Posted 25 October 2018

Tips on landing an internship and making the most of your studies

A few weeks back, as part of our co-curated day of talks at Westminster University, we sat down for a chat with students and the speakers from the day’s events: artist and print designer Kelly Anna, Moth studio animator Jen Zheng and art director Bruce Usher. Guided by questions from the students, the conversation quickly turned to the topic of internships and kick-starting your career, covering everything from how you reach out and email studios to what to put in a portfolio. Here, we share some of the experiences and advice imparted by our panel of creatives.

Things to know before applying

You can request a studio visit
Jen Zheng: “Studio visits can be a really good way to get in with a team. People even do it on their own, or ask for lunch if they’re confident.”

It’s never too soon to intern
Kelly Anna: “Get an internship now. While you’re at uni, you could ask to intern a few days a week, and some companies will be up for that.”

Bruce Usher: “Now’s the time [while studying] to get those experiences; and in terms of discovering what you like, the ‘no’ experiences are as good as ‘yes’ experiences.”

Cold emailing and CVs

Consider who you’re emailing
Bruce: “When you’re emailing smaller design studios, remember that most of the people who run these studios are small groups. There might not even be a project manager. You need to research these things, and make sure you know who you want to send the email to. However, if it’s a bigger company, the first person who reads the email probably won’t be the person that hires you, so it’s good to adjust the email accordingly.”

Don’t do a copy-paste job
Bruce: I get so many emails asking for internships, and I try to reply to every one, but it’s not great when someone’s copy-pasted my name into a generic email.”

Make it short, personable and flattering
Jen: “For a cold email to a studio, I would keep it to five lines. It’s good to use the first line to say why you like the studio. This just demonstrates that you understand and know that studio’s work, and that you’re not batch emailing, which is horrible. If you put a GIF in there that’s even better.”

Bruce: “It’s good to let them know which bits of their work you like, or if you can say that you saw them do a talk. Then you immediately have an understanding. I’ve had a bunch of emails where people talk about themselves for three paragraphs, which doesn’t come across as very professional.”

Get your CV and social channels in shape
Kelly: “If you [as an employer] are sent a really boring, badly designed CV, it feels like a bad sign. We also always check social platforms. That’s where I know what we’re getting, in terms of their work style, interests and process.”

Don’t send a huge file or downloads
Kelly: “Make something as easy as possible for the recipient to understand; add in or attach an image of your work to the email for example, rather than having something to download. Remember that people are busy and often check emails on their phones, so downloading something isn’t ideal. If the work’s good and you see it within the email, it makes you more likely to pay attention.”

People are busy: Don’t be scared to follow up
Jen: “At Moth [the animation studio where Jen works], part of the producer’s job is to answer those internship-request emails. So my advice would be, if you don’t hear back from a studio, send a follow-up email. Eventually you will get a response.”

Kelly: “When I receive CVs, it can be a really busy period. It’s rarely the case that I’ll look at your email or application saying, ‘What is this?’ It’s more a case of having a thousand other things to get through. These emails go into the CV folder to be answered later, so if I’m reminded to get back it’s not a bad thing.”

BAFTA-nominated film ‘Tough’, 2017, by Jen Zheng, who landed her job at Moth animation studio following an internship

Portfolios and showreels

Less is usually more
Jen: “If you include a showreel, keep it short and only put your best stuff in there. Edit a tight minute together, and if you have less than that, don’t pad it out to make it longer. What you show also depends on what you want to do. For example, do you want to do straight-up technical animation or do you want to direct? Then in terms of format, we prefer portfolio websites over Instagram or Tumblr pages – they just look more professional.”

Bruce: “I’ve had some people send portfolios where it’ll be great to start with, then they will include a not-so-good project, and some photos that they took on holiday (maybe because someone told them they need to show five projects)… But that’s not relevant; I’m not going to be hiring you to take pictures.”

Kelly: “Include work that you’re very proud of and want to do more of. Thinking about this is really important, and during your studies is a great time to experiment with that, too.”

Once you’re in

Being nice will get you far
Bruce: “I’m pretty sure the reason I got my first internship was just because they thought I was nice to have around.”

Kelly: “It is so important to be likeable. You need to be able to communicate, be reliable, willing and very present. There have been so many times where I’ve seen interns come in and think the world owes them something. They will whinge about the projects, but you’re supposed to be so excited. Obviously there’s a limit, don’t be crazy enthusiastic! But be nice. There are a lot of egos in the industry but a lot of the time people just want someone they can get on with.”

Work for Nike by Kelly Anna, who began interning while in her second year of studying fashion illustration

What if you don’t know what you want to do?

It’s good to not know sometimes
Kelly: “When I was at uni I had literally no idea what I’d do after I left. It’s rare to come out and know instantly, and it can take years. Some people are lucky, but the majority won’t know, and that’s fine. Allow that uncertainty and build new skills.”

Keep making work
Jen: “Just focus on your personal work if you’re not sure. Keep working on your own interests and getting closer to what you want to do. In terms of making money, I would also suggest taking on a side job before taking a full-time role in the industry that isn’t what you really want to do. Don’t underestimate how much work a full-time job is; it’ll sap a lot of energy and you might get stuck in it because you need the money.”

Things can take time
Kelly: “I’ve only just got to the point where I’m doing stuff I’m really proud of. I’ve been at points where I was like, ‘What am I doing?’ But I’m glad to have had [lots of different] experiences... What I learnt was all invaluable and it means that I now have more knowledge in certain areas.”

Work for British Journal of Photography’s identity by Bruce Usher, whose first internship turned into freelance work while still studying

Make the most of your studies in the meantime

Learn to take critique
Jen: “Learn to separate yourself from your work, specifically when taking critique. You are not your work. Don’t get defensive – people are just trying to help you. And off the back of that, critiques are not absolute, your tutors are not mind-readers, they don’t know what you’re talking about all the time. You know your own work best, so follow your own gut. Interpret critique from your own point of view, however don’t ignore it.”

Use all the facilities
Kelly: “Use your facilities. You won’t have them when you leave, and start interning now. I started from my second year as I knew that I’d have to pay full rent once I left uni.”

Have a goal
Bruce: “Have a goal. For some people it might be a studio they’d love to work for. It can change (that’s fine) but just have a mission, as it’ll help direct you towards something. If you do have studios in mind, think about making work in a similar style, and keep that in mind before you leave uni. Make it a priority, don’t just float through and expect something to happen. If you try to work out what you want to happen, it becomes easier to make it a reality.”

Mention Kelly Anna
Mention Jennifer Zheng
Mention Bruce Usher