Why internships can be valuable

By Elizabeth Davies
There’s no doubt that I would not be in the position I’m in today if it weren’t for the internships I’ve done. The first two were as a bored 17-year-old trying to find something useful to do while spending the summer with my family in upstate New York while my parents were working – one, a part-time gig in the local office of a Congressman, the second found totally by chance in the freshly-opened office of a gubernatorial primary candidate.
At that time I was still obsessed with the West Wing, convinced I’d somehow become a female Josh Lyman. But the internships were as much an attempt to amuse myself over the summer as anything else. With no US citizenship, there was no question I could be paid anyway and, although it wasn’t the most fascinating work, I did use a fax machine for the first time and get a surprising sense of satisfaction out of answering constituent questions and organising a successful candidate event. The summer after my first year at university I did a traditional unpaid internship at a small nonprofit organisation, which proved itself useful in that I realised I never wanted to work at a small nonprofit organisation and added the requisite line to my CV. 
Both probably mirror many others’ internship experiences. I don’t think I was being exploited, as such, but I certainly wasn’t getting a whole lot out of either experience. With hindsight, I’d have been far better off using that time to earn some money stacking shelves and revisiting my high school French.
The following summer was very different.  I found myself with my dream internship – three months at the Washington, DC bureau of a British news organisation. It was an election year and I knew there was nowhere I would rather have been. Yes, there was a fair amount of grunt work like booking cars for interviewees, but I’ve since discovered that professional journalism (or professional broadcast journalism, at any rate) involves a surprising amount of grunt work. To balance that out was the fact that I then got to spend two weeks on the road at the Democratic and Republican conventions. In fact, it didn’t really balance it out; it blew it out of the water. 
When I consider that summer, it’s really a Catch 22. I didn’t want to be doing an internship where I was making coffee and photocopying, and I wasn’t. On the other hand, I was frequently doing work that a paid staff member would probably have been doing if I wasn’t there, and – I’d like to think – making a clearly defined contribution to a widely-watched news programme. All for a kingly sum that paid half of my rent each month. 
However, in the years since, that internship has proved its weight in gold, and not being paid those three months has more than been cancelled out by the opportunities it’s given me for real, paid work.
After graduation, the connections the internship had given me in London led to freelance work for the same news organisation and then similar freelance work for another news organisation. Suddenly I was being handed a cheque to work in the newsrooms of national news organisations while everyone else I knew was either paying to do a Masters, "travelling" because they weren’t sure what else to do, or beginning yet another in a series of their own unpaid internships. More than that, that internship left me immediately sure of the career I wanted to follow – which, for someone with a supposedly unemployable arts degree, is pretty valuable in itself. There’s no way I would have had any opportunity to really "discover" broadcast journalism as field without doing an internship
(A word on access: I got that internship through neither a family or university connection or because I come from a wealthy background. I guessed an email address and showed some initiative in figuring out how to get a US visa. That said, I wasn’t exactly paid much while I was there, and the whole visa process costs money. For that, I was lucky enough to get some financial help from my college.)

Most people I know have never had as valuable an internship experience. I know that I was lucky to some extent, both in terms of the timing of the internship and the people it put me in touch with. But it was also because of the way I approached it. Internships among my generation are starting to acquire an element of the expected about them (particularly for those unemployable arts graduates); although not quite as bad as in the US, we’re getting there. A good friend of mine, who has a first from Cambridge and is halfway through a history PhD, told me the other day that she was paranoid about the lack of internships on her CV. Despite the fact that she’s clearly intelligent and hard-working and has no idea where she’d even have thought of doing an internship, she’s worried that somehow not having done a rafter of unpaid work for the sake of it shows she hasn’t been trying hard enough. I have other friends who almost seem destined to be permanent interns, drifting through small nonprofit organisations as, essentially, slave labour while they live at home because they haven’t figured out what to do and figure it’s the "right" way to fill their time.

If you want to work in a field not filled with graduate programmes (or graduate programmes that already require experience), what else are you supposed to do? Internships in many circumstances fulfil a valuable role: they offer a chance to see what a particular career path is like, and they give you the chance to forge connections and pick up the necessary skills that might just help you get a job at the end of it all. If that involves doing work that a real, salaried staff member might otherwise be doing, then I’ve come to believe that’s even better because you’re getting an accurate reflection of the job and your employer is getting an accurate reflection of your abilities.
But internships are supposed to be temporary. They’re not supposed to be a dumping ground for the country’s graduates because employers know we all so desperately want jobs that we’ll even forgo the pay for a while so they can get workers for free. At the very least, interns ought to be paid enough to cover their rent so that those of us not lucky enough to come from London aren’t at a huge disadvantage. 
Responsibility for preventing the country from truly turning into an "intern nation" falls on would-be interns, too. Do an internship because you want to, and because you’ll be able to show the initiative that means you’ll get something valuable out of it. Don’t just do it because it’ll add a line of your experience to your CV. That’s a sure-fire way of dooming yourself to becoming yet another graduate slave.
Details of Frontline’s discussion, Internships: opportunity or cheap labour? can be found here.