in parliament at any one time; the majority of them for free.

So why do we keep coming? Well the fact of it is, internships can lead to jobs. It’s as simple as that – to get a job as a parliamentary researcher, nine times out of ten you will need an internship, preferably in parliament. Don’t get me started on the ethics of this, or on the restrictions posed by the lack of pay for interns but do have a look at these:

But for now, we have to work with what we’ve got. So here’s our guide to getting an internship, and making the most of it…

First, something which MAY make you smile…or perhaps not.  We borrowed this, with their permission, from the International Political Forum website:http://internationalpoliticalforum.com. Thanks to them and to the cartoonist, Sam Kirk.       Click on the image to enlarge > >

2.  Getting an internship

If you decide you want to do a parliamentary internship your first decision needs to be which party you want to work for. Unfortunately, most parties don’t take kindly to people moving from blue to red, red to yellow etc. So think carefully before you send out those first applications; you may be making a decision that will affect the rest of your political career.

It’s also wise to think carefully about which portfolios you would most like to work on and whether you can demonstrate any knowledge of the constituency. This will be more important when applying for a job than an internship, but having an internship that involves work on your preferred areas of policy will always be a bonus later.

Luckily, you’re already in the right place to find most internship adverts! Take a look at the w4mp job pages (www.w4mpjobs.org/).  It’s also worth applying speculatively if there are some MPs you’d particularly like to work for; unless they’re from a party you don’t support, your local MP is always a good start!

3.  The Interview

Getting an internship can be very competitive, and many now interview. If you are offered an interview, treat it like any normal job; just because it’s called an internship does not mean it’s ok to turn up in jeans, or without having done a bit of background research. You will be expected to be as professional and prepared as if you were applying for a permanent position, and it’s a good habit to get into for when you’re applying for jobs later.

Your interview may also involve a written test; most commonly writing a letter or preparing a briefing using supplied information. You shouldn’t be expected to have a great deal of prior knowledge of a specific policy issue to brief on, but it is important to make sure you’ve swotted up on your MP’s constituency and their portfolio if they have one.

4.  New to London?

For many people, starting a parliamentary internship means not only a new job, but moving to a new city. This doesn’t have to be daunting; London is one of the most exciting, diverse and vibrant cities in the world, so get ready to make the most of it!

First-off, you’ll need to find somewhere to stay. This W4MP guide: www.w4mp.org/html/library/guides/0511_flat.asp  has really useful links to lots of flatshare sites, which often prove to be the cheapest way to move, particularly if you don’t know many people in London. Plus, it’s a great way to make new friends!

Once you’re down in London, you’ll want to start exploring. The best resource for this has to be Timeout London. Here you’ll find a guide to what’s on in London each day, as well as guides to all of the museums, galleries and events.

As you’re interning, chances are money isn’t a resource you have coming out of your ears. Timeout kindly gives you the option to only search for free events, and you may also find some of these sites a help towards doing London on the cheap:

5.  Starting Work

Your first day will be largely shaped by whoever is your direct manager; in all probability the MP’s researcher. The amount of contact interns have with MPs varies hugely from office to office; you may find that you barely see them, or that you’re shadowing them everywhere.

Your manager will take care of the practical side of things, getting you your pass, outlining what work you’ll be doing etc. If they seem to be floundering, point them to: www.w4mp.org/html/library/2010booklet/managers.asp or check the index page. It’s written just for them but that doesn’t stop you having a peep.

One of the greatest skills that you can have as an intern is understanding how the office works, and slotting in as seamlessly as possible. Most offices have a new intern every three months or so, and it can be a big upheaval to have a new person to train so frequently. Do make sure that you ask questions if you’re not sure what you’re doing; it’s far better than to carry on and get things wrong, but it’s also important to learn to sense when your MP/researcher are rushed off their feet and keep out of their way. Sometimes it’s ok to have a good chat about what was on TV last night, but learning when this is not appropriate is one of the most important skills that an intern can have!

Do make sure that when you apply for your pass you also complete a form for the Staff Register (http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm/cmsecret/memi01.htm), on which you should disclose any bursary you receive or any other financial or material benefit over £329 if it relates or arises from your parliamentary work. At the same time, it is important that your Member makes an entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests within 28 days. [This paragraph added February 2012. Ed]

6.  Making the tea

This is a sore point for many interns. You didn’t go to university and get a good degree in history/politics/neuroscience in order to develop your tea and coffee-making skills. However, this may well form part of your role. Responsibility for making the tea should be shared around the office, but it’s worth noting that at some point between standing for election and making their way onto the Green Benches, many MPs seem to have lost the ability to boil a kettle. It may seem a bit frustrating, but actually making a good cuppa at the right moment can get you in your MP’s good books for a long time. They’re simple creatures; pick up a packet of hobnobs on your way to work one day and you’ll be fast on your way to becoming their favourite intern of all time.

 

7.  Making the most of your internship

Interning in Parliament is a brilliant experience. You are working in one of the most famous buildings in the world, alongside some of the most powerful people in Britain, and now you have a pass, you can wander around pretty much wherever you want!

Don’t waste this opportunity, you may never get to work somewhere so exciting again, so make sure you go along to every event you can, meet everyone possible, and throw yourself into the experience.

Yes, you are here to work, but particularly if you’re not being paid, it’s important to make sure that you have the opportunity to experience everything that Parliament has to offer. Most researchers are pretty understanding of this; in fact the majority will be pleased to see you showing so much enthusiasm and initiative!

Here are a few a things you should try to do whilst you’re here…

  1. Sit in the public gallery. – Ask your researcher whether it’s possible to get tickets for Prime Minister’s questions. If not, choose a debate that interests you, and ask if you can go and watch it in the gallery. If you go to Central Lobby fifteen minutes before the House sits at the start of the day you can watch the Speaker and Black Rod process through into the House of Commons. Nothing quite sums up the quirks of Parliament like a policeman shouting ‘hats off strangers!’ in central lobby. Find out what’s on here: www.parliament.uk.
  1. Go to a select committee meeting. – Select Committees (www.parliament.uk/what_s_on/hoc_news3.cfm) are an important part of parliamentary scrutiny, and it’s good to understand how they work. They also have some really interesting witnesses and offer a rare opportunity to see a Minister being grilled by a panel of MPs. If you can, try to go and see thLiaison Committees(www.parliament.uk/parliamentary_committees/liaison_committee.cfm) questioning of the Prime Minister – a rare chance to see the most powerful person in Britain put on the spot!
  1. Get booked onto an official tour. – Your researcher should do this for you, but if not, call x3003 to get yourself booked on. The history of the Palace is really fascinating, and it’s useful to learn a bit of background for when you want to show your mum round later!
  1. Shadow your MP as much as possible. – If your MP doesn’t mind, ask if you can go with them to various events. Many love the ego trip of having ‘staffers’ follow them around, so it shouldn’t be too much of a problem! TIP: Make sure you always look really smart. Even if you don’t think you’re going to see anyone all day, your MP is much more likely to take you along to a reception, television studio or important meeting at the last minute if you’re well turned out. And wherever you go, take a pen and paper. You never know when your MP might ask you to make a note of something, or remind them of someone’s name/number later on.

Remember, you are not just there to open the post. At the start of your internship make a list of the skills and experiences that you hope to gain and actively pursue them. There is no point working for free for months on end to end up with a CV no better than when you started. Some responsibility lies with your manager to make sure the internship is a valuable experience, but you have to take responsibility for yourself too.

Seek out opportunities to gain new skills, and if you find that all you’re doing is admin work, ask yourself whether you could be getting the same experience somewhere else and getting paid for it! No matter what the office staff may say, if you’re not being paid, you are under no obligation to stay. If it’s not working, talk to  your manager about what you’re unhappy with. And if you don’t get anywhere, you are perfectly within your rights to leave!

8.  Getting to know you, getting to know all about you…

Try to meet as many people as possible while you’re doing your internship. It’s important to get to know some of the other researchers and interns if at all possible. Not only will this make the experience a lot more fun, but it will be really useful in future. If you want a job as a researcher, it helps if people recognise your name when you apply. Researchers tend to have a fair amount of influence over who their MP employs to replace them, it will help you to be well known and liked among the party staff!

9.  Moving on

However great your internship is, and no matter how much fun you’re having with your new-found parliamentary pals, an internship is generally a means to an end.

Have a chat with the researcher you work with, and if possible the MP, about applying for jobs. They might know of positions coming up in the party, be happy to put in a good word for you, or offer to help you with your CV or cover letter. Internships should only be short, so make sure you’re thinking about what you want to do next from the start, so it doesn’t come as a shock when your internship suddenly ends!

Some internships have no suggested end-point; be wary of staying for more than 6 months. Three months is really all you need to learn the useful skills on offer from an internship, after six months you are effectively just doing a job for free/minimum wage, and there’s a risk that future employers will wonder why you aren’t in a permanent position yet!

Generally though, making the most of a parliamentary internship is not hard. It’s a fantastic experience, one that you will remember for the rest of your life, and that will really make your CV stand out from the crowd. Enjoy it!

Now read the guide for managers of interns  where there is some information on there about pay for interns – or the lack of it!


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