Career: Internship hell

Is previous experience really necessary for another summer of photocopying, filing and gofering?


Andy Dehnart
February 18, 1999 12:27AM (UTC)

The vast expanse of white space on the letter sent the undeniable
message: rejected.

I wasn't surprised that the newspaper rebuffed me for one of its coveted
summer internships. As the only daily in the area, the Orlando Sentinel --
the print arm of the Tribune's Central Florida media
conglomerate -- obviously has its pick of summer intern labor from local
colleges. The text of the form letter was stock and unoriginal: We received
a half-million applications, you're a wonderful human being, Sophie's choice
was minor compared to ours and so on. But when I read the second to last
sentence (which, admittedly, was also the fourth sentence), I almost choked on
my saliva: "The successful candidates had at least two previous summer
internships."

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What?

I read the sentence at least three times. Yep, there it was: The summer
interns they'd chosen had already been interns (presumably) elsewhere, at least twice. Apparently, the Orlando Sentinel needs assurance that you already know how to photocopy once you arrive on its doorstep. And the editors clearly didn't
get the impression from my résumé, extensive clips and glowing letters of recommendation that I could tell a copy button from a stoplight. To
assure them I had those skills, I needed copying experience at
another paper.

So there it was, the endless Catch-22: To get an internship at a daily newspaper, I had to have already been an intern at another daily newspaper. How the hell was I supposed to get a summer internship at a paper if I hadn't already had one? However ridiculous and silly it might be, it's a common requirement, and one that might make more sense if the positions weren't just
glorified temp jobs. But what interns actually do at most places isn't
a surprise: They photocopy, file and gofer. Being in the same room as a staff writer or in close proximity to the copy desk during the course of a daily
newspaper internship would be events of write-home-and-tell-mom proportions.

Despite the glass ceiling, I confess that
all three of my internships -- none of them at newspapers -- were positive experiences that transcended the normal intern existence of working as a photocopy whore. But those internships didn't exactly fall into my lap. The positions were mostly unadvertised and with smaller, lesser-known organizations. The internships that the airheads in the career services office chatter about endlessly and post on bulletin boards
have horribly congested waiting lines that ultimately lead to unsatisfying
rides. It's like going to the county fair: You buy tickets, line up
with a bunch of sweaty people and wait too long in the greasy
air. Once you finally get to walk through the fun house and its giant
spinning hamster wheel, you wonder what you went through all that trouble
and misery for.

For the most part, internships have become a way for corporations and
organizations to get (mostly free) labor, and for university students to
simultaneously add points to the experiential columns of their already
over-commodified educations. It's a buyer's market for internships, and
colleges blindly play along. And why wouldn't they? They can gather and
deposit tuition dollars without lifting a finger, and look good in the
process.

Between my freshman and sophomore years, I interned twice a week in my
congressman's main district office. When I asked my academic advisor before the summer began if I could get credit for my efforts, he said I
could, but I'd have to pay -- $500 a credit hour. Of course, the private college I go to forgot to mention that in its glossy viewbook;
it didn't forget to include the exact number of miles to the beach from
campus, however.

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So if I wanted credit for my efforts, it would cost me $1,500 to provide free
labor every Monday and Wednesday to the United States government in a
congressman's satellite office. I chose the less-expensive route, opting
just for the experience. But I remained baffled: How exactly did the
university justify that fee? It can't take minimum-wage, data-entering
work-study students some 290 hours to process the paperwork associated with
a 12-week internship. And the money definitely doesn't go to the sponsoring
professors, who don't get a nickel for interns under their academic
supervision.

As a final, perfectly aimed slap upside the head, most colleges prevent you
from getting credit -- tuition dollars or not -- for paid internships.
Survive the application process and photocopy your way through a semester,
and all you've got to show for it are toner stains on your Abercrombie and
Fitch pants. Something about getting fair compensation for work apparently
devalues the academic benefit of the experience.

It's become increasingly more than apparent that these college work
experiences aren't really internships: They're unsalaried jobs disguised as
preprofessional apprenticeships. You're not there to learn the ropes, but
to pull them, and for many places, you sure as hell better know
where they are when you walk through the door.

I refuse to retreat to the security of grad school following graduation:
Right now, after 16 years of semi-formal education, I want in-the-trenches
experience, not in-a-classroom theory. But this doesn't bode well for
job prospects. If I need other internships to get a damn internship, what's
expected for a "real" job?

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Andy Dehnart

Andy Dehnart is a writer living in Chicago.

MORE FROM Andy Dehnart

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