Currently I am reading Ross Perlin’s book while coming to the end of two 3-month part-time internships, one with a tiny NGO and the other with an MP, and trying to figure out where I go from here.
I have come to the conclusion that doing more unpaid internships after this is not a good idea because it won’t look good on my CV: people will assume that I am from a privileged background and that daddy and mummy are providing for me so I can work for free, whereas the reality is that I studied hard as an undergraduate, secured generous funding to do a PhD and, post-PhD, have some of that funding saved up to enable me to explore different career options in an economic climate where every paid job I apply to has several hundred other applicants.
With regard to the assumptions people make about interns, my experience in the MP’s office is particularly amusing. On the one hand the office relies on a steady stream of interns doing identical work to paid employees. On the other hand, I have heard the paid employees making remarks that display resentment towards “rich kids who can afford to do unpaid internships.” These remarks were not directed at me, but were directed at a particular well-known journalist who is perceived to have got to her current position after 2 years of unpaid internships. Nevertheless it struck me as particularly foolish, clumsy or rude that these remarks were made in front of me when I have contributed so much to the work of the office, and when the work of the office relies on the contributions of at least one unpaid intern at all times.
On the whole, I have found both internships incredibly useful, giving me experience, knowledge and access that would otherwise be extremely hard to come by. On the whole, the paid staff I have been working with have been extremely patient, kind and generous with their time. They have gone out of their way to make sure that much of the work I am doing is related to the particular interests I specified at the outset, and they have also gone out of their way to help me with job applications, making recommendations for where and how to look for jobs, and where and how to apply. In both internships I have been either put in touch with contacts of paid employees who might be able to help me with specific jobs, or paid employees have put in a good word for me with someone they know in the office where I am applying for a paid position.
I believe that the main problem with internships is that in my experience what is happening is that an unpaid individual with no rights is doing identical work to a paid employee with full rights. Yes, an internship presents an opportunity for an individual to get a foot in the door. The danger is that in the current economic climate an internship may become the only way to get a foot in the door – and, as a result, become the norm. If the MP’s office stopped taking on interns they would simply have to reduce their workload or apply for an increase to the office budget to pay for more staff.
Ultimately this is what I believe they should do, but currently there is no incentive for them to do so. The state could provide that incentive. I believe that tighter regulation of internships is needed to ensure that unpaid interns are not doing identical work to paid employees, and that interns who are doing identical work to paid employees are paid the national minimum wage.