I don’t think Diane Sawyer would’ve worried or complained about being an unpaid journalism intern. I can’t see her waiting around for her college’s career services center to place her in an internship. I envision her beating down doors to get the best opportunities she needed to perfect her writing, research and her on-camera presence, build her professional network – and, not to mention, craft her non-regional dialect of course. Her focus? Her opportunities – not her limitations.
This recent NY Times article about unpaid internships compelled me to share my thoughts my internships two years after graduation.
I have an admittedly odd take on unpaid internships. Students work for free but have to pay for college credit. The companies they work for can say they are paying they student with credit. (The student paid for the credit…so the student is basically paying to work for free…so…um…) All that said, if I was a college student all over again looking for PR, marketing or journalism internships I would not turn down learning opportunities at great companies just because they weren’t paid.
I took issue with several things in this article. I disagree with this:
“Colleges shouldn’t publicize unpaid internships at for-profit companies. They should discourage internship requirements for graduation — common practice in communications, psychology, social work and criminology. They should stop charging students to work without pay — and ensure that the currency of academic credit, already cheapened by internships, doesn’t lose all its value.”
Wow. Holy “face/palm” moment. Like I said, at face-value making students pay for academic credit for unpaid internships seems shady. But those were honestly the best college credits I paid for. And as far as the “cheapening of college credit”… Seriously? I’ve benefitted much more from internships than from a lot of the communications theory lecture crap they teach in classes. I was delighted to skip out on that theoretical garbage that wasn’t going teach me to deliver value for a business, get into an office environment and learn skills that’d make me marketable upon graduation. Finally, discouraging internship requirements for graduation isn’t going to solve the problem of huge companies not paying their interns. It’s just going to lessen the likelihood that college students are going to take these vital professional opportunities for their careers, making them less likely to get jobs upon graduation. Quick! Name all the under or unemployed ’09 or ’10 graduates you can think of… without taking a breath. We’ll be here all night…
Like the intensely career-driven 24-year-old I am today, I was a die-hard 19, 20 and 21-year-old as well and aggressively pursued internships. I did five in college in various areas of marketing, PR and journalism. Then I graduated in the economic shitshow known as May 2009 and moved to Boston two weeks later for a paid internship at a PR agency in Boston. A paycheck?! I was thrilled.
I did a ton of free work throughout college other than internships. I ran my college’s newspaper for free. I did PR campaigns for local businesses through this student-run integrated marketing agency, PRIMA Connections for free. This free work helped me build a portfolio that I could bring with me to those internship interviews – where I would work… for free.
If I were a college student today, I wouldn’t wait around for a minute for my career center to place me in an internship. Why? Because the job market doesn’t work that way. Life doesn’t work that way, either. Your college career center isn’t going to be there for you after college to pick your apartments, find you a dentist in a new city, find you a boyfriend who calls you back – none of that. Remember: good things come to those who wait, but only what is left behind by those who hustle. Some would argue that things like a career center is what you are paying a college for. I would argue that if you are a communications student like I was, you are paying a college to support opportunities like a school newspaper etc for you to hone your skills in addition to internships. I didn’t pay St. John Fisher for daycare, thanks.
Again, I would not turn down an opportunity I really wanted because it didn’t pay. You might have to work weekends or do the internship part-time to make time during the week for a part-time job. Most importantly, remember: You are not above Starbucks!
(Side note: If we’re going to take up real estate in the NY Times to talk about issues of unpaid internships, let’s really focus on the people for whom this isn’t an option. Perhaps single parents maybe who don’t have time for school + unpaid internship + jobs?)
When I was an unpaid intern, I complained a lot to my unpaid intern friends about the unfairness of the fact that I wasn’t being paid. It was really exhausting to wake up, work out, go to an internship all day, go straight to the restaurant, work all night, then come home…and do that all week and/or weekend.
So was this always fun? No, it was stressful a lot of times. But it was my time to pay my dues. A little hard work never hurt anyone, in fact – all that hard work helped prepare me for what I’m doing now. And that’s exactly what internships are supposed to do – prepare you for your career. I am glad I did what I did and I would do it again in a heartbeat.
The NY Times article recalls the “plight” of unpaid WNBC intern Will Batson who “scrambled for shelter” during his summer internship in NYC. To Mr. Batson and other unpaid interns I say this:
One day, gentrified and successful, you will be married and live in a house on a cul-de-saq with things like “sofas” and “duvet covers.” You will have non coin-op washers and dryers from legitimate stores like Jordans and not Craigslist or the side of the road. Your fridge will be stocked with essentials other than Bud Light and hot sauce and when the hand soap runs out you’ll buy new handsoap instead of passive-aggressively re-filling it with water until your roommate buys new handsoap. You may have a salary, 401k and savings. Most of all you, will have security. You will have certainty. You will have a career. You may attend block parties or BBQ’s with other former unpaid interns. After a few too many you might talk about college or that crazy summer you spent in NYC couch-hopping and how much fun it was. You’ll laugh until your stomach hurts.
If we really focus on our opportunities and not our limitations things work out in the end. I hope so. I’ll let you know.
In your late teens and early twenties (your unpaid internship and entry-level years) I think there’s this balance of being really comfortable, but yet at the same time being really uncomfortable, with the uncertainty that defines those years. How so? What do I mean? My discomfort at ages 19 through 22ish with not knowing exactly what kind of PR/marketing/journalism (or maybe law school? I considered a lot of things…) job I wanted after graduation or not having a job lined up drove me to internships. Action comforted me because it gave me direction. Being “just” someone’s unpaid intern wasn’t the most glamorous role. But I was comforted by the certainty that I was definitely gaining great experience at that moment, yet simultaneously discomforted by the fact that I so badly wanted to do more than that and earn more than that one day.
So that’s where I am today: content yet restless. Happy but unsatisfied, I’m constantly driven to do better and learn more. Oh and I get paid now, not in tips, and I don’t wear a name-tag, apron or tuxedo to work. That still feels really cool.