Internships: The Good, The Bad And How To Break Out Of The ‘Internship Cycle’

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I’m constantly reading articles about work experience and internships. As a (fairly) recent graduate turned Journalist/Writer who started out in the world of media by going down this route, it got me thinking about the whole idea of ‘the internship.’ As we leave our college days behind, they are sold to us a a brilliant way to gain invaluble experience in our field of interest. And, it’s true, usually you come out the other side with a vast amount of knowledge and skills you hadn’t got going in, so this is good. Very good. But on the flip side, internships are (generally) unpaid, you have to work long hours, and there’s absolutely no guarantee that you’ll get a permanent  (paid) position at the end of any of them. So this is bad.

Since I’ve graduated, I don’t think the system is, unfortunately any better. Take a case of mine, for example. I recently came across an internship that I thought was fantastic and would offer me some new skills in the digital media field, so I applied, thinking I could do it a couple of days a week. Bare in mind that they were asking for a huge amount of experience in order to secure this intern position: a third level degree and plenty of experience on top of that.  The reply? They were “only considering full time applicants.”  I couldn’t believe it. Here they have someone willing to do the job for nothing and it’s still not good enough. I ask you!

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Stuck In The ‘Internship Cycle’

So when you’re trying to get that all important experience, one can get stuck in what I like to call the ‘internship cycle.’ This is doing one internship after another at that level (long hours, no pay) and being unable to break the cycle. It can be a nightmare. I did six unpaid internships all in a row before I got paid for my work as a journalist. I was stuck in this cycle for a long time before I managed to break out. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed each and every one of these internships and learnt valuable lessons and skills in all of them, which served me well when I started working for a newspaper. But it was only when I looked back over my time I realised how unfair the whole premise of the system can be. Since the economy took a blow (or two), I really feel that graduates get exploited in this sense by employers.

Here they have someone willing to do the job for nothing and it’s still not good enough.

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Okay, yes I have chosen one of the most difficult jobs to potentially break into — writing and journalism jobs are few and far between these days — and I knew this going in, but despite the fact that I was young and needed the experience, did it mean it was right to ask me to do the job for nothing? I don’t think so. I took on each internship so that I could build on different skills, and hoped that I might get something at the end of one of them. Unfortunately after each one, I was back at square one again. So I decided I’d had enough.After a year and a half of writing for nothing, I knew it was time to change tactics; it was time to break the cycle. I decided to change my approach and attitude when going for that all important interview. Here’s a few tips on how I broke the cycle:

  •  Instead of asking the employer in question to “please give me an internship,” I decided at each interview I would firmly state what essential and positive skills I could bring to the company/publication. (Remember if you’re working on an internship it is a two way thing; you’re doing them as much of a favour as they are to you and you’re the one that will be doing it for zip, so don’t let them take advantage).
  • I became much more proactive in my search. I began to look for alternative ways into the media field (i.e could you move to the editorial departments once you were in an organisation?) and became choosy in the interviews I chose to go for. If I went for an internship rather than a paid job, unless there was a strong possibility of progress at the end, I wouldn’t take it (and I made sure to ask about  this in the interview).
  • I swallowed my pride and put myself out there more. Using Social Media, phone calls (I followed each interview with a persistent email and phone call) and a ton of email, I followed every opportunity I could, all the while writing to keep my portfolio full. I learnt to not take all criticism to heart (a tough one) and took something positive (even if it hadn’t gone to plan) from each internship/interview experience.
  • I became persistent. Really persistent.  I never let one interview go without insistingly asking them to give me updates, for example. (I hate when companies don’t get back to you; it’s so unprofessional).
  • Refined my Cover letter, CV and interview technique. This is crucial. Once you’ve secured a job interview, you want to come off the best you possibly can to come over the last hurdle. Ask your friends and family to read over your CV and cover letter and don’t be afraid to practice interview techniques on them!
  • I love writing and any aspect of Journalism and the media so I let my interviewer know this. If you’re really passionate about what you want to do, it will come across to your potential employer. Don’t be afraid to be enthusiastic and full of life; employers are keen to hire someone they know truly wants the job and is passionate about what they do.
  • Never gave up. Corny as it sounds, that’s really the key. Job hunting is exhausting, tough and can be soul destroying but if you keep at it, and you’re absolutely determined, you will succeed. Try and get a little part time job to earn an income while you’re starting out and keep doing your writing (or whatever it might be) in your spare time and with persistence, putting yourself out there, hard work and a little bit of luck you’ll land on your feet.

What do you think of internships? Have you had any really good/very bad experiences? Share all in the comments section, I’d love to hear your stories!

 *All images used are taken from Etsy. View them here, here and here.

Comments

  1. John Geraghty says:

    This is also a pain I know oh so well. I did 6 months unpaid internships to get where I am now, delighted to say that since I have done my internship I have broke into full time work and never looked back.

    The main points of my story. In the height of the recession, I graduated from college with a postgraduate diploma in business studies and faced the summer not knowing what the future held. I decided I wanted to specialise in human resources and unfortunately every job was looking for work experience and degree (even recent graduate jobs, as contradictory as that is). So I began looking at internships. I went down to the fas centre, also looking at jobs board and the job bridge scheme.

    What I did, was choose the right employer that would benefit me and my career as much as benefit the company with my services. I did not take an internship that would be irrelevant for me, a good thing I found was for people to look at job descriptions and job ads in the area they are interested in, look at the jobs that are asking for a minimum 1-2 years experience and see what skills they need. These type of things that I did and these jobs were the jobs I was eventually going to be skilled and challenging for. I made sure that the internships I did, gave me transferable skills to take to these job interviews that required experience and gave me a chance to challenge.

    I did a recruitment admin internship and then a human resource admin internship. The great thing is that I had managers in each role that understood and acknowledged the position I was in, realised that even though they weren’t paying me with money they took it upon themselves to pay me with wok experiences and experience with different tasks or skills. These roles allowed me to sound confident and experienced in later interviews, and helped me to secure a full time and importantly paid job.

    I done 6 months worth unpaid internships, but I have never looked back and am in a better position as a result.

    Recommendations:
    1) select an area you’re interested in and go for it. Graduating from business studies, I faced the challenge of picking an area to specialise in, I went for HR.
    2) look at jobs boards (irishjobs, findajob, etc.) before job bridge schemes. Employers advertising an unpaid internship on jobs board may be willing to employ quicker than those using job bridge (those using job bridge might keep you for 6-9 months before considering keeping on in paid position)
    3) pick a role that will give you skills to bring to that future role that will give you money!

  2. Jennifer says:

    These are fantastic points John, thanks a million for sharing! 🙂 I completely forgot to mention the various schemes like JobBridge; these can be brilliant and you get a few quid while gaining your experience.

    You’re so right about choosing the right employer and indeed company before accepting an internship. You want to make sure that your employer is on the same page as you and will, at the very least, help get you the experience and skills you’re looking for throughout it.

    Like you, all my interning paid off in the end but it definitely takes a lot of work to get there!

  3. I did something similar and was supposed to be paid in goods instead of money but that never happened. I know now to get things clear and in writing before doing any type of work for anyone. Great points and examples on how to avoid the pitfalls of internships.

  4. Jennifer says:

    Thanks so much Amanda, glad you enjoyed! 🙂 It can be very easy to fall into internship pitfalls if you’re just starting out; it’s only after doing them that you can realise the best way to approach them!

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