I’m of the strange habit of glamorizing the banal aspects of daily life when those aspects pertain to a lifestyle that I strive for. I love driving through rush hour traffic after getting off of work from my office job because it makes me feel like an adult. I always have a secret surge of pleasure when I’m really hungover from a night of partying because it makes me feel like a wild party girl. The hell week of finals has always been fun for me because I love to feel like a member of my stressed and over-caffeinated college community.
One of the boring and shitty lifestyles that I’ve glamorized is that of the unpaid intern. As a journalism student, I long ago resigned myself to the reality of working for a newspaper for nothing but school credit or resume fodder, and in a strange twist that is probably the result of a lifetime of capitalist conditioning, the concept of running copies and picking up coffee for the editorial staff always seemed appealing to me.
So imagine my surprise when showing up for my first day as an unpaid editorial intern at my local paper I learned that I was supposed to actually write and research for the paper. I experienced a perverse sort of disappointment, one that came from a miniature paradigm shift as I realized that I was expected to actually work and be treated like (almost) any other employee rather than some lowly college peon. I was up for the work, but was taken aback by it.
Since then, I’ve worked at two other internships in PR and marketing. I’ve learned a lot about the way internships often are versus the way they are perceived:
1. The type and size of company/organization you work for makes a huge difference.
One of my closest friends was an intern in the U.S. House of Representatives. He did a lot of running copies and fetching coffee –the “typical” intern duties we all think of when working on internships. I, on the other hand, have worked only for smaller organizations: my local paper, a non-profit business alliance, and a startup IT consultant company. For all of those, I was doing actual fieldwork. I was writing editorials, organizing parties, and troubleshooting websites. What I took from my experience and the experiences of many friends was that the smaller the company, the realer the work.
2. Not all internships are unpaid.
Moreover, you don’t have to be post-undergrad or a graduate student to get the paid ones. I responded to a job posting for a marketing assistant internship on my university’s job board, and within two days was sitting in front of my current boss who offered to pay me $12/hr. Not a bad gig for a college senior.
3. Interns are an integral part of the work community.
Interns do the crappy work at any office, even if that work isn’t just getting sandwiches and taking out the bosses’ laundry. At newspapers, interns are often the people who are doing research and making preliminary calls for news stories. PR interns are similar to nurses — they do a lot of the necessary work, like setting up databases of contacts, which makes the job of the executives easier. Without the work that interns (and other entry-level employees) do, most organizations would fall apart in fits of “I’m overqualified to make copies!”
4. Interns are the eyes and ears of organizations.
When I interned on a couple of political campaigns my senior year of high school, I learned way more than I expected to about local and national political campaigns. The information that I handled was extremely sensitive and because unpaid interns rarely sign formal contracts, that information could have be used any way I wanted. You see and hear all kinds of crazy things, often about very powerful people, when you’re an intern — just like secretaries, we know a lot of personal stuff about everyone who works with us. Which leads me to my final point:
5. It’s in an organization’s best interests to treat their interns well.
We’ve all heard about domineering editors and other bosses a la The Devil Wears Prada, who berate and torture their interns because they can. I don’t doubt that at major newspapers and corporations that happens — there is such a high demand for unpaid work there that I’m sure they get away with all kinds of crap. However, when it comes to actually working at an internship when your parents aren’t millionaires and you don’t go to an Ivy League school, the pool is a lot smaller and the way that interns are treated gets around. Just like the way women talk about bosses who sexually harass them, interns talk about bosses who treat them like shit. It’s the social nature of the occupation and serves as a kind of checks and balance system.
Perhaps the only stereotypical internship reality that I’ve encountered is that we are viewed as members of the bottom tier of the business — and honestly, that’s what we are. But to be a twenty-something undergrad or grad student and doing work in one’s actual field is always worthwhile, even if it’s under the title of “intern.”
Have you ever worked at an internship? Was it a great experience or a disappointment? Share with us in the comments!
Written by Noor Al-Sibai