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How upper middle class students are getting all the internships

If you want a graduate job in an investment bank, you really need to complete an internship. But you might find that a lot of upper middle class students have got there first.

New research from Ewan Wright and Benjamin Mulvey at the University of Hong Kong* illustrates how students from upper middle class families end up first achieving the best internships, and then the best graduate jobs.

The academics interviewed 100 third year undergraduates from families that were upper middle class, working class and middle class. Upper class students were defined as having at least one parent in a professional or managerial occupation, a family household pre-tax income above £100k ($139k), or having attended a private secondary school. Working class students were defined as having neither parent with a bachelor's degree, one parent in a manual occupation, having attended a state secondary school, and having a family pre-tax income of less than £24k. All students in between were defined as being 'mass middle class.'   

The study found that the more middle class you were, the greater your chance of securing an internship: 73% of upper-middle-class students, 40% of 'mass-middle-class' students, and just 28% of working class students said they'd completed internships since beginning their degrees - even though an internship wasn't required. 

Some found their internships through social connections. "My aunt had a party and said I should come along to do some networking. I was talking to this guy about polo because he also plays," said one upper middle class history student at a Russell Group University.  "I mentioned that I didn’t really have anything to do in the summer. He said, ‘Oh, come work for me’… When I went for the interview, he asked me, ‘What do you want to do?’ And I said, ‘Look, I’m going to be really honest. I have no idea what I want to do with my life.’ He said, ‘Just pick one. If you don’t enjoy it, we can change it.’ I said, ‘I don’t know, marketing, maybe that could be something.’ So, in the end, I worked with their marketing team." 

Others were encouraged to apply by clued-up parents. "I was pushed by my dad to get into internships. He said if you want to get into any sort of professional job, really, you need to have evidence that you didn’t spend your summer, you know, working at a pub and bumming around. You have to do something to stand out," said one upper middle class student.

Others found internships after networking with people who'd attended the same schools. "I figured I needed an internship of some sort, so I went to a careers event. That was in my first year, I think. I met a guy there from [X] who’d also studied at [X]. He gave me loads of tips about what they are looking for and how to apply for their programme," said one.

The upshot wasn't just that upper middle class students got one internship, but that they ended up with multiple internships, said the academics. - In a process they call  ‘opportunity stacking’, they saw upper middle class students use the initial internships they'd gained through priority access to networks to access increasingly prestigious internships thereafter. The most prestigious internships of all were considered to be in banking, consultancy and law.

As a result, while a minority of working class and merely middle class students achieved internships, 64% of upper middle class students in the study had done more than one.

Moreover, the upper middle class students understood - in a way that the others didn't seem to - that an internship while you're studying at a second class university could compensate for studying outside the Russell Group. "I’m from a uni, which, you know, isn’t at the top of the ranking, so getting that work experience is extra important," reflected one member of the student elite.

*'Internships and the graduate labour market: how upper-middle-class students ‘get ahead’'

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Photo by redcharlie on Unsplash

AUTHORSarah Butcher Global Editor
  • Je
    6 April 2021

    Parents want kids to follow in their footsteps? What a shocker!

  • an
    17 March 2021

    Life sucks unless you bust your ass get no sleep and set your children up for success.

  • Ka
    16 March 2021

    This is exactly what I've been seeing all the time. Coming from a working class family, it is so hard for me to get an internship. Either I can not "afford it" or I just don't have the leverage. I still believe my hard work and enthusiasm will provide good base for my future career.

  • gu
    14 March 2021

    Bottom line, would you prefer to trust your money to little Johnny from the council estate or someone whose family has been in the business for generations? Easy choice for me, sorry Johnny.

  • S
    14 March 2021

    People in the comments really seem to miss the point. These upper middle class children aren't succeeding because they do hard work, they are getting all these opportunities because their parents leverage them into every good opportunity without any work on their part.

    The article even quoted a person who said in interview that they had no idea what they wanted to do, and then they just got spoon fed and spoiled all the way to the marketing team. Imagine being that underprepared and inept and still landing a position. Hard work my ass; work two jobs your whole life to barely make it by without Daddy's money to bail you out until your bones give out on you and then come talk about hard work = success.

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