Internships: just for the young?

spiral bound notebook

Internships are wasted on the young.

Or maybe they’re not. Maybe it’s just that mine was wasted on me.

How I look back now and wish I’d taken more advantage of the opportunity. I was 21. I applied on a whim, scrabbling together a last minute CV, and was stunned to be invited to an interview. That meant a day away from my full-time but unpaid summer job as an arts reviewer at the Edinburgh Festival. I took the 5am train down to London, the 4pm train back, arriving in Scotland just in time for my publication’s launch party.

In between train journeys I spent several hours in the offices of a national newspaper, along with a dozen other wannabe hacks. First we were just observed as we sat and chatted, not realising it was part of the screening. Next we were given a marker pen and a copy of the paper to scrawl on. ‘Tell us what you’d do differently,’ they said. I circled the headlines. ‘Too small to be effective signposts on the page,’ I wrote. Finally we were paired up and had to interview each other – ten minutes to talk, then twenty minutes to turn it into a publishable piece. That bit was easy. Everyone loves to talk about themselves. Everyone has a story.

Something in me appealed to them – I’m not sure whether it was talent, enthusiasm, or just willingness to travel – and I got an email the next week to say that I’d secured a place on the scheme. I was one of just six interns from 1500 applicants, and so proud I thought I might pop. Soon after, a letter arrived with the dates and desk allocations. The internship would be split into three blocks of three weeks, each timed to coincide with university holidays. I’d be starting over Christmas and New Year on the arts desk. I couldn’t wait.

But then things got a bit messy. I broke up with a boyfriend, three days before I was supposed to start. So I didn’t feel like being brave and going to London by myself, I felt like hiding under the duvet with a bottle of wine and a large bar of chocolate. As I was getting on the train a lecturer from the uni recognised me. ‘Gosh,’ she said. ‘You look rough.’ She helped me bash my way onto the carriage with my sleeping bag, clunky old laptop and giant rucksack, and then let me cry quietly beside her until Newcastle. After finally arriving in Kings Cross, I battled my way through the tube system and out to my brother’s flat in Ealing for sausage salad, a cold beer and the sofa where I’d be sleeping for the next three weeks.

The arts desk was difficult. It felt like everything I did was wrong. I showed up at 9am on the first day, but wasn’t even allowed into the building until my editor showed up, which was over an hour later. I had bought myself a new skirt for the first day – beautiful turquoise suede from Topshop on Oxford Street – but on the way up the stairs that same editor, walking behind me, said disapprovingly ‘Gosh, that’s quite short isn’t it?’ and I never wore it again.

There was very little to do over the Christmas spell because the review tickets had been snapped up months ago, and the end-of-year summaries were already written. During the entire three- week period I can only remember a handful of specific jobs that I undertook. When Susan Sonntag died, I was given the joyless task of phoning round her friends for quotes to put in the obituary. I was asked to track down contact details for Paul Rusesabagina – the inspiration for Hotel Rwanda – and spent several hours doing so, only to discover that someone else had found them earlier and forgotten to tell me. Eventually, after much pleading, I was allowed to write an 80-word piece on a television show I’d never seen. But that was about it. The abundance of Starbucks and Costa branches nearby meant that I couldn’t even be put to use making coffee.

At lunchtimes, I found a nearby park and sat alone, reading novels and eating sandwiches from Prêt a Manger. I spent Christmas Eve by myself, eating Marks and Spencer’s tiger prawns out of the packet and drinking miniatures of vodka from the Christmas stocking that my Mum had packed for me. I even went to a pantomime on my tod – Aladdin at the Old Vic – and felt so lonely among the cosy families and glamorous couples.

But – all that said – some bits were brilliant. One perk of being an intern was that we were able to sit in on several of the daily editors meetings, watching the head of every section make their pitch to the big boss. It was a fascinating insight into the way a newspaper takes shape.

On Boxing Day, the tsunami struck. The arts desk weren’t due in, but the news desk needed extra help – more pairs of eyes to watch the wires and keep a running tally of the terrible losses. Even though the circumstances were so awful, that one day I spent on news was the most interesting time I had, and the biggest buzz of the whole three weeks. News was still at the heart of the paper, and that showed. It finally felt like I was part of a team.

Outside the office, I was lucky enough to encounter people who helped me see sides of London I would never otherwise have known. The friend who treated me to a bottle of red wine and a steak sandwich in Covent Garden; the family kind enough to let me join them for a Christmas Eve church service and dinner in their home; the fellow intern who took my arm and steered me towards oysters and Guinness in Notting Hill. On Christmas Day itself, I met up with another student journalist from Edinburgh, and we drove round delivering meals on wheels to elderly people in Hammersmith.

So I did my three weeks. I was due to go back for six more – three at Easter and three in the summer holidays. But in February I was elected to a student sabbatical position at my university. It would be a full-time job. I emailed the newspaper to say I wouldn’t be back.

That was the right thing to do, and I have never regretted it. By staying in Edinburgh for an extra year I was afforded opportunities that would never have come up otherwise. I travelled to the Arctic. I visited Palestine. I met my husband and made a home. I wouldn’t change any of those things for all the money (or bylines) in the world.

But gosh. If I was given that opportunity now. If I could have my cake AND eat if. If I could take part in an internship designed for a 21 year old but approach it with the life experience, the confidence, the skills, and the hunger for knowledge that I have as a 31 year old. I know that I would get so much more from it, and the newspaper would get so much more from me.

I spotted the other day that Red magazine are advertising a paid internship for grownups, which is brilliant. Huge props to them for realising that youth isn’t everything, and for understanding that some of the changes that come with age actually make you more of an asset to a publication, not less.

Wouldn’t it be great to see other places follow suit?

***

I’m so delighted to have been shortlisted in the Best Writer category of the BritMums Brilliance in Blogging Awards. (Even without finishing that internship!). Thank you so much to you all for your support. If you would like to see DorkyMum make it into the final six, please take a few minutes to vote for me here.

28 responses

  1. Personally I think that all internships should be paid🙂 It was even suggested that I should do one after I lost my job. Yep right, lone parent with three kids, two with special needs can afford to work for no pay and fund all the costs associated with work. I wrote about this before and the shock in the PR consulantacy where I used to work when we started to hear rumours about 2005 or so that some companies were not paying their interns! It really is a recent thing and one of the most appalling ideas we’ve copied from the US.

  2. You’re never too old for internships. While I’m not a fan of long, unpaid placements, I do think SO much can be gained from work experience. It was spending long summers (unpaid) working on news desks at newspapers and radio stations that informed my decision to do a broadcasting Masters. And it was yet more (unpaid) work experience which led to my first proper job. It also gave me the confidence to off on my tod to India and work on a magazine there, alongside a bit of work experience at a newspaper in Chennai. That said, so many adults simply can’t afford to give up large chunks of their time for free, so it’s brilliant to see a great magazine like Red offering a paid placement. In my experience overseeing work experience students the ones who throw themselves into it with gusto always do the best – either getting offered jobs or (at least) securing references of approval for work elsewhere. Our best student was a mature journalism student. She’s now working as a freelance correspondent in Yemen, regularly reporting for The Times, The NY Times and the BBC. I’m not surprised – she was amazing! And she started that second career at the age of 30+.

  3. Why doesn’t it surprise me that you were picked for the internship, and what an experience you had… and I think you make a really good point though about age with these placements, surely age makes for greater insight and maturity and researching and writing articles? Great post (as ever). X.

  4. I absolutely agree. I look back now at all the work/academic opportunities that I seemed just to end up in, and wonder why I didn’t make more of them or realise that they wouldn’t be a never-ending stream. I like the concept of the “returnship” which seems to be gaining traction, and I know that as a 30something woman with experience and maturity I could really contribute. Of course, though, geography of place and family mean I’m quite literally not in a place to apply, let alone benefit.

    I am sure that your talent and all you have to offer will find a home as soon as you’re ready.

  5. I saw that offer from Red, and I almost, almost applied. But it did feel wrong, given the stereotypical image that is the intern. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all that changed and we had the guts to go for it??

  6. One thing I’m doing at the moment that I’m loving is learning new things, only arguably tedious programming bits and bobs but by seeking new things to learn that can help you develop new skills you can gain such confidence, especially being older. x

  7. There’s a vicious circle in newspapers these days, that they are so short-staffed they don’t have time to teach interns properly. Yet they have a shortage of good people in their office.
    I worked with a young graduate recently while doing shifts on a newspaper. She’d been working unpaid for months, and eventually had to leave in order to sign on for benefits (they wouldn’t give her any if she was working – even for free!) I suggested the newspaper keep her and give her a sum of “expenses” which would equal the benefits she could get. They told me she was confident enough to do interviews, but couldn’t write a good article. If someone had taken 5 mins each day to critique her work and tell her where she was going wrong, she might have got better.
    Sadly internships are often wasted by employers, who don’t work with the potential they have at their disposal.

  8. Pingback: just for the young?

  9. Great article Ruth, I am one month in to a new job setting up internships for disabled people, and some of that has been spent getting the funder to agree to remove the age restriction on applicants. I also agree with comments above that by definition an internship should be paid, not unpaid. There is no legal or government recognised definition, but there should be, and it should be that an internship is a paid work employment placement designed to deliver a defined piece of work for the employer while providing a tailored learning and development experience for the intern. Anything unpaid is volunteering, and anything without such focus in its design is not an internship its just work experience.

  10. I don’t think there is a too old for being an intern. Only as a grown up I’d hope that the organisation employing you would treat you considerably better.

  11. I think i may have just submitted half a comment there so i won’t repeat it but totally agree and i think its great Red are recognising that you are never too old to learn. I would apply myself if i had the time:)
    p.s massive congrats on your bibs now, well deserved🙂 x

  12. I totally agree – you would intern like it really mattered these days, because you’re paying childcare to be there. Congrats on your Writer place, best of luck!

  13. Definitely not just for the young, but I do think you have even more to prove if you do an internship as a ‘grown up’. More skills and experience to do the ‘proving’ but still a challenge. Or maybe that’s just me being a scaredy cat.🙂

  14. There are definitely opportunities I had that I just didn’t appreciate when I was much younger, oh to have some of them again now, with a much more worldly (not sure about wise) head on my shoulders! Beautiful writing Ruth, felt like I was there with you… :)x

  15. Sounds a tough internship Ruth and your right as a grown woman you would have asked for more, been more confident told your editor your skirt length was your business etc. I would love to go and do my phd now feel I would cope so much better. I struggled so much through my masters because my mind was elsewhere and now more settle i could give it focus. It’s never too late right?

  16. What a great post and a great opportunity! I think we tend to value opportunities more as we get older, I know I do and I find myself wanting to learn more now than I ever did at 21, when I was convinced I knew it all!

  17. What a wonderful tale Ruth, and I can just imagine you in London at Christmas time. You are so right though. I wish there were more internships for older folk available as their clarity and focus is often much better. sadly though with mortgages to pay and kids to feed most of us could not even consider working unpaid. Bravo to Red though.

  18. I loved reading about your experiences ten years ago. I can picture you sat there eating your tiger prawns.

    I don’t think you’re ever too old to learn, but sadly the older you become and the more responsibilities you have, the harder it is to take an unpaid or low paid role.

  19. Oh I love the idea of internships for grown ups!!! It would be so useful for people looking for a carreer change or going back to work after a longer break (e.g. after having kids!!)

  20. Internships often don’t include a lot of stuff to get your teeth into and they should have prepared you for that. A lot of it is all about soaking up the atmosphere of a place, turning up on time, watching and learning. It is very sad that most of these positions are unpaid. I definitely think that there is a place for paid apprenticeships, whether the applicant is old or young and giving apprentices valued and valid tasks that contribute to the workplace. You are more than ready take on the world Ruth. You have so many beautiful and interesting stories to tell and lots of loyal readers who love to read them x

  21. Hmm, I understand why people do them, and the experience I would imagine sometimes is invaluable, but I think they should be paid. It just feels so wrong that people get little or no pay for putting their heart and soul into something. I do think though that young, old or in between they should be offered to all age groups most definitely. Beautifully written post!

  22. I was offered an internship when I was just 17, at Radio 1. My parents said no as I would be having to go to London, from Edinburgh, on my own. I would still love to be able to have a go at an internship now somewhere like that, they give such great experiences – even if they are not always fun. Great post x

  23. I saw that internship from Red too, and balked at the lack of pay and the childcare costs that I would have to stump up…however, I do think that you are right PAID internships for the elderly (;-)) would be great. I think that by the time we are looking at an internship later on in life, perhaps for a career change, we have a fair number of responsibilities that not bringing in money could cause problems with😀

  24. I applied Ruth. I put in ages ago for the Red internship because like you (and I am even older) I have so much to learn still and I am in a totally new area to the one I was in even just 10 years ago let alone 30 years ago. I’d love to be put through and like you say live the internship with confidence, experience and really make the most of what is a fabulous opportunity … fingers crossed eh?

  25. I would love to intern at a big magazine such as Red and I love that they are offering it as a paid role to a more mature audience. I hope many more businesses will follow their lead.

    I did my first internship when I was 14, at a local newspaper, and it was great. I was hired as a freelancer afterwards and gained so much experience that it has really opened doors for me. I didn’t see it as a waste of time at all, but I think it can be, if you end up in a role that’s not really what you want or have researched properly.

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