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Internships: tips for spotting golden opportunities from exploitative scams

By Marie Paine


How can you tell when something is the real deal or a bit of a scam? And how can you tell if an internship is right for you? Marie Paine shares her honest, unfiltered advice.

When I think about my relationship with work, I often think of my parents. They moved to London in their early 20s, and soon found work as a bank clerk and a recruiter. Within five years they had a mortgage and a house in South London. I know that my parents worked bloody hard to achieve this stability - taking on side jobs, living in grotty flats and rarely having nights out. But the idea that you can now just “get a job” straight out of university, let alone a house, seems like a distant dream.


Now employers expect you to not only have a good degree from a good university, but also have at least six months experience in the industry you want to work in. Rather than paying junior staff proper full-time wages for full-time work, many companies are able to rely on cheap labour in the form of interns and grads schemes. All thanks to the promise of training, experience and exposure.


As Amalia Illgner notes in her exposee on Monocle magazine’s internship scheme, “it was a canny shipping method: for every nine-hour shift, Monocle interns are paid £30. Sure, £30 a day works out at around the same hourly rate as an illegally exploited UK garment factory worker, but when I was accepted last year, I was thrilled. As one of five interns on a two-month editorial post, I had elbowed out dozens of other young hopefuls to take my ergonomic seat at Monocle’s blond wood workbenches.”


A recent report by the Sutton Trust found that graduates are being trapped in a cycle of unpaid internships that offer no significant benefit to their careers. However, it’s also the case that interning can be a fabulous way to accrue the skills and network needed to land a good job. But how can you tell when something is the real deal or a bit of a scam? And how can you tell if an internship is right for you?


As someone who’s been through the internship route and lived to tell the tale, I will attempt to share my honest, unfiltered advice. Basically, the good, the bad and the ugly of what to expect and how to work out if something is a legit opportunity.


Working in advertising had been a dream of mine since the age of 14, when I did my first ever stint of work experience in a local company’s marketing department. As my second year at university was drawing to a close, and whispers of internships and grad schemes started to bubble up amongst my friendship group, I realised I needed to flesh out my woefully poor CV by organising an internship in a marketing department.


The good:


  • The exposure: I had a vague idea of what advertising would be like - I’d read a couple of articles online, but none of this prepared me for the reality. By learning on the job, I quickly learnt about the different departments in a company - who does what, how a campaign is made and what all the different jargon means (ATL, BTL, VOD, TVC, CRM...WTF?). Because of this exposure, I discovered a department I quickly fell in love with and have been able to make a go of it as my full time job ever since.

  • The pay: the salary for my internship was in, I got paid. Although it is a legal requirement, some businesses still find ways around it. So be sure to read the fine-print on your contract. Also, be aware that the minimum wage will not be enough money for you to live close to your work or even commute - you’ll need to call in favours to afford to do an internship in a major city. Expect a few weeks kipping on some distant relative’s sofa.

  • The flexibility: some of you will find that there is a distinct lack of pressure when you're an intern. Of course you have some responsibilities and you want to make an impression, but you’re not really expected to be as involved as a permanent member of staff. Use your lunch breaks to go to the gym, have a walk or eat lunch in a park. Occasionally you’ll be expected to work late, but most of the time you can finish around 5:30pm. Ironically, you’ll miss this when you land a ‘real job’.

  • Making connections: interning is a great way to suss out who is generous with their time and who is not. When you’re bottom of the food chain, it can be easy for permanent staff to ignore you. So, make note of those who go the extra mile to guide you. One of these people could end up being a mentor or a helpful referee. By keeping in touch with one of my colleagues from my internship, who subsequently moved to another company, I was able to secure another placement the following year.


The bad:

  • Nepotism: in trying to organise my internship I sent out approximately 25 emails and got absolutely zero responses. This is pretty depressing. I was a hardworking student at a top uni...what else were they looking for? Oh yes, a family connection. Many industries sadly still operate on a “who you know, not what you know” basis. Reluctantly, I asked my parents if we knew anyone who could help out and, like any painfully middle-class family, the answer was yes. I had found my golden ticket in the form of an uncle. This endemic nepotism does have some advantages though. I found that most other interns had no real ability or interest in the work they were doing, which made me look uncommonly hardworking and devoted.

    **NOTE: If, like many, you don't have any contacts, but do want to get into a particular field, please get in touch with us!**


The ugly:

  • The donkey work: be prepared for the most mind-numbing work of your life. I thought I’d signed up for something very glamorous - something with key cards! So, I was baffled as to why I was spending my days inputting customer data into spreadsheets or ferrying executives’ personal belongings across London in Ubers. My advice is to find a good podcast or playlist to overcome the boredom. The donkey work won’t last forever.

  • No guarantee of a job: the truth no one tells you when you start your internship is that there is never the guarantee of a job at the end, even if you work hard and are shit-hot at the job. In total, I have done three three-month internships at different companies and, despite being pleased with the quality of my work, none offered me a job at the end of my time there. When I slowly realised this towards the end of my third internship, I began applying for permanent jobs at other places and was able to secure a fantastic, full-time junior role elsewhere. So hedge your bets and apply for multiple opportunities - had I waited around, politely enquiring if they were going to keep me on after my internship, I would have been left with no job and feeling like I was back at square-one.


Armed with these experiences, may you go forth, take no shit and boss it in whichever industry you choose.

Image by unknown Pinterest artist

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