Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Internships: heaven or hell?

At the weekend The Guardian brought this issue to my attention, and it's quite nice to see a range of opinions on it in the piece itself and the fervent web comments below. For a long time the topic depressed me because I was living it; for the eighteen months following my degree, I flitted between internships and unpaid work experience placements, drifting around London on the airy high that comes from being (albeit superficially) in the industry you desperately want to work in. To the credit of the UK's major publishing companies, I was rarely out of ‘work’ – it just so happened that the work was challenging, unpaid and with no guarantee of progesssion.

Being an intern is a giddy sensation at first. You’re in the big city, in my case in the chic West London HQs of the glossy magazines you’ve been reading for years, everyone’s very glam and you’re walking past Stella McCartney, Selfridges, McQueen and admiring the displays before work (while worrying about forking out for that essential H&M purchase in your lunch hour). You don’t even think about the money to start with, you just feel lucky to be there. Then a few months go by, you learn some skills and gain confidence, you feel qualified to comment on things and contribute ideas and you start to feel the hours and the poverty kicking your ass a bit. I have always been very fortunate to work at places that are reasonably grateful to have interns, that pay expenses (bar one or two publications) and crucially, that give you exciting things to do.

Working at top magazines, you do see that the fashion interns have it harder. There are more of them, usually 6-8 girls - all tall, slim and stylish with a hungry look of ambition in their eyes (that might actually just be hunger). They get the everyday mundaneities of sending out and calling in merchandise, keeping records and tidying the fashion cupboard – but once in a while there’ll be a chance to go to an incredible shoot, personally assist a fashion Ed or contribute to the style pages, and thus competition is fierce. And all while looking chic and on trend with hardly any bank balance to work with. It’s a bit like an episode of America’s Next Top Model, but without the big mansion and the raw sexual magnetism of Nigel Barker. So I do appreciate that fashion interning can be a thankless task. If I hadn’t had the fairly frequent boost of seeing my words in print, I don’t know if I would have hung in there as long as I did.

Features is different; I think you learn a lot quite quickly because you’re constantly having ideas knocked back, writing picked apart and being sent on wild goose chases in your research – you have to get tough and work harder. I think if I hadn’t had those eighteen months I wouldn’t be as resilient and as sure as I am that it’s still worth it. Going straight into a salary would put more pressure on you – Am I earning this? What if I don’t know what I’m doing? What if this isn’t right for me and I need to get out? – with an internship, you are allowed to get things wrong, try again, and leave with zero guilt if it’s not for you. You also learn useful things for your career decisions, such as there are no straight men (I've maybe met three in total in the magazine world), some women are just allowed to act like Mariah on a daily basis, and there are a lot of fun freebies and invitations to keep you going on even the bleakest day. People forget to mention that internships can be fun - and if they're not fun at all, maybe you're in the wrong work environment.

But I do agree that you shouldn’t have to do it forever. Unfortunately all my enthusiasm went into my first few months of whirlwind unpaid work experience, and by the time I was a paid features intern at Elle, I was feeling the grind a bit. It was still the best work experience I’ve ever had, responsibility and opportunities-wise, but being the young not-quite-staff-member amongst all the regulars was hard. So this is where the sheer length of interning time at the moment is a drawback – there is the potential to become jaded before you’ve even found your first job. In the media no-one seems to have moved up since I started doing work experience back in 2007. The people I met as juniors and assistants back then are for the most part still in those roles, and as no one is getting pay rises or promotions, and people are fearful of leaving because of the recession, there is no natural movement up the ladder. I’m staying focused in the hope that this will change. What is true in the Guardian piece comments is that there is an elite club of media hopefuls being bankrolled by their parents, who can of course afford to be in London on zero pay, mingling with the hot new faces in the hot new clubs, and drifting home to a comfortably central flat paid for by Daddy. Lucky them - but surely this doesn't make for an ideal range of young writers and trendsetters? As suggested by Caitlin Moran recently, we don't want to end up with a media industry filled with braying Hatties, Fenellas and Sheherazades - so there have to be opportunities for the less-than-minted state school brains to come through. Internships are a way of doing that, and if you're savvy enough you can do one, work for a bit and save, do another, and so on. It may take longer but it will feel much sweeter when you do break through the wall of blonde hair and jodhpurs.

What many people point out in their comments on the Guardian article is that many artistic and creative industries are frivolous, expensive and not essential to our economy. Why shouldn’t it be a little harder than getting into them? In my bohemian-wannabe generation everyone seems to want to be an actor or an artist, but equally want the money and the lifestyle they are used to – as such people end up pursuing their dream for a few years after studying, then slipping into a more corporate role as they realise bills must be paid and actors are often little more than auditioning waiters. Industry placements help you weigh up what’s worth sacrificing and what’s not – a bad experience can turn into something wonderful for your career perspective. But this doesn’t mean I want to hit 26 or 27 and still have gotten no further than being a student and an intern. Especially without having had gap years or long periods of unemployment. That would be taking the biscuit, and I wouldn’t hesitate to find a more attainable role. I do think fashion and art should be harder to get into than being a nurse or a teacher, as they’re often better paid (and with a lot more perks) at the top than those socially vital roles.

In relation to this article, I must contradict commenter TaylorHarrison when they suggest that Guardian News & Media themselves are just as bad as the cutthroat high-fashion industry. I have only had two weeks in their delightful Kings Place building (at the lovely Observer Culture section), but I found them to be flexible with my hours, a suitably buzzy and creative environment and somewhere that kept me very occupied, including getting a couple of bylines. That may not sound like a lot, but for two weeks - which is really the maximum you should do completely unpaid – it actually did more for me than many of my month-long placements. From lunch and walks round the canal with the team, to the fact that when people google me now the Observer pages will come up, it was beneficial and exactly what it said on the tin – an experience of the job. The bad thing with being so ethically organised is that they won’t have people back after the appropriately short unpaid placements, for fear of exploiting them, when I would dearly love to be exploited by the Observer for a more sustained period. So magazines have it right in terms of lengthier intern opportunities – special mention must go to Elle here, who regularly employ multiple interns on a modest but significant salary, as well as being generous with exciting opportunities, invitations and assignments. Others could do better, but everyone’s just watching their costs at the moment, and that can’t be helped. It can’t be any nicer to work for 20 years in the industry, get to the top and have your pay and budget frozen for the same economic reasons.

There is a real camaraderie in an industry where pretty much everyone has been an unpaid lackie, and thus know what they’re looking for in a newbie but want to help them grow as a writer, designer or stylist. Internships can be bliss and they can be hell, but I think you can lose sight of their value if you constantly think about the money or the time. There is no better time to be out of pocket and rich in life experiences than your early twenties, so try and make the best of it.



  1. Not that I have experience in the fashion/journalism industry, but I am quickly learning the torn feeling of being an intern. Luckily (or not), where I am I have been given massive responsibility with an assurance that whatever I produce will be of benefit to the organisation as it is run purely by volunteers. This also means though that I am completely unpaid. I'd love to continue doing this whilst studying for my Masters but sometimes reality hits and I wonder how sustainable that combination will be. I often have to remind myself that I am very lucky to be doing this, but talking to my fellow interns who are both 27 and still working for free does make me doubt whether the career I want will actually be attainable. (And don't get me started on the "how long can I really do this if I want a family" conundrum... something my mum constantly reminds me of!) It is very difficult sometimes to decide whether this catch-22 situation is worth getting into, but so far for me, in terms of experience, my daily travelcard fare is just about worth it.

    P.S Miss Write - I love reading your posts, always adding a little something interesting to the week, but this is the first one I feel I can actually add anything of value to! x

  2. Thank you Amy, a very thoughtful comment.

    I think it probably is worth it for a few years, but don't forget that it's not just a case of doing it until your mid-twenties, deciding you need more stability and then giving it up for something less ambitious. The experience will give you transferable skills that will put you ahead in that industry as well - it's no bad thing to choose a more attractive work/life balance later on.

    Financially speaking, also remember that you can do seemingly irrelevant but well-paid temp work in between useful placements - it seems like a waste of time but employers do appreciate you need money to live on, and showing you can do the normal 9-5 grind is also very telling as a character reference.

    I think essentially you'd kick yourself if you didn't try to go for your number 1 career (I would, anyway) and you've just got to hope that someone will recognise your brains and tenacity - both are equally important in competitive job markets - and give you that break.

    Good luck!

  3. Nice article. I guess it's all about getting the balance right, will the internship increase your chances of getting the job/starting level that you want. If it will, then, as you say, work on the side/before/after/in between the internship so you can pay for it.

    I've got a 3 month internship coming up (UNPAID), in the Hague, the Netherlands (comparable to London prices) so I have to find paid employment for about 3 months when I get back to the UK to cover the cost. But, weighing it up I know I need to take the internship.

    It's always a good idea to do the Euro millions each week too!

  4. Totally right, I just wish there was a little more positivity about internships, especially in the humanitarian/not for profit sector which is where I am now. I know that I'm doing the right thing, but it's that weary look you get from everyone when you say you're doing an internship that gets a bit demoralizing! At the tender age of 22 I've also recently become an Avon rep to earn some pennies...

    I've heard that an internship is absolutely the only way to get into this sort of work so it's the right decision, just the endless stories of people working 60hr weeks for years just to get a reception job sometimes make me doubt it all. But you're right, I should probably just hope it'll be me that gets noticed :)