The Truth About Unpaid Internships

As someone who thinks there is nothing better in life than reading an epic fantasy, I had a great time studying for an English degree. Reading books, writing about books, arguing about books. BOOKS. Unfortunately, finding myself at age 20 in a cap and gown with no job prospects was a little bit of a “well… shit” moment. Now I am 24 and have managed to find myself some of that much needed experience. And not to bite the hand that feeds me or anything… but I have a lot to say about unpaid internships.

I have had three different internship experiences – all with differing levels of payoff. So I have experienced both the pros and cons of working for free.

The work whenever you like internship

I got my first internship about three months after moving to Madrid. I was settled and happy in my new home but wanted something to do alongside teaching (which I already knew wasn’t my calling). I could already craft hilariously topical tweets and followed social media trends – I just needed a way to prove it to potential employers. This internship was great as it allowed me to do just that alongside my day job. I may not have been getting paid – but I was gaining experience and could work from my bed. The company knew I needed another means of income so let me choose my own hours. All in all it was a pretty great arrangement made for a great internship.

The liberally described internship

Two months after getting my first internship I saw an ad for another one. It was a much more established company and offered the chance to work from their office. Even though it meant I would have to cut down my teaching hours, I took the risk and went for it. I got the job and soon found out I’d be working 20 hours a week (at the time I thought this was inhumane). Of course, unpaid. But whatever, you’ve gotta suffer for your art, right?

So I turn up for my first day of work. I sit at my desk and am ready to start my role as Social Media & Communications Intern. But what exactly is that role? In this company, my job was essentially to sit on Facebook and post a million advertisements to different groups. Imagine doing that. FOR. FOUR. HOURS. Needless to say, it wasn’t exactly what I’d call a social media position. But I hate confrontation and naively thought that maybe I’d get more exciting tasks as time went on. But I didn’t. Two months into the internship and enough was enough. Not only was I not getting paid for my time, but I wasn’t gaining any experience either. I quit and quickly went back to teaching full time. I kept my original internship for another eight months or so but in the end became jaded about the whole idea of being an intern. Where was my money? I thought I was done. But I wasn’t.

The full time employee internship

A whole year and a half later I was facing the prospect of another summer teaching English to camp kids when I saw an ad for an Editorial Internship in my city. It was for three months so I knew it wouldn’t be some never ending pit of despair and figured it’d be a beneficial way to spend the summer. So I interviewed. I got it. I yay’d. Imagine my surprise when I find out that this internship was 40 whole hours a week. More than double what I worked on my €1000 salary as a teacher. But this was the career I wanted, so I was willing to make the sacrifice.

This time was definitely a step up from my previous position – I had my own desk and computer and spinny chair. But most importantly, I had responsibility. In the three months I was there, I actually learnt a lot. I got to develop the skills I already had as well as learning new ones – such as email marketing and exposure to new CMSs. In fact, I was doing so much stuff there that I couldn’t help but wonder – why aren’t I being paid for this? As much as I was learning about the industry, I was also learning about how unfair the whole unpaid intern thing can be. Upon leaving the role, I was asked about any suggestions I had for improving it for future interns. I said that they should pay travel expenses – which for me would have been €60 for the whole time I was there. It’s kind of hard to feel any self worth when supposedly 480 hours of your work isn’t even worth €60 to your employers.

And with that, I officially end my internship journey.

Sure, there are positives to being an intern and I don’t regret any of my jobs. I definitely wouldn’t be where I am today without them – but that’s the problem, why is it necessary for someone to do all this work just to get a job? I spent three years getting my degree only to discover that entry level jobs want you to have two years experience alongside it. Now I can see why Hermione needed that Time-Turner so badly.

In the future, I hope this changes. I hope that companies stop demanding a PHD and a previous CEO role for an entry level gig and that other businesses start paying their interns at least a travel card and a sandwich for all their hard work. But until then, stay strong little intern babies. Soon you will be in charge and can pay all the future interns as much as you want.

Can You Regret University?

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A vodka and lemonade in a sea of Snakebites: a metaphor for my university life.

Growing up, I never had any doubt that I’d one day go to university. I didn’t know what I’d study, where I’d go, or what it would lead to– but I still knew that I’d go. It was just what you were supposed to do: finish school, go to sixth form, go to uni, and get a job. Fast forward to age fifteen, and suddenly I’m expected to know the answers to all those questions. So within a year I’d picked a degree and a place of study (but still had no idea on the job front, but let’s be real here, I’m 22 and I’m still not 100% convinced what I want to do with my life). I picked my subject, English Literature, because I liked to read, and picked my school, the University of Hull, because the degree they offered was very pick and mix which meant I could tailor something more specific to my interests. Also the buildings were very pretty.

Recently, however, there’s been a lot of talk about whether it’s necessary to go to university. Whether you should just work your way up and gain experience, take the time to really know what you want to do… or just become famous on YouTube. There was never this sort of talk when I was fifteen, and maybe if there had been I might have reconsidered things and taken a different route. So now, at the ripe old age of 22, I’m finally going to think about things.

So, do I regret my degree? Do I regret going to university? Do I regret spending three years of my life getting myself into debt? No, I don’t think I do. University definitely didn’t turn out to be the perfect place I thought it would be. I didn’t find kindred spirits who’d want to debate long into the night about the finer points of the human psyche (although I do remember one particularly long argument about the linear narratives of Doctor Who). But I did learn a lot. About myself, about literature and art and history and culture, about life. And ultimately, I think it was a good thing that I went. Here’s why.

3) The People: Like I said, the people I met at university were very different to what I expected. We had very contrasting ideas about what was fun, but that’s okay, because university was the first place where I got to choose my friends based on shared interests, mutual respect, and similar experiences, rather than because we’d been in the same class since we were eleven. I met a whole lot of different people at university, and I’m only still in contact with a few of them, but the friendships I forged there were very different to the ones I made from school, YouTube, and even here in Madrid. Studentdom is very different world, with distinct rules and priorities. And even if we’re different people now (God, I hope so, students are complete dicks), we went through that time together. On another note, the people at university were the first people to help me realise that I’m a proud introvert. Huzzah! Turning 18, I was so excited to go out every night and pregame with poorly mixed vodka lemonades in a Spongebob cup… but after the first semester I was done. Sleep and pizza and rewatching LOST on a constant loop, please.

2) The Knowledge: I’ll be honest here. English Lit is not what is considered a ‘proper subject’, and it’s even worse when your actual degree title is BA English and American Literature and Culture. After all this time, I still don’t know what it means* and usually tell people I did English or, at a push, English and Film. But as well as studying the given classic literature, I got to take classes on seventeenth century prostitutes, postmodernist architecture, and even masculinity in animation. So I may not have a pinpoint speciality, and may not have the knowledge of Austen and the Brontës like other English Lit graduates, but I am damn good at pub quizzes. I can spew out nonsensical trivia with the best of them, I have a picture perfect memory for obscure literary quotations, and my attention to detail thanks to my countless film exams mean I’m eerily good at guessing who the murderers are in BBC dramas. Never challenge me at Trivial Pursuit, but do call me if you ever want to go on Pointless.

1) The, uh, Me: This is the point where it gets a little tricky. Academically, university taught me about research and writing and time management, and how to get up at 7AM to take two busses for you 9:15 lecture (believe me, it involves a lot of willpower). Personally, it taught me that people have the capability to be both great and terrible, that hard work pays off, and that oh my God food and rent is so expensive guys. I am thankful for all those things. But the thing I’m most thankful for (which is where some of the anti-university protestors disagree with me) is for giving me three years to do whatever I wanted. Sure, I had essays to write and books to read and lectures to attend, but I had three years to think about what I wanted to do with my life and what I had to do to get there. So I may have had a year of unemployment, but I’m doing the whole internship thing, and all those skills I subconsciously picked up at uni are coming in full force right now. So yay.

Obviously I can’t speak for everyone. But if you’re fifteen and been told to decide your entire future without any help or guidance, don’t panic. It’s a good way to kill three years and think some more… whilst also picking up a whole variety of actual skills. Probably more if you don’t do my laughable degree, but hey, I once got a 1st on a presentation on suspended reality in Disney theme parks, so I’m pretty happy with my choices.

Go forth to university! Meet some people– love them, hate them, fuck them. Whatever. You’ll get some great stories and it may come in useful in later life… say, teaching English abroad. ‘Cause I definitely didn’t think I’d be doing that at age fifteen. I really doubt you can ever regret your time at university, but I do think you can regret not knowing. No one’s a real grownup at 18, you need to live on Planet Student for a while to figure things out.

*I never did learn if it’s English and American Literature and Culture, or English and American Literature and Culture. It will haunt me until I die.