I Was a Forever Intern and Here’s What I Learned
Internship culture is out of control. I've done 11 of them—and learned some things along the way that could have saved me the occasional breakdown.
Illustration by Daniel Zender
I’ve done 11 internships over the last eight years, most of them in news media. I’ve written copy for 16 cents a line for a local newspaper in Germany, covered campus culture for the Huffington Post for free when I was 20, and picked up packages for colleagues at a Los Angeles-based publisher when I was 22.
So I believe I am in a position to say with a degree of confidence that internships can be degrading and exploitative, all while fostering inequalities between those who can afford to work for little or no pay and those who can’t. By asking you to spend most of your days doing the mindless tasks no one else in the office wants to do, employers make you question your worth and accomplishments. Being paid little to nothing only perpetuates that feeling—while also routinely excluding people from lower-class backgrounds. Granted, most of my internships were in journalism, an industry known for its low pay and long hours.
That’s not the full story, of course. Many of my internships have also been enriching experiences, allowing me to work alongside inspiring people for decent pay. As an intern for Bloomberg News, I got a salary that was higher than the industry standard and worked with editors who walked me through every change they made to my copy. At the Hollywood Reporter, I was paid overtime to cover Oscar parties and red-carpet events. I’d never do that again, but there’s value in learning how to deal with PR people yelling straight at your face.
I’ve also learned things I never would have learned in a classroom setting—like staying safe when covering a protest so violent and out of control that police wouldn’t even dare to interfere.
Yet more often than not, those experiences were overshadowed by a feeling of deep-seated discomfort. In college, during unpaid or underpaid internships, I felt angry and guilty for giving away labor for free, knowing that by relying on parental support I was also perpetuating the inequalities still dominating my industry. Once I graduated, that feeling reversed, and I began dreading the last days of my internships, knowing the paychecks would soon stop and I’d be once again be unemployed.
If you’re in college, or a recent graduate, chances are you’re currently in the middle of applying for summer internships. There are a few no-brainers to keep in mind as you’re going through this process, such as never accepting unpaid internships, which are often illegal. (Full disclosure: I’ve done it and wish I hadn’t.) But I’ve also come to adopt a few other guidelines throughout my internship marathons, which, had I known them earlier, would have saved me a few break downs.
Here’s what I learned:
Some internships are just a waste of time
Internships are supposed to be educational. Of course, every job has its routine, so you’re not going to be exposed to new things all the time. But if you’re solely repeating the tasks you’ve learned at your previous internships, they might as well hire you full-time and pay you benefits instead of using you as a cheap (or unpaid), temporary worker without benefits or even the illusion of job security.
A good litmus test for whether an internship is worth it is to ask yourself: Is this going to be a meaningful experience for my career? The ability to put a big name on your resume doesn't qualify as "meaningful." Even if you're learning something new, doing a social media or public relations internship when you want to be a writer is probably not the best use of your time. Instead of accepting an internship solely on the basis of “getting your foot in the door,” think about the skills required for your dream job, and whether that position will teach you any of them.
If I had to do it over, I would have asked the hiring managers more specifically about my daily routine and what skills they were looking for me to develop. It’s also smart to check reviews from interns and employees on the job site Glassdoor as well as anyone you might know who has previously interned there. If it seems like you’ll be transcribing interviews for half of the day—I’ve been there—reconsider whether that’s worth your time.
Stop staying longer than everyone else
You’ve probably heard the line: “Every day, I got in before my boss and I left after everyone was gone.” I’ve been given this advice numerous times, by former interns-turned-employees as well as CEOs, suggesting that’s how we, as interns, can stand out. But if there’s no more work for you to do, what’s the point of sitting around for another hour, unpaid? If you can’t prove your value during regular work hours, staying at the office until you get to turn off the lights surely won’t do the job.
Of course, there are times when there’s lots happening, and you shouldn’t ditch your team for the sake of going home on time. That’s how you show dedication—not by staying longer just to make a point. Those habits propagate an unhealthy attitude toward work, suggesting that you're willing to let yourself be exploited through regularly working long hours and giving away labor for free.
Don't use internships to procrastinate
I've done this because it's easier to land an internship than a full-time position. But especially after graduation, interning puts you in a position of intense financial fragility. Every three months, when another internship ends, you're out of work again, with no paycheck to count on until you find your next gig.
Finding a job is a full-time job. Having a full-time internship while you’re looking means having a double workload, sneaking out for job interviews, and being twice as stressed. There’s no easy solution here, but a flexible side hustle—a gig in the service industry, freelance work, dog walking, or even odd jobs you find through Craigslist—may be easier to navigate than an internship as you’re looking to land your first full-time position.
Be mindful of internships' psychological toll
Most of us don’t want to do six, seven internships before we eventually find a real job—but we sometimes have to, for lack of better options. It can be incredibly disappointing and make you question whether you're just not good enough for a real job. I've been there, so have many of my friends, and sadly, there isn’t an easy solution here either. Remind yourself of what you’ve already accomplished, and know that you’re not alone.
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