Archive for the 'International' Category

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…

Interns Anonymous goes to Brussels

On what has got to be one of the best things to come out of doing this ‘job’, last week I got to go to Brussels for the day to talk to other European organisations working for better internships. Not only did I get to see how it must have been like for people writing a constitution for their new nation- I also met lots of very interesting and frighteningly multi-lingual people. I took a dictaphone along with me, so click on the soundcloud below to hear a bit more about what’s going on in Europe.

The price of an EU mouse

Internship at the European Parliament office (The Hague) – no wage or expenses paid:

My whole life I dreamt of working for an EU institution, so when I was offered an internship at the European Parliament, I was absolutely thrilled. It was unpaid but I couldn’t have cared less. I was convinced that this was going to be the stepping stone to a great career…

My main task as ‘an eager-to-learn intern’ was the collection and selection of newspaper clippings related to the EU. There is a very specific procedure to follow: At eight thirty in the morning, over a cup of coffee and the latest gossip, the employees read the Dutch national newspapers and note down which articles refer to the EU. One person then photocopies the articles, which are in turn cut out by the intern. Articles that are too big have to be cut and pasted on an A4 sheet of paper and then the lot is photocopied again. The intern then takes the stack of photocopies and selects the ten most important articles, which are placed in order of relevance. The other less relevant photocopies land in the trash can. The selection is checked by a third person and after authorisation the intern puts the selection through the scanner. Next the intern takes the photocopies to a fourth person, who then sends them by email to the relevant parties. The whole process takes two and a half to three hours.

A funny anecdote from my time at the EP was my acquaintance with a mouse, which allowed me to experience the highly bureaucratic procedures involved in important decision making…

The EU mouse was an ugly, dirty little creature that seemed to enjoy the company of EP employees, as it happily ran around the work floor. One of the employees decided to collect information with regard to the various possibilities available. It was extensively discussed at the office meeting the next day and most employees agreed that something ought to be done about ‘the mouse problem’. The EP contacted the Bureau of the European Commission to discuss the best possible procedure to follow.

Later on in the week I received an interesting email, which informed me that the company hired to clean the office, was also qualified to remove mice and would be willing to do so. Great! Finally I would be able to sit behind my desk again, without frantically looking up every five minutes in the fear that my space would be invaded by the mouse.

The mouse probably wasn't this cute

Except it wasn’t quite that simple…. The cleaning company had up until that point only been employed to clean and thus their contract said nothing about removing mice. Therefor before the company could begin their work, they were asked to make an offer, specifying the exact costs of this little mouse to the EU. Brussels had then to be informed of the ‘problem’. Not only did they have to be informed, but they also had to give authorisation to employ this particular company and ensure it all fitted within the budget. They would then send a confirmation of approval to the EP in The Hague, who in turn would be able to contact the company and inform them that they were the lucky ones who were authorised to remove the mouse.

Today the EU mouse still runs around the office, enjoying his European freedoms and privileges, while behind closed doors men and women in suits are discussing its future.

BRAC Internships in Bangladesh

I am currently coming to the end of a 6 week ‘general’ internship with the Bangladeshi international development organisation BRAC and consequently feel qualified to offer some insights into the phenomenon of internships at home and abroad.

The first two weeks of the programme were essentially an orientation in the Dhaka headquarters, followed by three weeks of fieldwork in rural Bangladesh, before two more weeks in the capital.  

I should add that in this case I was participating in the first cycle of the internship programmes and as such probably felt the effects of a few ‘teething problems’ that subsequent interns might not have experienced. I graduated from University of Sheffield (BA East Asian Studies) in July 2008 and University of Manchester (MA International Development: Social Policy and Social Development) in September 2010.

I deliberated long and hard about whether or not to undertake a 6 week internship with an NGO on the other side of the world. In this case, interns were required to meet all their own accommodation, living and transport costs (including flights) and I estimate that this experience has set me back around £1000-£1200 in total i.e. a maxed-out overdraft. I was aware of these costs prior to making my application and considered this an expensive yet valuable addition to my CV. As per the application guidelines, I nominated a specific department within which I wanted to be placed for the duration of the 6 weeks (advocacy and social development). So far, so good.

Street scene in Dhaka

 Upon arrival at BRAC HQ in Dhaka the 21 interns eagerly collected their intern packs (security passes embellished with INTERN in big and important looking letters, a map of the city, a list of about a thousand emergency contact numbers…) We then learnt that there had been a slight change of plan. Owing to the unprecedented number of candidates that had been accepted onto this cycle, it would not be possible for everyone to tailor their internship to their specific chosen theme. The various interests and priorities of 21 individuals were to be covered by a broader ‘general’ programme whereby everyone, in theory, got to learn a little bit about each department’s work.

However, the “9 to 5” working schedule that we had all been told to expect never materialised and it became clear that BRAC hadn’t organised anywhere near enough to keep 21 motivated, energetic and frequently impressively qualified young people occupied. After sitting through a posterior-numbing week of interminable departmental presentations (whose content we could have probably learnt by reading the Annual Report ourselves) the question of expected outputs from the fieldwork component of the internship arose.

Dhaka cityscape

Myself and most others had expected to be involved in researching and producing serious ‘academic’ reports for presentation to department heads and had travelled to Bangladesh armed with laptops and armfuls of books to help us with our work. I refreshed my memory regarding the relative merits of qualitative and quantitative methodologies in development research, ready to put my postgraduate skills into practical use. Disappointingly, when the question of written reports and data collection arose, the internship co-ordinators seemed uninterested in getting us to do anything more than photograph, film and case-study the life out of anything that moved, all part of the giant refurbishment of the BRAC website. I tried to suppress the feeling that the internship programme represents a remarkably convenient way for the organisation to get unpaid foreigners to take on some of the organisation’s least glamorous tasks, all under the banner of having a ‘unique cultural experience’. After all, which up and coming member of the BRAC communications department wants to spend their evenings in a basic training and resources centre in an unfashionable rural backwater discussing hardcore poor latrines with the poverty-stricken masses when there is a new air-conditioned coffee shop to be discovered in the capital? The interns will do it – they like that sort of thing, it’s cultural.

The fieldwork component was similarly disappointing. Although we had been given printouts denoting a packed timetable of activities, we soon realised that there was a lot of ‘padding’ and we were frequently left with hours to kill as the day’s work ended early. When we did undertake visits to rural projects, we usually felt as though we were disrupting daily life as the entire village turned out to stare at us and scheduled meetings ground to a halt. We were certainly taking from them – taking photos left, right and centre – but what were they getting from us? Without projects to work on, we became listless and bored. The option of quitting the internship early to fly home began to be mooted amongst the interns.

The growing feeling of ‘why are we here?’ (apart from to ogle poor people) led us to conclude that we had unwittingly become ‘poverty tourists’ or participants in a grotesque ‘NGO safari’. Surely the original point of an internship was to allow a potentially viable candidate for employment within an organisation to ‘test the waters’ and impress those whose job they may one day occupy. In an organisation like BRAC which does not employ foreigners in its Bangladesh offices, all that an intern can stand to gain is an exposure to the workings of the organisation rather than a chance to get a job. Show and tell, if you like.

Upon returning to Dhaka, 5 of the original 21 interns decided to cut their losses and head home, changing flights to leave earlier than planned. The communications department hastily thought up four mini-projects to which individuals were then randomly assigned, whether or not these related at all to one’s area of interest or expertise. I do not consider the creation of a ‘visual mind map of the BRAC approach’ for example to be a sufficiently challenging task for postgraduate and PHD-level students. Consequently, myself and a few disillusioned others can now be found haunting Dhaka’s coffee shops, biding our time before we are able to fly home and sharing our experiences with Interns Anonymous so that others may avoid making similar expensive and disheartening mistakes.

Of course my experience hasn’t been entirely negative. I have been able to explore this country thanks to my participation on this internship programme and I have met a wonderful group of similarly-minded people who I will remain friends with for a long time. In an interview I can probably spin several positives out of this negative experience. However, in terms of gaining new skills or consolidating existing ones, I can honestly say I have achieved zero. A disastrous mismatch between interns’ expectations and the organisation’s ability to meet them has created profound dissatisfaction on this internship programme. What was promised was sadly never delivered and I would urge potential interns to thoroughly investigate the pedigree of a programme before making a commitment and, ideally, get in contact with some previous interns to hear the real story.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T (worst internship ever)

Most of the posts on the site talk about internships based in the UK- here’s one from a graphic design graduate who spent a summer working for a web design company in Philadelphia, U.S.A, land of the free (labour):

I had an internship last summer at a web design company. I am a graphic designer who has graduated college but took on an unpaid internship to learn more about the industry and learn about web design. I made all of this clear in the interview. My “boss” every day treated me with no respect. Yelled at me when I didn’t understand things and asked for help. To the extent that one time I asked for assistance on something I didn’t understand and he laughed at me and said “Jesus Christ you think you’re ever gonna learn about web design?” in front of the whole office. Furthermore, I asked for assistance on a new website and in front of the whole office he yelled at me “THIS COMES UNDER THE CATEGORY OF FIGURE IT OUT YOURSELF!” Figure it out myself? I’m an unpaid intern trying to learn from industry pros (although it’s hard for me to say he was anything close to professional). This should come under the category of help out your unpaid intern who’s doing your work for free. My “boss” took every opportunity to embarrass me in front of the office. By the internship’s end, he looked at my portfolio site where I claimed that I helped out on various projects at the internship and stated exactly my extent in the project. He then embarrassed me in front of the whole office yelling “Why the hell are you going to take credit for someone else’s work?” What the hell???? I spent all summer working on those projects and for me to state that I assisted on the projects is worthy of spilling out to the office that I’m taking credit for other people’s work? Even though I receive ZERO mention on their website for the graphic design and coding I’ve done for their projects. The featured projects on their site are all projects I worked on! Needless to say, after those outbursts I quit…

and I’ve never quit anything in my life. It would have been nice to be a little bit appreciated. I was never offered a lunch on them. I was never invited to company functions unless I had to videotape something for them. I had a really crappy experience there and tell everyone in the area that they’re a bunch of A-Holes, with the exception of the lower level people. Sorry to make this so long, but my experience has really frustrated me- that I worked a whole summer for free as a college graduate doing work that any designer would be paid at least $20/hr to do, while a 15 year old at McDonalds is doing the most unskilled labor and being paid more than I was.

Maccy Ds

Benevolent corporates

Perseverance

Having graduated with two masters from some of the most prestigious institutions in the world, I was naïve; I expected I could go straight into employment. But that idea turned out to be a metaphorical house built on sand. Instead I quickly understood I needed to do internships.

My first internship was very hard to come by, it took a lot of time effort and applications, but the thing I found most helpful was being creative. For example when I watched the television I would have a pen and a piece of appear beside me, and whenever I seen an organization appear on the television I would like to intern with, I would write their names down and cold apply later on. This tactic actually helped me get my first internship.

The problem with my first internship was I lived almost at the opposite end of the country from even the interview, so I had to catch a plane flight on my own expense to just go to the interview. I was fortunate and the think tank accepted me and there pay was very good for an internship, it was two hundred pounds a week, this helped me a lot. But for me the worry remind of getting housing, now I was very lucky as I had long lost relatives that lived in the very north of the city I was interning in, but nonetheless this area was cheap enough that I could of rented even if I didn’t have relatives.

The internship itself was very good, the staff treated me with a lot of respect, the boss of the think tank interacted with me on a very regular basis, and the work load was continuous which I very much appreciated. I couldn’t sing the praises of the people there enough. But what I have learned is this for my internship with this think tank what I put in I got out, so if I turned up at 7.30 in the morning and worked through to 7 at night  the staff recognized this and treated me with more respect. If I could bring new understanding, arguments and knowledge to the table they included me in more discussion. Lastly because they were very good to me they helped me network in a area of work that is notoriously hard to break into(and the networking has lead directly to my internship I am doing right now). I worked very hard from them and they rewarded me in return.

Continue reading ‘Perseverance’

Interning in Germany… a different experience

I interned for a company in Germany whose main role was to teach English to business employees, but they also did some translation and editing work. I was given work to do in all three areas. I was really grateful for the experience itself but I thought I should be paid, especially as I had relocated to Germany for the period, and asked for a small salary. Maybe it was a bit cheeky but when I thought about it, each translation and piece of editing work I did and each class I taught would have been given to a permanent member of the company if I hadn’t been there, and that person would have been paid. The company were really great about it and not only gave me a small salary to help towards my rent but also made me a paid-up temporary member of teaching staff, so that I got a fee for each class I taught.

Maybe my experience was atypical but I can’t help feeling that, in Europe, a more sympathetic attitude is taken towards interns. This company didn’t even normally pay interns but they did their best to help me out and never once did it seem that I was being taken for granted. In France, interns are nearly always paid; generally about 300 euros monthly. It’s really not much, but I think it has symbolic as well as monetary value. It says: “We can’t take you on as a paid worker but we’re grateful for the work you do” rather than, “You’re just another useless student who’s lucky to get a free Pret sandwich out of us”.


Interns Anonymous

We want this website to be a forum for interns to share their experiences and discuss the ethics of unpaid employment. Most importantly, we want this site to be a place where YOU can tell us your story.

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Interns Anonymous accept no responsibility for the contents of the blog, comments or any other content on this site that is posted or provided by third parties. This website is designed to act as a forum for interns to share experiences and opinions about their work, therefore, we will not censor opinions we do not agree with. The opinions stated in blog contributions do not represent those of Interns Anonymous. We disclaim all liability for such content to the fullest extent permitted by law. If you have any queries please email us.

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