‘I lost more than I gained’ – my thoughts on unpaid internships

During the summer of 2018, after her first year of university PressPad’s Blogs Editor Amber Sunner completed an unpaid internship in London. She writes that the cost of doing the internship was not worth the skills she learnt on the job. 

After my first year of studying journalism at university, I wanted an internship in the industry – I thought it would offer invaluable experience. But “invaluable” experience doesn’t really exist I think. You always have value.

I understand that everyone needs a start in journalism – it’s all very well that I am sitting, writing this now while I have a steady part-time job. But that internship in London, while I did enjoy it, it made me start to hate journalism just a little bit.

I stayed in my brother’s student accommodation because he was studying in London and I didn’t at the time have anyone I knew in London. (If I had known about PressPad I would’ve signed up to become an intern and stay in a host-house in London *wink*.) Yet it undoubtedly felt a bit wrong that I was doing all this work for free.

The work wasn’t too hard; it was an editorial and design internship at a small magazine. My expenses weren’t covered and I was often sent all around London to deliver packages (which was not in the job description either). It was very much beyond my comfort zone. I didn’t know London that well at all; I’d never even caught a London bus on my own before that internship. I got lost numerous times which I expected coming from a small town but this didn’t make it any less daunting. I did however learn a lot about the city I have always hoped of working in such as how to navigate my way around successfully (thanks to google maps and citymapper that is)!

It had its highs and lows like a majority of experiences but it felt so different to what I had signed up for.

London offered me a lot of opportunities in terms of the life experience I gained. I ate good food – thanks to my brother and his girlfriend and met some awesome people. In that roundabout sense it was an invaluable experience. But the internship, unfortunately, did not give me the same satisfaction. It wasn’t as exciting as I thought it would be. It had its highs and lows like a majority of experiences but it felt so different to what I had signed up for.

Don’t get me wrong I didn’t imagine it to be a Devil Wears Prada-esque experience. It was just very odd working for nothing, other than a whole in my CV being filled. I wholly recognise my privilege in being able to have such an experience and I am grateful for it. It was a small launchpad for my career but I don’t think it’s entirely necessary. Especially during a pandemic where the world has shut down, there are so many ways of getting experience from the comfort of your own home. You could dabble in freelancing or maybe attend webinars to help hone your skills to make you more employable. Maybe student media could also be an option for you? There are heaps of ways of getting your kick-start into journalism – just know your worth, assess your decisions carefully and think “Will it benefit your future?” I’m not sure if my experience was truly worth it – I lost more than I gained in the monetary sense but also the skills I gained, while helpful they were rudimentary despite my desire to learn. 

I am however a sole advocate for paid internships. Everyone’s work has a value and while they tend to be more competitive they should always take precedent over unpaid internships. Remember internships are basically like jobs – so why shouldn’t you get paid? 

[Note from Amber: Some may see this article as conflicting with an earlier opinion I have previously written about in the PressPad newsletter about writing lone articles for free to help build up your portfolio. I still stand by this opinion wholeheartedly. Writing an article for free and completing an unpaid internship are rather different – internships require a commitment of travel, work, buying your lunch (granted mine was pre-covid) and the expenses mount high especially if you move out of your city.]

Image courtesy of Amber Sunner