My name is Lizzi, and I’m an intern. It all started at the end of my final year of university. A friend of mine had done an internship at an online literary magazine, so I followed the magazine on Twitter, and when they tweeted that they needed a new intern, I put myself forward and was accepted. This went on for months, with regular meetings at Black’s and the Nordic Bakery, as well as the British Library. Then I was an intern at a political publisher. Then for an international conference. Then for another publisher. And now another. It’s been over a year and a half. What am I to do?
In all seriousness, I have been an intern since June 2011, and it’s now February 2013. Seriously. It’s a very modern problem, a product of our double dip recession and the consequent lack of jobs for anyone. Of those I have kept in touch with or at least have on Facebook from my graduating class, the ones who have jobs have either worked up from something they had before/during university, are doing a graduate scheme, are teaching either here or abroad, are still in higher education, or have compromised and taken a job in recruitment, which they hate. Everyone else is stuck working in a shop (which was still a difficult job to get) or, like me, they are doing internships. The only ones who can physically afford to be interns are those who can still live at home and commute to London, which isn’t that many. They (we) now all owe our parents buckets of money and can just about afford a couple of pints at the weekend. Basically, we’re screwed.
Being an intern has serious pros and serious cons. Through my internships I’ve worked out what I would actually like to do as a career, and I have gained skills and experience that, coupled with my degree, more than qualify me for my chosen line of work. Thing is, there are no jobs. And if there are, the competition is so vast and varied that a perfectly competent and qualified graduate like me has a rather small chance. A lot of it comes down to luck, and timing. Great.
When you’re on your fifth internship, and third in a publishing house (comme moi), you kinda get how it all works. Answer the phone, put calls through; sign for deliveries; de-dupe and double check spreadsheets; research contacts; do mountains and mountains of post. Ah, post. Most days there is enough to built a decent fort around your desk. Publishers send out a LOT of books, to magazines, newspapers, reviewers, foreign sales contacts, etc etc. They all have to go in jiffy bag envelopes with press releases and whatnot, and they must all be correctly addressed, then weighed and franked, and hauled across the office in post bags. You spend so much time bending over the table that your back aches, and you get so used to the franking machine you feel you could write a manual for it. The backing from self adhesive envelopes and stickers is so much that you could sit in a bath of it. Really.
Being an intern is also great, given that the office and people you work in and with are nice and helpful and ask you to do more than make tea. Being an intern and not being paid any attention to is very frustrating, as you are supposed to be there to learn and help out. Even if you’re being used as free labour (this happens a lot), at least you’re doing something. Sometimes you’re lucky enough to work with people who really appreciate your help, are happy to answer your questions, and also respect your desire to learn and your interest and effort. You are, after all, working for free, albeit with a few quid for expenses (sometimes). Right now I’m an intern at Michael O’Mara Books, and I love it. I work with friendly, relaxed people who always say hello, and I am always busy. The office is lovely too, like a little mews around a courtyard. I learned new skills (plural!!) in my first week, and am still learning things that I can actually put on my CV. All in all, I’m chuffed. I’m enjoying myself and I feel like I’m being productive. Winner!
Internships are hard mainly because your efforts can be completely unappreciated, but mainly because of money – or lack thereof. Some companies offer expenses so it’s vital to keep all receipts and not be afraid to ask if you don’t get given your money. It’s usually up to £10 a day or thereabouts, and helps with but doesn’t quite cover travel costs. You will have to borrow money from your parents or whoever – more than you ever expect. I dread to think how much money I owe my mum. But in the end, she and I both know it’s worth it. I’m also very lucky that she is willing to support me, and that I cannot take this for granted. Interning can be very hard, and tiring, and disheartening, and feel really unfair, but sometimes you don’t have a choice. It all depends on your chosen industry and your location (London is most likely the toughest place to try and get a job these days), so everyone will have different experiences. There are also debates raging about how long an internship should be, legally, and how much an intern should be paid. Personally I think a month or six weeks is the perfect length, and a minimum wage should be provided. Any longer and it should be classed as some sort of graduate scheme or training programme. No one should take advantage of interns.
If you’re struggling with all this too, don’t give up hope. You can go for months with nothing, and then something good happens. Apply for everything, tweet and email anyone you think might be able to help – just don’t stop trying. Explore every option and always make sure your CV looks good and you are being productive and keeping your chin up. It all sucks, but hopefully it will be worth it in the end. For me, 2013 will (fingers crossed) be the Year of the Job. Good luck. x