Friday, 13 April 2012

Work experience moans: are they ever justified?

The Devil Wears Prada: the most famous magazine kiss'n'tell

This afternoon I was recommended (and have been giggling at) this very amusing postmortem of a disappointing work experience placement at a women's weekly on The Vagenda. Everyone who's ever had a media work placement will recognise this - the ennui, the tears, the photocopying.
But amusing accounts aside, isn't it a bit much to bitch retrospectively about your work experience? I've had many a placement, ranging from 'tapping nails on desk waiting for another filing task' to 'sent to a film screening on my first night' on the workie Richter scale. I've moaned to my friends about bland days and snappy colleagues, for sure. But would I publish my dissatisfaction? I'm not sure.

I think people should debate about work experience - are we being taken for a ride? How much compensation, if any, is normal? Whose job is it to make sure you're busy/happy? But there is sort of an unwritten code in journalism that, publicly, we just get on with it, smile and say thank you, and stay quiet about any horrid employers. (I must point out at this juncture that I have blogged about internships, with some reference to my personal experience - but nothing like the roast this Vagenda writer has given her placement.)

The bottom line is, work experience is business. You go along, you put up with whatever they throw at you, grit your teeth when what they throw at you is returns forms and photocopying, and in exchange you get their publication's shiny, recognisable name on your CV. That name could be the thing that gets you your first paid job - especially if the person hiring has worked there and knows it's a nightmare. Sometimes just surviving is all the reference you need.

I think people that go along to work experience expecting a fun, tailor-made experience of the real job are kidding themselves. The publication is very much your choice - of course a women's weekly is going to be 'Kerry Katona's wardrobe' and real life stories. I wouldn't have booked myself in for two weeks at one. Many people go for smaller companies and niche publications, where the teams are inevitably more laid-back and give you lots to do - they could use the free help.

Also, gritting your teeth and getting on with it can be the making of you. My very worst weeks at magazines only made me tougher and appreciate the job I have now every day. Of course it's hard at the time, especially if that time is the Christmas holidays of your very tough journalism MA when you could have gone on a mini break. How so many privileged Tatler-esque girls survive as fashion interns, I'll never know - I found it tough at women's mags when my previous experience was Woolworths stock rooms and rowdy Cardiff pubs. If you feel you're destined for The Economist, don't sign up for three weeks at Heat. Of course you'll hate every One Direction-slathered minute. (If I learned anything on my magazine-specific postgrad course, it was that one person's OK! is another's New Statesman.)

Even though my fashion cupboard experience is limited to a few days here and there (I mainly worked with features teams, but volunteered the odd quiet day to do returns for the Red fashion team), it's actually quite a chilled experience. While everyone in the main office frantically chases PRs, conducts phone interviews and files copy way past deadline, the fashion cupboard is a little oasis of calm. You can have the radio on, chat to the other girls and make friends (an advantage the usually-solo features intern rarely enjoys) and bask in the coolly repetitive nature of the returns system.

I didn't have any loftier expectations when I did my postgraduate journalism placements than on my first rookie week as a 19 year old, and, true to form, the work I was given was less challenging than my previous 1-6 month internships. Of course it was. It's hard for a junior entrusted with a workie for a couple of weeks to delegate much responsibility.

I love a snarky post as much as the next girl, but I must defend magazine placements in this case. They provide a simple function; getting you your next placement or (hopefully) job. Take them for what they are or don't book yourself in at all. I know which option will get you further...

Image: Twentieth Century Fox

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