How to survive an unpaid internship with your dignity intact

How to survive an unpaid internship with your dignity intact

It sucks, but letโ€™s make the best of it

Remember the halcyon days when all you needed to get a foot on the proverbial career ladder was an ok degree? No, me neither. Those days are long gone. And as if leaving university £50,000 in debt wasn’t terrifying enough, we’re also faced with unemployment and a saturated job market before our photo with a wonky mortarboard and fake scroll has been mounted on your nan’s wall.

Think a 2:1 and a term as social secretary of the Extreme Knitting Society is enough to land you a grad job? Think again, pal. Nowadays the minimum requirements for many jobs, or even paid internships, seem to be a good degree, Photoshop proficiency, Grade 8 kazoo, a diamond-encrusted 24-carat gold LinkedIn profile, and the real kicker: relevant work experience. This starts the vicious cycle of applying for work experience that requires work experience… which you can’t, because you don’t have the work experience. Aggh.

Let’s get this straight right now: low and unpaid internships really shouldn’t exist, particularly in companies that rely on free labour in lieu of hiring entry level staff. But work experience can be pretty important when you can’t make an informed, practical contribution to a role with just theoretical knowledge from your degree. And unfortunately in a lot of industries, at least until we convince companies to do things differently, internships are still pretty necessary to further your career prospects. So if you have to do them, here’s how to make the most of them.

1. Bone up in advance

It’s a ridiculous catch-22 that you often need experience to get experience, but if you use your time at university wisely, you can learn skills that transfer to that prize first internship in your chosen industry. There are many ways of building invaluable skills: some courses have modules where you can spend contact time volunteering or you could become a department rep, write for your university newspaper or take an exec role in a society. Consider setting aside time in the holidays for work experience, so you’re armed with a bulging CV before you graduate.

2. Get the full picture

Obviously it’s frustrating if you turn up on your first day at your dream company only to discover you’ll be spending the week photocopying, filing and colour-coding drawing pins, but if you’ve read the internship advert carefully, it should be clear if the experience is largely administrative. Don’t be afraid to drop employers an email first asking what the work will involve, especially if the role isn’t formally advertised. And remember that larger, more recognisable companies may not offer as much hands-on experience as smaller companies, so it is worth weighing up whether it’s better to have a renowned employer on your CV, or valuable, practical skills and experience from a company not so many people have heard of.


3. Know your rights

You are legally entitled to National Minimum Wage (NMW) if you are classified as a ‘worker’ – for example, if you have been promised a work contract in future – but not if an internship is being carried out for less than a year as part of a further/higher education course. And generally if a company thinks that the value of the skills they are bestowing on you as an intern is greater than the contribution you will provide, eg. if you are shadowing an employee and being more of a chore than a help, they won’t feel obliged to pay you. That’s Capitalism, folks, and it’s shafting us all, especially candidates who can’t afford to support themselves during unpaid placements.

But as working for free for longer than a week is challenging enough, it’s not unreasonable to expect a contribution towards your travel and/or lunch expenses. Definitely ask for this if it’s not offered upfront.

4. Know your limits

Everybody has to start somewhere, and completing menial tasks can still help you gain a more rounded understanding of a multifaceted role. Matilda, a 24-year-old vet, had compulsory unpaid experience throughout her five-year degree, culminating in rotations of experience for the final two years of her course. She says: “Unpaid work can be frustrating, but it’s definitely the best setting in which to learn. Apart from teaching you vital practical and clinical skills, it prepares you for the job’s other challenges. I always knew it would involve long hours, but doing placements meant starting work wasn’t such a culture shock.”

 "It’s important not to be exploited. You have every right to say no to tasks which you find ethically compromising, dangerous or exploitative, paid or not."

But despite the benefits, it’s important not to be exploited. You have every right to say no to tasks which you find ethically compromising, dangerous or exploitative, and paid or not, you should never feel jeopardised. That said, if you’re finding a placement boring, don’t be a dick and walk out after two days. You should have found out what kind of work you’d be doing before starting, and you can always spin shit tasks into ‘transferrable skills’ on your CV. Your employer may well have industry connections, and they can warn other people off you if you’re bolshy and difficult. Protect your rep; be polite.

5. Make the most of it

The quality of your experience is often more vital than the quantity – and because life is cruel, some employers might actually be wary if you’ve spent ages racking up back-to-back internships without finding a paid job. So smile and show willing, even if you’re collecting endless rounds of decaf-half-shot-oat cortados, and hopefully the glowing reference you receive will secure you a job where you aren’t the office’s beverage bitch.

"Smile and be willing, and hopefully the glowing reference you receive will secure you a job where you aren’t the office’s beverage bitch."

Since qualifying as a vet, Matilda now works in a professional setting where she is responsible for work experience students herself. To really benefit from a placement, she recommends doing a bit of extra research in your own time so that you can engage in professional discussions with your employers. “It makes you feel more like a peer than a general dogsbody,” she says. “In multiple interviews, I’ve been told that employers don’t really care about my level of clinical skill and knowledge (they can help me develop that); for them, it’s vital that I can integrate into the team.”

This is a sentiment echoed by Julian, who has edited publications such as Heat and Digital Spy, who believes that interns need to have “confidence, enthusiasm, and a point of view about what they are working on.” He says: “Working in media, I love it when an intern teaches me something or gives me a perspective on the world I hadn’t previously considered.”

Finally, end on a high note. Little gestures like adding your colleagues on LinkedIn, bringing in treats on the last day and sending a thank you card when your placement is over will make sure you stick in their mind for all the right reasons. If unpaid internships are an unavoidable evil (for now), you might as well face them with dignity.



Photography: Tim Gouw for Unsplash