As anyone who’s recently entered the job market will tell you, internships are becoming an increasingly common part of the modern employment landscape. While for many internships offer invaluable opportunities to experience work, learn skills and get on the path to a full time position, others see them as an exploitative waste of time. Spend time with recent graduates, and you’re likely to hear some internship horror stories.
To gather some first person insight, we caught up with two interns, whose opposing experiences show just how different internships can be. We’ll begin by introducing their stories, and finish with a few general lessons we can draw from their experiences.
Rachel Fuller is a 24 year old History graduate. She currently works part time in a bookshop and for the last two months has been interning at a travel website.
“I have always had a passion both for travel and for writing, so when I heard about this opportunity I was immediately interested and sent off my CV. I was asked to send a sample piece describing a recent holiday and, when this was well received, to come in for an informal interview at their office. The people at the office were very personable and open. My boss and I just spent a half hour talking about places we’d been, and destinations we’d like to visit.
When I started the position I was happy to find I was allowed to start writing on my first day. The office atmosphere was fantastic, and I immediately felt like I was part of the team. Feeling that I was valued and expected to contribute just like everyone else made me work harder, while enjoying the work even more.
Although I was initially taken on as a writer, I increasingly took a role in the admin side of the business too, for example organising freelance writers’ payments. Though I’d always thought I hated admin (and being organised in general!), I actually found I was good at it. I really feel I’ll take these new found skills in other areas of my life.
While this internship is unlikely to turn into a job, I still feel I’ve learnt some invaluable skills. I’ve also had the chance to make various contacts who will be really useful when I pursue this sort of writing/editorial work full time, which I plan to start in a few months time.”
‘Lucy’, 23, spent three months as an intern at a major fashion and lifestyle magazine. She was keen to tell her story in order that others could learn from her experience, but she still works in the industry, and would prefer not to be identified.
“I was so excited when I landed the internship as I knew there would have been many applicants for a position at a national magazine. But from my first day I knew that something was wrong. I was not involved in anything actually related to the magazine, as the initial advertisement had suggested. I was expecting to make a good few cups of tea, but the people there seemed to view me as a private waiting service. My boss would send me to do her laundry, and to fetch her coffee, lunch and snacks throughout the day.
The office atmosphere was poisonous. People either ignored me outright or talked about me only as ‘the intern’. After awhile I got quite sick of hearing others ask my boss: ‘Can you get the intern to do this?’ What I found most frustrating was that I was keen to work hard and contribute, but the tasks I was set just seemed designed to keep me occupied, or even just to amuse the other people there.
When I eventually asked if I was going to be allowed to do any writing or editorial work, my boss said there was a line of girls desperate to do her laundry and that if I didn’t like it I could **** off. After this encounter it became even more difficult to work there, and my boss and colleagues became increasingly hostile. In the end, I left a few weeks before the scheduled end of the internship. Many days I would leave work in tears, and I didn’t feel anything productive would come from my staying.
I’d done internships at fashion houses before so I knew that interns are expected to work very hard and may take flak when others get stressed, but this was ridiculous. By the end of it I felt that in terms of exploiting interns, fashion is not a patch on journalism! But I’ve since found a job at another magazine, and the atmosphere could not be more different.
I suppose my bad internship experience probably toughened me up, but I still feel angry about the way I was treated.”
The key outtake here seems to be centred around information. Knowing what you can contribute, what is expected of you, and the sort of environment you’ll be working in is vital for ensuring that an internship is a positive experience.
1. Be flexible and try to take what you can from the experience
Although many of these lessons will focus on the importance of planning things carefully, it’s important to say that internships will often turn out differently to how you may have initially thought. One of the great things about an internship, like a job, is it is often impossible to predict what you will learn from it. In responding to the needs of the office, Rachel found herself using skills she never thought she had. She’ll now be able to use these skills in future.
2. Meet your boss and scope out the office atmosphere
Rachel had met her boss and a couple of her potential co-workers. By contrast, Lucy was entering into a completely unfamiliar situation. If possible, schedule a preliminary meeting with your potential boss. If this is impossible, a phonecall is generally better than an email for determining your compatibility for the role. Prepare for this initial meeting as you would do for an interview, including what skills you can offer and anything you need to know about the role.
For tips on interview technique, whether for an internship or a full time position, it’s worth checking out our recent video How to Prepare for an Interview.
3. Find out the sort of tasks you’ll be doing
Don’t assume that because you’re at a newspaper you will be involved in editorial, or at a fashion house that you will be involved in design. With many internships you can expect that various forms of admin will be the focus of your time. Of course, in Lucy’s case the description did suggest she would be given the opportunity to write for the magazine. Still, making a serious effort to map out what the expectations are on both sides can help prevent trouble down the line.
4. Don’t be sold on a big name or a seemingly glamourous appointment
Anyone is likely to be flattered that a major organisation would want them, over the mass of other applicants out there. Try not to let this excitement cloud your judgment. Remember, the ultimate gain from an internship is not the name you can put on a CV, but the concrete skills you can gain. In some cases it may be worth going for a less high profile business, if you believe you will learn more there.
Always remember that however prominent the organisation, or impressive the individuals who work within it, they don’t have the right to treat you badly. Even as an intern, you should be contributing value to the business, and so you should be treated well in return.
5. And if all else fails, know when to leave!
Lucy found herself in an untenable position. Once she realised that her colleagues’ behaviour was not going to change and that she was unlikely to learn anything valuable, she made the decision to leave.
Have you had an experience of internship heaven or hell? Have a tip about getting the most out of an internship? Leave us a comment or story to let us know.
Jobsite are launching a series of articles on the theme of new starters at work. We’ll be exploring different aspects of this theme, from the point of view of those just entering the workforce and those employing them. Take a look at Insider for the employer perspective and advice, and keep an eye on Worklife for further posts in this series for new employees. In the coming weeks we’ll be launching new series focused on other key themes.