Unpaid Internships: Fighting To Succeed

Michaela Walters

Michaela Walters has interned at several leading media organisations

Are unpaid internships acceptable? Graduate and intern Michaela Walters picks apart the pros and cons…

If interning is the battle that everyone starting out in the industry faces, unpaid interning is the war.

There’s no right answer as to whether you should or shouldn’t work for nothing – everyone’s position is different. Some simply can’t afford to and it’s for that reason that I don’t believe unpaid internships are right.

Everyone deserves an equal chance and no one should miss out on an opportunity because they can’t afford it.

But unfortunately, sometimes in wars sacrifices need to be made – and although ultimately I don’t believe unpaid internships are right, I’ve often found myself leaving my morals at home and heading in to the trenches.

The truth is, it seems almost impossible to make a start in this industry without one.  Getting a good internship can be as competitive as getting an actual job.

If you’ve just graduated and feel you have a lot to learn, a few months’ experience (even if it is unpaid) is a good thing.

What’s important though is making the distinction between when an unpaid internship is worthwhile and when it isn’t.

As someone who’s been on the front line (and in danger of developing a severe case of trench foot), here’s where I suggest drawing the line:

If you’re not doing enough

Grabbing your boss’s morning coffee is fine – but if your day consists of making coffee, running across town to pick up some dry cleaning and photocopying for the rest of the afternoon, you’re in no man’s land – and that’s never a good idea.

If you’re there just so you can put ‘X’ on your CV, that’s not good enough either. You need to be sure that when you leave your internship you’re better prepared for the working world than you were beforehand. Intern to learn!

If you’re doing too much

The alternative is to be in an internship where you are learning loads, working with great people and finally getting so confident in your ability that before you know it, you’re working a full time, self-dependant job (and being bloody good at it) for little or no money.

The situation might be reversed but the outcome is the same – if you aren’t learning, you aren’t benefiting. Intern to learn!

Make sure your employer is happy to teach you

Of all the frustrating situations possible to find yourself in whilst interning, for me, the most frustrating one by far is at the application stage.

You know, when you see the job description that reads ‘we are looking for an experienced intern…’ As far as I’m concerned, the very definition of ‘intern’ is to be inexperienced.

Employee seekers – if you’re looking for someone experienced, you should be hiring for a full time, fully paid, job! I’ll say it again – intern to learn.

I hope that if you’re a year behind me in your journalism journey, I’ve been able to shed some light on what’s worth considering whilst making internship decisions.

For me the line has been drawn, but I spent over four months altogether in unpaid internships, all of which I really enjoyed and feel I benefited from – so it’s not all doom and gloom.

Draw a line that suits you and make sure you stay on the right side of it, if you do, the war is won.

What do you think about unpaid internships? Are they exploitation, or a necessary first step on the career ladder? Join the debate with us on Twitter @Journograds. You can read more from Michaela here

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