Once I got back from travelling, I knew the direction I wanted my career to take. Well, actually, I think I knew in 2013 after I finished an internship, but I had already booked my trip and I wasn’t about to cancel. My career would have to wait even though I’ve always thought of myself as being ‘a career girl’.
I guess that’s why I did a masters. To find a path that would lead to an actual career while also trying to differentiate myself from the already saturated graduate market. I’ll always remember being slightly bemused when I told my Poppa (Grandad) I was applying for jobs, and he asked me: “are you prepared for disappointment?”. I didn’t know how to respond. But I’ve come to realise that this was a wise remark and a reflection of the jobs market.
While studying for my undergraduate degree, I started hearing the phrase ‘a degree is not enough’. It quickly gathered momentum and basically means graduates now have to focus on more than academic achievements. The emphasis was on gaining ‘experience’. But this was more than school ‘work experience’, this was the dawn of the ‘internship’.
The term has grown since then, becoming something of an ethical minefield. I can recall discussions surrounding the controversies as far back as 2013, with the main focus being on the ethics of graduates being expected to gain experience without being paid. Since then, some organisations have begun paying their interns but it’s still controversial.
I think a lot of graduates find themselves in a similar situation. Here’s what happened to me: I did well in a degree but it didn’t lead me directly to a job. I studied for an MA that would lead me to a job but every time I applied, the company wanted experience. They wanted more than academic achievement, and by this time, they wanted more than all of the extra shiny things I’d completed in an attempt to make myself more employable.
So here’s the catch 22: I want a job in field X. I need relevant work experience in this field. Okay so I’ll apply. Oh wait… ‘Sorry, you do not have the relevant experience to be considered for this work experience’.
So you need experience, to get experience?
Yep. I’ve had rejections from internships because of a lack of experience, let alone actual ‘real jobs’. Since then, I’ve completed three internships and had a different experience each time:
1. Small PR agency in Cardiff – 3 weeks travel expenses paid.
This was really useful. I realised I’d picked a masters in Public Relations and was beginning to understand what exactly PR is (and is not) but I’d never so much as stepped foot inside a PR agency. I’d been watching Mad Men but I highly doubted that advertising in the swinging sixties would reflect modern PR.
I mainly helped out with generic office duties and some junior account work that needed doing. Essentially, I learnt how a PR agency works, the kind of accounts there are and what is expected of each job function, and at each level. While I was only there for 3 weeks, I felt a part of the team and got a snapshot into what my future career could look like.
2. UN agency in Geneva – 3 months unpaid.
I found out about this internship through one of my lecturers at uni, he had specified that it was unpaid when he emailed about it, but I applied anyway as working at the UN had been an ambition of mine since I studied a module in contemporary warfare.
When I got an email asking when I could start I was so excited. I can remember the moment perfectly. I knew this was going to be an adventure. I came into some inheritance so I was okay financially.
This internship is still one of my favourite experiences so far. It was three months long, I had my own office with a mountain view, I had actual work to do, and at some point towards the end, I realised it would be a very long time before I was doing something worthwhile again. I can’t even describe the sadness I was filled with, but I knew I’d wanted to go travelling for a long time so I was happy with my next adventure and my career would wait.
There were highs and lows. In the evenings I had to write my dissertation so I didn’t get to socialise much or make the most of Geneva and as my deadline approached, I stayed up until 5 am to get everything finished. The highs made up for it though, I got to work on a group project that took me to Costa Rica for work and a few days travel with a great group.
I saw how a UN agency operates, I got a better insight into the workings of an in-house communications team and the work that goes into organising a high level event. I had the chance to work with a range of people across the whole department, I felt like I was doing something worthwhile and I felt like part of the family there.
After I returned home, I had three months until I went travelling. Unsure what to do, I found another internship in Wales which I interviewed for. It was for a charity, for approximately 6 – 12 weeks – my ideal. I calculated that if it started straight away, I’d be finished by around Christmas, however, during the interview, they said it wouldn’t finish until February. I told them I’d be away from January and that was the end of that.
I stuck with Wales, got a temporary Christmas job in a shop to save up, then moved home just before Christmas. After travelling, I had renewed career optimism and started applying for jobs about a week later, whilst also picking up my old casual job. I was excited to kick start my new career, but little did I know how long the process would take…
At my lowest point, I was so fed up and disheartened I penciled a blog: ‘News just in: it sucks to be a graduate right now’. I spent six months searching for a job, even keeping a list of all my applications, with a ‘thumbs down’ emoji if I got rejected and an ‘X’ next to the ones I never heard back from.
I last updated that list on November 22, 2014. Two days before I was offered an internship in London, beginning January 5th. By this time, I’d applied for 40 jobs, had 10 rejection emails (30 never got back to me) and 6 interviews, with one successfully leading to an internship. This was exactly 192 days after I returned home from travelling.
3. Public Affairs firm in London – 6 weeks paid.
Moving to London was something I had been avoiding forever. Nothing about the capital appealed to me – living, working, the expense and people everywhere all of the time. But towards the end of my search, I realised that my situation may not be ideal initally, but further down the line (hopefully) it would be.
I’ve had an interest in politics since school so I was really pleased to get this internship, especially as it’d been 15 months since I’d finished in Geneva. I sat upstairs with my team and did basic account tasks, mainly involving Excel spreadsheets and databases, media monitoring and social media work. I quite liked it, but I didn’t feel I had a place there.
Both figuratively and literally. There wasn’t a permanent desk for me, and one day, the inevitable happened. No-one was off so I didn’t have a desk at all. I ended up sitting downstairs with the office support team and other account teams. I found my place. I sat next to a really friendly guy and was much happier for the next 3 weeks, even though I was told this would be my seat until someone else needed it. (I guess the intern isn’t important enough to have a permanent place).
I did my work, it was good experience and I believe it helped me to secure my next job (a ‘real’ job), but it was challenging moving to a city I’d resisted so strongly and feeling so out of place and uncomfortable at work.
Ultimately, I gained unique experiences from my internships that helped me to progress my career and to figure out what I did and didn’t enjoy. In hindsight, I lost momentum at several points, including to go travelling, but I wouldn’t change this.
During one of my internships, a guy voiced his outrage at the concept of internships saying he was disgusted that multi-million multi-national companies pay graduates peanuts (or nothing) for the privilege to work for them, but I found myself defending them. I explained I felt I had to intern to gain experience – how else would I?
I still don’t know how I feel about internships. Even as I write this, I am considering my fourth internship as a means to gain experience in the charity sector – if this is the direction I want my career to take then I think I have two options: 1. Intern to gain experience 2. Build up general experience and later transition across.
Have you interned? Have you hired an intern? What do you think?