The Tragic Case of the Perrenial Intern

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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10 Responses to “The Tragic Case of the Perrenial Intern”


  1. 1 Jade 03/01/2011 at 12:45 pm

    A note on bitterness:

    I’m not bitter in regard to past employers I interned with, as it was a chance to gain quality experience in interesting working environments.

    However, I am will remain bitter about the ‘we can’t afford to keep you line’ which I have been lucky enough to hear on two occasions, while working in the charity sector.

    I am also bitter about a system which has commodified ‘experience’.

    Experience is something you should learn on the job. I will happily make tea once/twice a day in an office where everybody takes their turn. I would not be the unpaid tea caddy in an office where this common courtesy falls solely under the remit of the intern.

    As an intern I would politely refuse menial jobs as I am working without pay and want to get useful skills out of it. In sharp contrast, pay me and I’ll do it gladly!

    Learn the power on no: the internship is unlikely to lead to a job anyway.

    Unfortunately bitterness is very close to resentment and employers can sniff this on you. How can I unlearn my bitterness?

  2. 2 Anonymous 03/05/2011 at 3:14 am

    Thanks for the comment Jane, I am the author of this piece.

    Bitterness is a natural reaction to the situation that many interns find themselves in. As I wrote in the piece, I too have expressed bitterness in the past. Nevertheless, I have long since learned that it serves no purpose to do so and is merely a waste of energy which would be better spent elsewhere.

    You ask how you can unlearn your bitterness. There is lamentably no easy way. There are some elementary focus points which may help but ultimately this is deeply personal and differs for each person.

    Do no focus on those who have disrespected you. Focus on your achievements, the skills you have gained. Do not lose sight of the privilege you enjoy to be in a position to do unpaid internships – many are not. That is not to undermine the hard work you have previously done but working life is a struggle for everyone and this must also not be forgotten.

    Remember that through being treated badly at work you have learned a lot. These are valuable life lessons which will later be useful in ensuring you don’t allow yourself to be trampled on.

    Finally, it is comforting to consider that one day you will likely find yourself in the position of the employers who today treat you as a commodity. Think about how you will use your experiences to treat others as you would have liked to have been treated.

    Do not seek revenge. Consider how your negative experiences can assist you in ensuring others do not suffer as you have.

  3. 3 Anonymous 03/05/2011 at 3:17 am

    I called you Jane. My apologies Jade.

  4. 4 Jade 03/05/2011 at 11:57 am

    Hi Anonymous, thanks for replying to my comment.

    You take a philosophical approach to the situation you find yourself in, which I admire but I wonder how you can go on interning.

    Don’t you find it leaves you without time to apply for other jobs?

    While you are working do you see any distinction between the kind of work you are doing and the paid employee next to you (considering they are likely to have had 6 months plus experience settling in to that role in particular)? I would guess probably not. Think of all the office environments you have already learned to adapt to!

    I no longer agree with internships because I think they are exploitative and in my experience haven’t led me into paid employment. There was a time when I took on my first one that I thought it would be fine, I could do 5 months as I’d definitely be in work after.

    The only good thing about internships is that they keep you in the employment loop and a more active social being. My latest stretch of unemployment (5 months and counting) sometimes feels like a waste of life, yet I have also been building skills and potentially eye grabbing experience through this.

    I have formed a formal environmental group
    I have launched a website (therubbishclub.com)
    I won a grant for a community project
    Recently I won another large grant from O2 Think Big (see the Creative Landscapes project on the site if you’re interested.

    These projects enable me to keep learning. The drawback is that it is impossibly difficult to live on JSA in my circumstances.

    You may not be interested in community/charity work though with a little thought you might be able to come up with a project that gets funded. Working for yourself you cannot be exploited (I think??) and the project can be easily passed over if you get work. I don’t know how far employers outside of the non profit sector appreciate this kind of self-starting experience, however.

  5. 5 Anonymous 03/05/2011 at 3:04 pm

    That’s excellent that you have made such great use of your time.

    Personally I feel I am much closer to getting a job in an area I want than before. I am getting numerous interview offers and although these are extremely competitive, believe it is just a matter of time and patience.

    Incidentally, I don’t agree with unpaid internships either. I too think they are exploitative and unfair but to dwell on this is to enter into a futile cycle of bitterness.

    I treat unpaid work as unpaid work. I do not view it was a contractual commitment to the organisation (it isn’t) so I have no qualms about completing applications during working hours.

    I am not particularly interested in setting up my own charity projects at the moment. I am more interested in the media, PR and journalism sectors – this is my area. I have launched my own media campaigns and had opinion pieces published in national broadsheets which I also hope has made me more employable. I don’t yet feel competent enough to work for myself in this area – not yet anyway.

  6. 6 Jade 03/05/2011 at 4:30 pm

    If you have set up your own project(s) that is exactly what I meant about taking initiative. In my case getting money in the form of grants helps me stay motivated and pays for project delivery. By the way, you can learn PR, media, and journalism skills from running charity projects!

    Taking another unpaid or poorly internship on (especially when you are qualified and experienced in your area) is exploitation. And employers are taking advantage of young people’s desperation to work.

    I think it may be the case that one internship isn’t enough anymore to get a job. But as I don’t agree with them now I neither research them nor apply for them. I do however agree with work experience lasting for 2 weeks (though I am not looking out for any so that probably won’t happen).

    Though be advised readers – running projects hasn’t led to a job for me either yet. It’s just something I can do to stay busy, make contacts, and learn more about the environmental sector.

    In a way an experience of being unemployed while young is grounding and I hope I will always have sympathy, in future (hopefully) more prosperous years, for people in this situation.

  7. 7 Dan Pirozzolo 10/17/2011 at 3:35 am

    While I find it disheartening to hear how many internships you have had to do, I also feel like you have perhaps been lucky to get what you got. Although please bear in mind that I’m talking as an undergraduate with no experience of life outside education as of yet.

    I’m a wannabe journalist who has recently started to realise and feel intimidated by how over-saturated the market is so is now hoping to go into pr or advertising and it just looks so tough to even get into it at all.

    Presuming from the way you started your piece that you chose a degree in something unrelated to the areas you’re interested in, how exactly did you get into those areas considering how competitive they are? Like how did you become a media assistant to a national campaign after just some journalistic work experience? I’d love to know.

  8. 8 Anonymous 02/12/2012 at 9:52 pm

    Hi Dan, Thanks for your reply.

    I agree I am lucky. First of all I was in a position to complete unpaid internships even though my parents do not live in London. I did manage to get some decent experience but I think if you persevere enough you will find opportunities. The title of the position often sounds more impressive than it really is e.g. Media Assistant for a national campaign – I wasn’t paid and it didn’t lead to paid work.

    You call yourself a ‘wanabe journalist’ yet you have seemingly already given up on this dream. Try journalism before you give up on it. Since I wrote this article I have embarked on a journalism course and it’s the best thing I ever did. Like you I was put off by people saying it’s impossible to get into journalism, but it’s important to ignore those people and pursue your own interests.

    Hope this helps.

  9. 9 Dan 05/03/2012 at 4:26 am

    Hey Anon,

    I’ve only just seen your reply and I don’t disagree with what the points you made there: the title of the position really does sound more impressive than it was, but I guess it had to be in a way to try and make up for the fact it was unpaid; and yes I was on the cusp of giving up on my dream when I wrote that reply.

    I had tried hard. I was writing for my student union paper, got work experience at a regional paper, set up what a relatively popular blog, and tried my best to set up my own student newspaper. But I couldn’t afford to keep the paper running, and the clique-y union run paper didn’t appreciate my efforts to set up a rival and it cost an editorial position there. I had all this ambition and drive and yet I had gotten nowhere. I lacked confidence in my ability to become the journalist I wanted to be, and it was during that time that I saw this article and my pessimism is reflected in that reply I wrote.

    Since October I had another crack at setting up my own student paper and my persistence has paid off since it has rapidly become the most read student publication at my university. The Daily Mail, Huffington Post, and The National Student have all picked up on stories we’ve done in the short 6 weeks since we’ve launched too.

    So it goes to show how you can’t let setbacks get you down and that hard work does pay off in the end.

    Funnily enough, despite the journalistic streak in me, I now want to go into insurance (and I can’t wait) but I wish you all the best Mr Anonymous!

    Dan :)


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