‘I have no rights, no security, no leverage’: the life of an intern

I don’t begrudge the principles underpinning unpaid internships or placements. To offer somebody the opportunity to gain experience, exposure, contacts and hopefully some structured training in an area or sector that interests them or in which they hope to build a career, seems perfectly sensible. In most of my experience, however, they rarely amount to more than the routine execution of mundane activities that could and should be done by a paid member of staff or which add little meaningful value either to the intern or to the organisation/publication for whom they are working.

I should caveat these comments by saying I had one very instructive and worthwhile internship with a political think-tank for three months. I was given lots of autonomy and freedom to carry out a number of research-based tasks in a well-structured environment. My input was valued and my output measurable. In many ways it was an exemplar of what an internship scheme should offer. That it didn’t lead to a job was in part a reflection on the hollowed-out job market at the time [Winter 08/09] and my decision that the think-tank route was not one I wanted to pursue.

That was the diamond in the rough, however, with an additional total nine months intern experience – nine months that would have been better spent knocking my head against a wall, ad infinitum, for all the value I derived from them. The tasks would be dry and repetitive – transcribing someone else’s interview, updating spreadsheets that will consequently be left to gather dust, writing ‘profiles’ with no by-line or recognition, opening and sorting post, sitting on ‘reception’. And while some in the office(s) would be very cognisant of the fact you are doing work for free that they would otherwise be doing, others have treated me with little compassion or empathy. The relationship is grossly asymmetric.

Once I finish this latest internship at a magazine I doubt I will apply for any more unless I can be assured a meaningful and worthwhile experience. If I am to endure not being paid, I would at least welcome stimulating and challenging work that makes the commute, expense and endless hours stuck behind a desk tolerable. When that ‘work’ leaves you trapped in a cerebral prison you routinely question what value you’re deriving from the experience.

Are they the preserve of the privileged? I’m not so sure. I’ve known many people, far from flush with cash, who take unpaid internships while living at home for support. That might raise separate questions about the importance of geographical mobility and notions of independence and being self-supportive, but many do the same while working in London [assuming family lives close enough] given the prohibitive cost for many of the capital city. Perhaps the more appropriate question, as opposed to whether they are the preserve of the privileged, is whether there is much value to be gained from them at all and whether they should be subject to greater accountability and regulation.

I have no rights, no security, no leverage with which to defend my corner. When I leave someone else is lured in under the same guise as I was: the false hope of an exciting opportunity. In reality my typical experience has been characterised by dull, worthless, repetitive, thankless ‘work’. Some organisations know how to ‘play’ the system with a constant stream of interns and tasking them with the same work they really should be paying somebody for, be it part or full-time. I, for one, am grateful when this internship ends and the intellectual sclerosis can stop. Maybe this should form my handover notes to the next intern?

  • The writer has asked to remain anonymous

We will be discussing internships at Internships: opportunity or cheap labour? on Wednesday, 8 June at the Frontline Club. Book here.