My mother – ever the unwitting comedian – calls them ‘internments’. With over 1 million 16-24 year-olds currently unemployed in the UK, and many more still desperately seeking a full-time graduate role, willing interns are thick on the ground. How can you ensure that you survive and thrive?
At a recent pirate party, I met a girl who now works in artists’ rights, but previously spent over a year interning unpaid with various television and film companies. She recalls with perfect clarity the moment when she realised it wasn’t going to lead anywhere: when having followed all the advice about using your initiative, making yourself ‘indispensable’ and blithely fetching coffee, lunch and her boss’s dry-cleaning, he placed his change jar on her desk and asked her to count the hundreds of one and two pence coins, so that he could take it to the bank. I reiterate, this was for an unpaid position.
Yes, there are definitely times when the best course of action is to take off your heels, slip the pumps from your tote bag (tip #1) and run as fast as you can in the opposite direction. Most of the time though there are techniques and guidelines you can follow to ensure you get the most out of your internship.
When I finished my undergraduate degree I took a paid intern role at a well-known film company where I worked in the Acquisitions department. I got to read scripts and watch films all day and write what I thought of them – best job ever! I worked hard, made a great impression and then… left. As I hadn’t taken a gap year or really travelled anywhere I decided to take some time out to live in Central America and work on my Spanish language skills. I therefore didn’t ask my employers for any references or recommendations, and I didn’t stay in touch with my boss. When I returned to the UK six months later with a tan that turned out to be mostly dirt and a flawless Nicaraguan accent that no native Spaniard will ever understand, I realised this was a mistake.
In lieu of a contract (or in some cases, a wage) you really need to take personal responsibility for making sure your experience is valuable in the long term. Reasonable expectations are
– Ask for a career mentor in the area in which you see yourself working.
– Insist on an exit interview summarising your strengths and weaknesses and areas for improvement. This can be difficult in a busy environment but push for it and it will probably leave them with a positive impression of you as a driven, career-orientated individual.
– Try to pick up some names of contacts which you can approach for future job opportunities and even ask if they know anywhere hiring. It’s a mistake to think that if your boss or supervisor is pleased with your work they’ll go out of their way to try and help you out – they’re busy people and you’re one in a long line of office ghosts who have traipsed the corridors in identical Zara office attire and oversized glasses. Ensure you make clear you are looking for work and would appreciate any help they can give you.
– Ask for a written recommendation from your line manager before you leave. Otherwise you’ll end up having to contact HR, who won’t do anything beyond confirming the length of your tenure (if you’re lucky).
Are we a generation afraid to network? Next time Alan and I ponder the difficulties of ‘building contacts’…