Monday, 23 January 2012

Unpaid Internships - Rights and Wrongs | Watercolour Illustrations

Advice for Graduates When Considering Unpaid Placements

Technically, the title is a little misleading, because all unpaid internships are a bit wrong - in that they break the minimum wage laws. But lets ignore this fact for a minute - because lets face it, employers certainly are, and it's a very real part of being a graduate at the moment.
I have worked one full time two month internship in marketing, one part time three month internship in arts admin and various part time internships in social media. All were unpaid, but thankfully all covered my expenses. I'm not sure if my experiences are typical for a graduate with a creative degree, but I feel able to give my opinion on the matter, and maybe also advise others on making the best choices.

Firstly, if you're not getting paid, it's important that you pick an internship that ticks as many of the following boxes as possible:

  • Maximum enjoyability (technical term). Though technically slave labor, it shouldn't feel like slave labor. If it seems like a whole lot of hard work, or if you're going to be stuck in the storage room arranging stationary all day - AVOID.
  • Expenses paid. VERY IMPORTANT, unless you are incredibly lucky and left uni with more than a fiver to your name. If you're going to be helping out all day every day for free, it's only fair your "employers" cover your travel costs. You don't want to be getting yourself in debt whilst working for free because, quite frankly, being an intern is tragic enough. 
  • Will make sense on your CV. There's no point diving into an internship on a complete tangent from your degree, just because the company have accepted your application. In fact, this should start alarm bells ringing - "employers" should care that the internship will be beneficial to you, and should question any disconnections between it and your degree.
  • Contact creation. Will this internship open doors for you, by allowing you to meet 'ladder-leg-up' people you wouldn't otherwise have access to? If yes, grab with both hands.
  • Chance of employment on completion. This used to be a given with internships, that if you preformed well and excelled at your duties, you stood a very real chance of employment at the end of it. Now...not so much. Definitely something to look out for though.

Secondly, some things I learnt from interning, that should be avoided or if you must endure them, should at least be moaned about:

  • Not feeling like you can say no. Working overtime every night whilst paid employees leave at five is not fair, and should only be undertaken if you are a) having a great time or b) gaining something vital for your future goals.
  • Being the office punch bag. You are there to learn, and be as helpful as possible. It is unfair for employers to expect you to know everything, and take their stress out on you. I had this with one of my internships and the bad attitude and stressful environment completely ruined my experience.
  • Being part of a long line of interns. In this day and age most creative work spaces will have an office intern, but it's worth being aware when you're just 'an extra pair of hands', part of a long history of interns or when you could be a future employee. Strive for the later - and go into the first with open eyes and a determination to get what you want out of the experience.
  • Not learning a thing. It's expected that you will be doing the boring jobs, the jobs no one else wants to do, the unglamorous jobs. However, alongside that you should be learning about your environment, about what others in the office are working on, and how the business works. If those around you are leaving you to do the filing all day long, you've got to SPEAK UP and let them know you want to learn as well.
  • Over-staying your welcome. Know when enough is enough, when it's pretty clear they're not going to employ you and when it's just plain exploitation. Then announce you're moving on.

I hope this helps anyone considering internships in the near future! I'd love to hear if you have any comments on this, your experiences, or if you feel I've missed anything. Please do leave your comments below. 



  1. I've had my first lesson today on creative oppotunities and internships were mentioned but they were'nt really reccomended, although my lecturuer did say any experience you gain is always beneficial. Like you mentioned the only thing they were concerned about with these sort of rols is being taken for a mug and not learning any skills during the time.

    I feel a bit lost at the moment. I leave this year and have never felt so scared in my life. It's that sickening feeling of wanting you do well in life and enjoy the job I end up doing. I'd hate to think I've gone through 3 years of fine art to end up full time in my current part time job as a cashier.

    These bullets really helped me, thank you. I've said it before but you're a fantastic inspiration to me too. Your work is just ace!

  2. Lovely post and illustration! Great tips! :)

  3. You're so very right! To be honest I really hate the way students and graduates, particularly of the more creative variety, are blatantly exploited by companies. I have a friend who got an internship in London who paid her £8 per day to cover her 'expenses'. How this was realistic I don't know. She was lucky enough to have a friend who lived close (an hour away at least) to London that she could crash with - however she would have spent more than £8 a day on travel and lunch, so who knows where they got their figures from.

    Anyway, rant over! Lovely blog, it really gives a feel for your work and you should be proud!

    And Katie - its ok to be scared :) it will get better though. Even if you do end up working full time for a bit, try not to lose sight :)