Sweet Bitter Comedy: Internships

Well, it didn’t turn out that comic really, but in a recent article I wrote about Choosing the Right Internship for the We Are Can Journal I took the opportunity to have a cheeky dig at a certain anonymous employer of interns.

It felt very cathartic to finally say all of those things I meekly kept suppressed while I was doing my time as an intern. Despite all that I may have got from my internship I don’t feel guilty about letting rip a little as I feel quite passionately about the fact that keen young graduates should not be exploited as cheap labour.

Then again, I also believe that there are some brilliant companies offering brilliant opportunities for people to get involved in enriching projects. So bitterness aside, if you choose the right one, you really should go ahead and be exploited!

This image has nothing much to do with internships, other than that if you are an intern you will no longer be able to afford such luxuries.

Towards the end of my internship with an art gallery I found myself reduced to one daily perverse joy. My ten pound a day wage had one priceless benefit. I could shock street charity workers into shame and submission.

As a student I had always felt guilty; scurrying by with somebody else’s money in my pocket and refusing to offer any of it to cats, gorillas or starving children.  Now, I had the perfect chugger-repellent and it put a little spring in my step.

In an over-saturated industry internships are still likely to be a reality for those wishing to pursue a career as an arts professional. But it’s very easy to end up resenting an internship, (shaming charity workers was just one sign that I was beginning to feel exploited) and that’s why it’s important to make sure you choose the right option.

Over the past few years there has been a lot of debate about the law regarding internships and pay, but although ministers have urged employers to follow minimum wage laws there are too many people willing to work for free in a climate of cutbacks and recession.

An internship shouldn’t just be about doing your time in unpaid labour or putting an impressive name on a CV, there is more than one way to judge its value.

Big institutions like the Courtauld and Southbank Centre have led the way in offering internships with an hourly rate of pay. This reveals an awful lot about their integrity as employers and the respect they have for their interns. The truth is that many small companies won’t be able to afford more than a travel allowance, and that doesn’t mean they aren’t worth your time.  In an unpaid internship you should see yourself as being in a unique position to negotiate your role based on your own interests and ambitions.  After all you did give up your soul/ a perfectly reasonably paid bar job/ [insert other sacrifice here] to be there.  Don’t forget to snap up all of the freebies you can, your employer should also feel a little lucky to have found you.

A really good internship will be a healthy mix of three things: an opportunity to learn something entirely new and gain an insight into the industry; recognition from your employer that there is something you can independently bring to the role; and a readiness to help you satisfy a particular curiosity or pursue an individual interest. You might be starting at the very bottom of the office hierarchy (and being dropped in at the deep end of headache-inducing office politics) but you probably aren’t an idiot and you will have something to give.

Although it might seem difficult to focus on all of this when you are nervous and under pressure, the interview is the perfect chance to gauge just what the internship has in it for you. If the focus is largely on dictating the aspects of the role, including a subtle apology for all the admin you’ll have to deal with, be wary of becoming an office spam filter or handy boy/girl.

“Internships can become dangerously like slave labour if you don’t show yourself a little respect.  Choose an internship which excites and enthuses you rather than one which just feels like CV credit.”

Opening letters, filtering junk mail, ordering stationery and filling excel spreadsheets with data will not be the most enriching tasks. While you should definitely be willing to do all of that with a gracious smile, there should also be the promise of more challenging tasks and plenty of independent work to get you excited. Questions about what you’d like to get from the experience are a reassuring indication that you’re valued as more than just cheap labour.

Internships can become dangerously like slave labour if you don’t show yourself a little respect.  Choose an internship which excites and enthuses you rather than one which just feels like CV credit. If you’re interested in what you’re learning it won’t really matter if you are getting paid. There are some things we all do for free just because we love them. And that’s not a bad attitude to have, especially if one day it will mean that you have a job you are passionate about, rather than just one you are casually happy with.


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