Dear Interns…

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Condé Nast is one of the biggest publishing companies in the world. Vogue, GQ, Vanity Fair and Glamour are just some of their big name magazines. And for years, interns climbed over each other (throwing the odd elbow in the process) to try to get a spot interning for one of the prestigious titles they produce.

Then a couple of interns decided to sue them because they say didn’t get paid enough for the hours they worked. And now, Condé Nast have closed their internship programme. Done. Zipped. No more room at the inn, even for the most deserving and determined interns.

When I first heard that Condé Nast were being sued by interns, I presumed bullying or long working hours or ridiculous demands were the cause – not for a second did I think underpayment had anything to do with it. Why? Because any intern I’ve ever known hasn’t been paid at all, myself included.

Now, maybe Ireland is way behind the lawsuit capital of the universe when it comes to paying interns, but in the US, it seems there are rules – if your company directly benefits from the work of the intern, they should be paid for their efforts. Makes sense, yes. Seems fair, yes. But it’s not what happens in this country. Surely a paid intern is just a junior, temporary member of staff? Hmmm.

When I finished my journalism degree in college I needed to bulk up my CV immediately. I politely pestered the editor of a magazine and the presenter of a radio programme until they both agreed to let me be their shadow for an indeterminate amount of time. I didn’t expect to get paid, I expected to work hard. I was willing to do any work they wanted me to do, at any time, and without receiving any real recognition, apart from the glorious few lines I could add onto my CV.

I turned up to two internships every day, working probably 40 hours a week between the two, and kept my part time job going as well – about 25 hours a week on top of the interning hours. I was constantly tired, I had very little money, I had hardly any spare time. But I was 21, I had no mouths to feed (except my own) and I knew it’d stand to me.

Granted, had I been living in New York or something it’d be difficult to survive on a part time wage, but I reckon I could’ve bar tended my way to not being homeless or hungry.

Condé Nast, I reckon, have been a bit careless to totally shut down their intern programme. The reason they were being sued is for underpayment for the long hours worked. Instead of paying little and making interns work mental hours, they maybe could have paid the same small amount but cut back on the working hours expected of each intern, making a part time job something they could do as well?

Instead, the journalism industry is that bit harder to penetrate now, because Condé Nast’s prospective future interns are looking elsewhere, making experience more difficult to get for everyone. Internships are amazing ways to gain invaluable experience. It’s a shame when any pathways into the world of work are shut down.

So anyway, with all this interning in mind, and as a former intern myself, I am doing a Sinéad O’Connor on it and writing an open letter to interns. Just for the craic like. I can already sense that it’ll be very blunt. But I’m nothing if not that.

DEAR INTERN…

A few words of advice for you as you go looking for, and as you partake in, an internship.

  • Don’t, for the love of all things holy, get your mother (or anyone else) to enquire about the internship for you. If you can’t make a phone call, you’d be beyond useless to any company.
  • Don’t assume that once you’re in the door to your chosen company, you’ll be popping along to the high-flying, decision making meetings and events that the directors go to. Don’t expect to be walking in the door and sitting at a swanky new iMac – real life interning is nothing like it is in the filums. You’ll be at a desk, and you’ll probably be bored out of your tree. But you’re there and that’s all that matters.
  • Don’t complain. Don’t roll your eyes when you’re asked to colour co-ordinate socks. Don’t dramatically sigh when someone asks you to phone 2,800 people on an Excel spreadsheet. Smile, be polite, and complain to your mates in private later, if you must. Don’t be the eejit who uses the company email to badmouth the company. Be careful with your ‘reply’ and ‘reply all’ buttons.
  • Be polite. Be grateful. Be honest. Be yourself. Don’t take the piss when it comes to being on time or leaving on time – you’re not being paid, but act like you are.
  • Use all the cop on you have at your disposal. Make your voice heard, but don’t be too much of an eager beaver – it’s a fine balance, but that cop on I mentioned should come in handy when trying to strike it.
  • Make yourself useful. Offer to help. Open doors. Carry stuff. Make tea. Sweep. If you show you’re not afraid of hard work and like being busy, it’ll be noticed and the next time you’re given a job, it might be something cool.
  • Don’t, I repeat, DO NOT spend the day on Facebook/Twitter/Buzzfeed/ASOS. If you’ve got nothing to do, ask for more work. If nothing is presented to you, tidy your desk. Anything. But don’t get caught wasting time on the internet. Oh, and looking up other internships while at your current one? A big no no. And yes, that has happened.
  • Dress like the rest of the office. Try to fit in. Your goal should be making the employer see you as someone that could work for them – the last thing you want is to stick out like a sore thumb. For once, blending in is a positive thing.
  • Watch, listen, learn. Take on board every piece of criticism, praise or advice anyone gives you. Don’t fight the criticism, learn from it. Don’t be overly sensitive either. I’m the very one who’ll cry when confronted, and I have done. But if you can do it in private, all the better. Interns need a thick skin.
  • Know what’s right. If you’re being worked to the bone, not being given time to eat, or if you’re being bullied or intimidated, don’t be afraid to say it. Use your intelligence – if it feels unfair, it might just be.
  • Leave. Yes, that’s right. Internships should be temporary. Interning at a company for too long can turn you into free labour. When you feel like you’ve learned what you can and done what you can, let the company know you’re going to be moving on. Again, politeness, gratitude and honesty are all good things that employers will appreciate. If they don’t want you to leave, they’ll have to pay you to stay – and if that’s the case, you’ve done a great job.

In the interest of fairness, there are a few things I could say to employers of interns too. So here they are.

DEAR EMPLOYER…

  • Interns are not slaves. Don’t make them do any job you wouldn’t do yourself.
  • Appreciate and respect their intelligence.
  • Be flexible. Interns aren’t getting paid, and so part time jobs are often necessary for keeping them fed and watered. If they need to leave an hour early to get to work, let them. The company won’t shut down because of that lost intern hour.
  • Pay attention to them. They want to be helpful, so let them be. Give them stuff to do. Let them listen in on calls/meetings. Show them as much as you can. That’s why they’re there.
  • If you’ve nothing for them to do, tell them to go home. There’s no point having someone there if they’re just staring at a blank screen all day.
  • Be honest. Give feedback. Say thank you. Don’t take advantage. Know when they’ve done enough.

There are probably a hundred more things I could come up with but I think those are the main ones.

One last thing I will say… You can have all the qualifications and experience in the world, but if your personality is up your arse, you’ll never get anywhere. A good chunk of what employers look for is someone who will gel well with the rest of the team, and if you’ve got a bad attitude or you can’t hold a conversation, an MA in your chosen profession won’t get you hired over the BA with the ability to work on any team.

Is that very harsh? Am I being too blunt again? Oh… Soz.

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11 thoughts on “Dear Interns…

  1. leavytina says:

    Great advice, not all interns are paid here. I think some have been abused so this inspires the law suits….but great advice to interns and employers of interns…..wonderful writing….Hope the AaaaaCHOO!! is gone & doing better tomorrow…. :)

  2. I have very mixed thoughts on the use of interns, how and ever I can totally get down with ‘ You can have all the qualifications and experience in the world, but if your personality is up your arse, you’ll never get anywhere’

    That is a fact right there.

  3. Fouz ElCool says:

    Well written :) I was discussing this with a friend recently actually.. I think internships in Ireland differ depending on the field you’re going into though. I’ve had a bad experience in a BIG company here. Granted I was paid minimum wage but they used new design graduates like cheap labor and gave them all the jobs nobody else wanted to do. The biggest fault was that I felt I didn’t learn anything simply because very little opportunity was given to me; despite being positive and jumping at any chance to do more! They basically wasted my time and I really hate wasting time. The company is notorious for all kinds of crappy behaviour but they get away with it because people are desperate for any job after college! I think alot of companies take advantage of that in Ireland and most don’t offer any pay.

    So I am totally against unpaid internships simply because standards are low in alot of places (speaking from experience and friends’ stories). You’re the only person I know that has had a positive experience as an intern back home! :)

    • Aisling says:

      I’ve heard so many horror stories too, and it wasn’t that mine was entirely positive, it really wasn’t! But I just did it because I had to and I put up with the shit to take advantage of what the interning would look like on my CV. I took it as an opportunity to just get ahead instead of actually trying to learn anything, and so anything I did learn was a bonus. It was super hard and not always good but I just ploughed on. :-)

      I definitely do think companies take compete advantage of the free labour though, and give all the shit stuff to the interns, but if you look at it like you’re using them as well, I find it sucks less ;-) xx

  4. Emma says:

    Great advice Aisling! Another thing that annoys me is employers rotating interns, offering weekly or monthly unpaid placements which will never amount to anything other than something for the intern’s CV. If you are using the consistent train of two week interns to do a supply of work in your business that is constant, necessary and requires skill, education and experience, then realistically it’s only right that that should be an entry level job.

  5. Aweeze says:

    As always a great read. I’m glad I never had the need to do an internship, but it does sound very like my ‘temp’ year in my first job. If you didn’t hack it you were out. But at least I was paid. Btw … I hacked it and now I’m 27 years in … I could have murdered twice and be out on good behavior for that time !!!

  6. Paul Gordon says:

    Fair play Ais, that’s absolutely spot on. I’ve sent it on to one of the interns in my place who’s described it as “very sharp and relatable advice, so true”.

    “Not my words, the words of Shakin’ Stevens.”

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