Sunday, October 28, 2012

Working an Unpaid Internship

“So, you’re doing an unpaid internship. How are you paying for it all?”

The first thing people always ask me when I mention I am doing an internship is whether or not it is paid. When I sheepishly admit that it is unpaid, they feign surprise and do not hesitate to ask the incredibly personal question of how I manage to survive without living in a garbage can like Oscar the Grouch, as if I was the first person they had ever met to do an unpaid internship. Quelle horreur!

You would never ask someone exactly how much money they make in a year, and if you do, it is always politely phrased in the brackets “if you don’t mind me asking…” Nobody has to justify their salaried positions, but those of use who don’t make money are forced to explain our lack of it. How in hell is it gauche for rich people to talk money, but others are allowed to nose into the personal lives of those who are struggling as if it was for the public record.

How I pay for my lifestyle is something I would rather not discuss, partially because I feel I shouldn’t have to, but also because it is a huge sore spot in my life. I’m not interested in telling strangers how I walk an hour to work every day because I would rather not have the added expense of public transit, among other money-saving initiatives. It makes for a shitty, depressing and downright humiliating conversation.

It’s fucking ridiculous how no one ever asks University students how they survive in school. Kids pay thousands of dollars every semester to go to school and ‘educate themselves’, which usually means smoking a lot of weed and staying up all-night writing a paper they forgot was due. Higher education is a hell of a lot more expensive than working for free and nobody ever asks students how they manage, because it’s obvious: they either assume gross debt in the form of student loans, or their parents pay for school, possibly both. I’m sure there are some people who can afford to pay their own educational expenses through co-op programs, but these self-supporting students are not the overwhelming majority.

So, hearing people ask such a grating and personal question about my bank account on a regular basis makes me want to freak out and go all Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men; “You can’t handle the truth!!” 

What were my choices, really? I could continue to work my shitty part-time minimum wage retail job and supplement it with my freelance writing income indefinitely, or I could choose to spend my days doing something that I really, really, wanted to do, which is work at a magazine.

In retail, I was wasting away. I went to work, served the customers, and went home. I was not going to “move up in the company” because I didn’t give a shit about the company. It was mindless, meaningless and was contributing nothing to my desired career path. So I decided to leave it behind in favour of improving my skills and making connections in a field that I desperately want to work in. My internship is stressful and intense, but I know I am good at what I do and getting better every day. The work I do is gratifying, and I am happy to do it. I no longer dread going to a work where I have to smile at people and repeat the same eight sentences for hours on end.

But still, how am I paying for it? There is really no way to say “my parents are helping me out” without sounding like a privileged, Park Avenue princess. Yes, I have privilege, but at the same time I am just paying my dues. The media industry is structured in a way that supports this privilege. Unpaid internships are completely unfair, but it doesn’t change the fact that they are commonplace. Thousands of young people have paved the way by working for free before me, and thousands will continue to trample the path long after my six months are completed.

If you haven’t read the article “How to Succeed in Journalism Without Doing an Unpaid Internship” yet, you really should. I won’t ruin the article for you, but.. Actually I will. Spoiler alert, the answer is privilege.

Next time you ask somebody how they can afford to do an unpaid internship, maybe you should ask yourself how you afford to eat $10 lunches three times a week, or how you justify spending $100+/month on your cell phone bill. People justify certain expenses because they want them in their lives. It’s really as simple as that. You are probably not a financial angel with a Suze Orman-shaped halo, so it is not your place to label me while I live as frugally as I can in the hopes that it will someday pay off.


  1. I am reading this on the eve, of an interview to do an unpaid internship. I am hoping I get this internship and I feel exactly like you ... great new blog enjoying this reads.

  2. excited about the new blog, isabel. i, too, am in the the process of working unpaid jobs until i can land something i really want to do. i was telling a friend the other day, that for our generation - at least those of us interested in creative fields - the unpaid internship is the new graduate school. hey, at least we don't have to pay, right...?

    i guess that's just the way it works these dayz. and yes, it is mostly (entirely?) accessible to those w privilege. all i can say, is that for me, that doesn't mean that i feel i shouldn't participate in order to fulfill my dream of working in fashion.


  3. I don't know what kind of jerks you've been talking to, because most internships are unpaid. I've had five internships and only two of them were paid (and I still worked a full-time job, because the pay was minimal) and I was still in college at that time. After graduating, finding a paid internship was just as difficult as finding an actual job: impossible. Rather than ending up like me, the Queen of Internships, I hope yours leads to a more solid position.

  4. What industry do you work in?

    I'm in the design industry and I know all too well that sometimes the only work one can find is unpaid, or perhaps it's the only way to engage with a studio/company you'd really like to work for.

    Having said that, I personally believe that no studio/company worth its salt should offer unpaid internships - if they can't afford to pay, they can't afford to hire, it's as simple as that.

    But the reality is that many of the top studios (in architecture and furniture design at least) are very aware of the fact that students and graduates will camp overnight on their doorstep for the opportunity of even unpaid work, and they take advantage of this!

    Hopefully your internship is a fruitful one!

  5. Sounds a bit like the conversation I regularly have which goes:

    Person: So, Lauren, what do you do?

    Lauren: Me? Well I write. Mainly plays, but also a blog.

    Person: Oh, really? And does that pay much?

    Lauren: Well, no, not yet, but I need to do a bit more work establishing -

    Person: - no, no I wouldn't think that would earn you much money from that!

    Lauren: Well, I'm hoping that -

    Person: What do you do for money?!

    Lauren: I tutor.

    Person: Oh good. And do you plan on going into education eventually?

    Lauren: Nope.

    Person disapproves.

    But then, last Saturday night, a change!

    Person: What? A playwright?! That is so exciting! I've never met a playwright before. You've made my night!

    So, moral is, there are some nice people out there, who care as little about my financial situation as I do but as much about my writing as I do as well. Not everyone understands the people who make the tough choices in hope that it'll be worth it in the end.

    Keep on! And get those gold sneakers of amazement to conquer that one hour walk in!

  6. These people are definitely being ignorant.

    Like you say, I think if there's any disapproval arising from you telling them you're doing an unpaid internship, it should be at the employers, not at you!

    Why aren't they paying someone to work full time for them?

    One of those things that makes no sense at all to me. I know it was a long time ago that you wrote this, but yeah. Best wishes, Liz

  7. Haha, here in the U.S it's pretty common to ask someone how they're paying for college because everyone until college lives in fear of student loan debts. I know I do. So a lot of the time it's more like "Hey, can you give me some advice on how to stay off the streets and still pay for all my textbooks?"
    That does sound pretty rude in the context you're describing though