Seven internships and counting…is a career in international development worth it?

In my third year of a Religions and Theology degree, I knew I wanted to work in international development. And for this, I knew I’d need some experience. I applied for a part-time internship (… internship number 1) with an international inclusive education network located close to my University, which was a good few months and in hindsight provided me with very useful contacts and experience.

This internship also provided me with research and some editing experience and through doing it, I was offered some voluntary work on another NGO project. Naively I thought that this, combined with a gap year spent in Nepal, would be enough when I started my masters degree in international development. The MSc came and went and by this point I was 23 years-old and with an enormous career development loan debt. I applied for another internship in India (internship number 2) with a Dalit postgraduate learning centre.

I was fresh out of my MSc and back living with my parents, unable to afford to do much. My intention had been to move home after Uni and spend the 3 month gap between then and leaving for India doing temporary work (by this point I was well experienced in admin temping). No such luck. Despite a masters degree, lots of admin experience and voluntary work, I was considered too “over-qualified” for the positions I was applying for. The best I was offered was two weeks working in a factory. Eventually, and kindly, my parents offered to pay for my flight to India.

Internship number 2 was 3 months long and was, to be honest, a bit of a letdown. Very unstructured, no clear profile, etc. Myself and another foreign intern had to pay out own flights, visas and insurance and were paid a very, very small stipend (which was about half my monthly career development loan repayments for which I got into additional debt). Immediately after India, I went to Nepal for internships 3 and 4, working for a women’s rights network and a newspaper, respectively. At the former, I was provided with food and accommodation (which initially meant sharing a room with a teenager and a young child) and basically editing English documents. The second internship at a newspaper was very useful, but only paid a basic rate for articles I had published. They also, frustratingly, had a policy of not assisting non-Nepalis with visas. This meant no job at the end of the internship.

I returned to the UK for financial reasons and after two months of unemployment embarked on internship number 5 at a local newspaper. I was now 25. I initially worked 5 days a week, but they said this was too much of a commitment and reduced my days to 3. I received no travel or food allowance, despite effectively doing the same work as a junior reporter and writing a lot of copy. They had made it clear at the start that there was no chance of a job – but what else was I supposed to do? I wasn’t getting any of the admin jobs I was applying for and I needed some form of stimulation and outside interaction. I was 25, living at my parent’s place and splitting my dole money between paying my career development loan and paying travel costs to get to this internship. The really frustrating thing was the fact they didn’t even offer to pay for travel. I lasted 3 months and became very, very unhappy.

Increasing frustrations (shouting at the tv, becoming too bitter and cynical to read the newspapers, etc.), led me to start a development consultancy business, because I needed to do SOMETHING of value. And, I’d rather intern for myself than for someone else. And shortly after starting this, I was offered 3 months of private, well paid teaching work.

I then started what was effectively internship number 6 in May. This was done from home and involved editing work. It did involve one trip to London earlier in the year, which, of course, they didn’t offer to cover the travel for. I’ve received criticism from senior staff, too, and there has been a complete lack of guidance throughout. But, it looks good on the CV (which is all that matters for us desperate grads, right?)

So now… it’s October and last week I received news that I’ve been selected to go and work abroad for, yes, you guessed it… internship numero 7! Fortunately, they provide accommodation, a small stipend and food. Sadly, this means the money I saved from teaching over the summer will just about cover my career development loan for the six month period. It also means I won’t be able to come home for my best friend’s wedding… and, perhaps even worse, I’ll be 26 and still an intern (DOOM!)

Yes, I’ve done a lot and have quite a packed CV. But, it’s really not fair. Having your work consistently undervalued and it made me lose alot of confidence in myself and caused me to become very depressed. Sadly I know people in all too familiar situations who, like me, feel that we’ve been somehow cheated and are perpetually left out of an unjust and unfair system. It makes you want to scream…

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6 Responses to “Seven internships and counting…is a career in international development worth it?”

  1. 1 Rachael Glaser 10/20/2011 at 3:23 pm

    I am sorry to hear about this very long and unsatisfying experience. The job market is very tough at the moment. It is important that while students intern, that they get marketable skills to present to future employers but not all employers understand this. It is important that you keep up your confidence!!

  2. 2 rowanemslieintern 02/02/2012 at 4:09 pm

    I’m also interning my way into int development, glad to hear this isn’t just me finding it a grind

  3. 3 rowanemslieintern 02/02/2012 at 4:12 pm

    Can I suggest signing up to the IDCL run by Alanna Shaikh (if you aren’t a member already). Super, super useful

  4. 4 Sean 02/23/2012 at 2:42 pm

    I mean, it makes you wander doesn’t it? if you don’t study you are not qualified, and if you do study you are over qualified, I have had the same problem in the past.
    Also I would like to say that I feel for you, having been through so much and not having got what you really want and look for.

  5. 5 me 08/25/2013 at 6:52 pm

    Well I have done four internships so far and gained about a year of consultant experience related to Africa. My two internships were based in my home country (paid). Other two were in Geneva and unpaid. But I managed to get a scholarship for one of them. I hold a MSc from one of the ivy leagues. Then I had to go for a few months contract consultant and researcher rolefor thinktanks ngo and government agency.(all included research writing papers evaluation and drawing political implications. I also supported organizing meetings etc) I worked in Africa for about four months. I went to London and started getting invited for interviews for full time paid jobs for dev and conflict resolution consulting groups right before my visa expired. I was kicked out and back to my country. My country does not do any work related to dev or humanitarian work. We are too busy making money instead of looking at others. I am 28 by the way. Had to slightly change strategy and look for jobs at gov or private sector. I am even looking for an assistant role that provides a visa :). This is not the life I imagined.

  6. 6 Molly 08/29/2013 at 8:40 pm

    Hi, I worked as a volunteer for an international development charity for 2 years while I was at uni, and the staff gave me lots of advice about how to go about entering this as a career.

    Like you I interned in the summer, and planned to intern again after uni, but decided not to after being told by one of the managers that I should not take up more than one unpaid internship as it is unnecessary. She told me that contrary to what many people believe, the best way to enter int. dev. charities is to go in to a position that may not be directly what you want and then move within -rather than waiting for a particular department to start recruiting. She pointed me to fundraising as an area where there are more job advertisements.

    Lastly, she herself started in fundraising. Interestingly, she told me that she’d first made the move from PR earning £27,000, to fundraising on £16,000. Low as this sounds, within a year she transferred to a much bigger international charity on the back of her experience and earnt more than her PR job.

    Not sure how applicable this is, and obviously it’s a huge generalization but it certainly gave me things to think about

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