The tragic case of the perennial intern

I wrote this piece over a year ago in 2010, for the website Interns Anonymous. At the time I was unemployed, living in London and had no idea what I wanted to do with my future. This was my story...

In 2009 I graduated in Philosophy from a ‘red brick’ university. In hindsight I can concede that throughout my education my attitudes towards finding work were naive and ill informed. Like many young people I made the decision to study my subject of choice aged 17-18. As we know the economy was then in a rather healthier state, meaning that for a number of years graduates from good universities in all subjects had encountered less trouble finding employment. Consequently the advice I received from school and home was to either choose a subject which would lead directly to a career I was keen to pursue, or if I did not yet have a particular career in mind, to study a subject I had enjoyed at school. I chose the latter – accepting the prevailing “any degree is a good degree” philosophy.

Upon graduating I immediately began teaching English as a second language at a school in my home city of Manchester. I knew this was not a long term solution and began to look into a career in the media. I stopped teaching and began writing to local newspapers eventually securing a two week internship with a regional magazine near my home. This was my first taste of working as an unpaid intern and it was not especially interesting. The editor rarely gave me any work to do so I spent most of my time staring at a computer screen, browsing the Internet. It was not entirely useless and I could have perhaps been more proactive, however I sensed a mutual understanding that I was to stay out of the way as far as possible.

After failing to secure any more journalism experience in Manchester I eventually got another two week internship for a small charity working as a ‘social media intern.’ Once again I quickly understood my role and kept out of the way. This was my least productive experience in terms of skills gained – the tasks I was given were so pointless and mundane that I didn’t feel I learned anything. By this point I was beginning to feel demoralised.

Some time later I got the opportunity to intern as a Media Assistant for a national campaign. I worked closely with the regional coordinator and felt the experience was positive. I gained real skills including pitching to the media, writing press releases, communicating with MPs and I was paid a daily stipend of £10 on top of expenses. The internship lasted 3 months and by the end I felt more confident about securing paid work. However this proved difficult and I soon began to feel that I had exhausted most of my opportunities in Manchester.

Up until this point I had been living with my parents and I was fortunate that they were willing to support me financially when a month later I secured another three month internship with a PR firm in London. I fully expected this to be my last – in part because the firm had assured me there was a high probability that I would be offered a job at the end of the period. The interview had been ridiculously and unnecessarily gruelling so I was surprised to discover I was merely the latest addition to a team of four graduates in a press office run almost exclusively on intern power. Unfortunately, the office was lead by a most patronising and disagreeable woman who was of a similar age to the rest of us and appeared to delight in making us feel worthless and subordinate.

In one sense the experience was positive as I gained important media and public relations experience, yet much of it was self taught and I was offered little training or support. Naturally all the interns felt a little exploited when, one by one, we were told the firm could not afford to take us on when our respective three month periods expired. Evidently they had never intended to offer us proper employment, a fact which did not hit me as hard as one of the other interns who had left a good job for the opportunity of a career break in communications. To date this is my first and only experience of blatant and unadulterated dishonesty. I made a personal pledge not to apply for any more internships so as to avoid becoming yet another tragic case of the perennial intern.

Since then three months have passed and I have been unable to secure a job despite attending several interviews. At the time of writing I am about to embark on yet another internship. Nevertheless I am positive about the future. I feel liberated from my previously unrealistic career expectations and have undoubtedly learned a lot in the past year and a half. It is not that I no longer retain the same ambitions as before rather that now I realise how hard I will have to work to realise them, and how much time it will take.

My experience as an intern has been mixed. I have gained some good skills and like most I have had some unpleasant experiences. However I think it would be unfair and ungrateful of me to express bitterness – though I have in the past. Pursuing a career you like is not easy and nor should it be. There is a sense in which many graduates had unrealistic hopes about the ease with which they would walk into the career of their dreams. These were largely fuelled by the advice of previous generations who had lived and worked through happier times.

The recession took many by surprise but we should remember that the healthy state of the economy which preceded it was abnormal, as was the ease with which middle class graduates, particularly in the arts, secured employment. I think that those campaigning for the rights of interns are fighting a noble cause – the system is in many ways profoundly unjust. I also think that interns (myself included) should refrain from expressing the sort of bitterness which could be and is often interpreted as privileged whining (‘I didn’t complete my degree to make coffee!’) – not least because it is counter productive to the wider cause, that of improving social mobility.

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