Publishing Trendsetter is a production of Market Partners International and Publishing Trends.

The Joys of Being an Intern: A Roundtable Discussion Based on Ross Perlin’s Intern Nation

For anyone looking to start a career in publishing, the first step is getting a foot in the door. While entry level jobs usually represent the threshold, internships have almost become essential precursors to gain entry.

9781844678839 Intern Nation PB (1)Yet despite the importance of having an internship on your resume, internships can often be frustrating exercises, either consisting of coffee-fetching and paper-copying or exploiting young talent with high job demands and little to no pay. Internships have come under fire a lot in recent media, with some very prominent lawsuits even forcing major companies to cease their internship programs. Will other companies follow suit? Do we want them to? Or is there an ideal internship program that can give everyone what they want (and is it sustainable)?

Ross Perlin‘s Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy (Verso, April 2012) takes a tough look at internships and how their evolution over time may have led them to doing more harm than good. To taken an even deeper look at internships, Trendsetter’s Editorial Manager, Kimberly Lew; Editor, Samantha Howard; and Intern, Eshani Agrawal, got together to have a conversation about the book and their feelings towards their own internship experiences:

Kimberly: I guess my first question is not directly related to the book, but let’s talk about our own internship experiences. What internships have you held down? What was it like?

Eshani: I have interned at 5 places including MPI. I have had three internships total, two of which were in publishing. The first was then Attorney General Blumenthal’s bid of Senate campaign, the second was Hartlyn Kids Publishing, the third was the Indo-American Arts Council, the fourth was Sarah Jane Freymann Literary Agency, and now I’m here at Market Partners.  The latter two have been experiences where I feel as though I’ve learned something and contributed to the companies. At the Senate campaign I was doing work, but I wasn’t qualified for it–I was 16 and looking through legal briefs that I didn’t understand. And the two in the middle were basically resume boosters.

I’ve also worked in a few pseudo-internships…the kind where it’s questionable what you title is. I was an “intern” on a film project about Martin Luther King’s time in CT and a Digital Humanities consultant for a professor, which is research based, but in many ways kind of resembled a remote internship.

Samantha: I interned at W. W. Norton & Company, which was what got me into publishing out of Michigan and into NYC. But I kind of won the internship lottery there, it was a paid gig. $7.25 an hour, but still. The second publishing one was at The Joy Harris Literary Agency where I eventually ended up being hired full-time as an assistant.

Eshani: Paid! Wow, Sam.

Samantha:  It was great. We all worked two and a half days a week and got nice little paychecks every other week. Nothing major, but enough to help with groceries and so forth.

My internship at the literary agency was unpaid, but I learned a lot, and of course, got hired. I’ve been very lucky, there’s no doubt about that.

Kimberly: What were you looking for when you applied for these internships? What was the decision process like deciding to take these internships?

Samantha: The decision to intern at Norton was pretty easy. It was either take a paid internship, or pay a few thousand dollars to go to NYU’s summer publishing course. I wanted to be paid instead of having to pay someone else since I’d just graduated college.

Eshani: At first it was a “take what I can get” mentality, because I’d been taught that having an internship was really important to the resume. Even when I came to Market Partners I wasn’t sure what I was looking for. A friend recommended MPI to me after another offer fell through. Having been here I’ve started to realize that I have interests in areas that I didn’t think about before (i.e. consulting), so when I look for internships again my goal is to do things that I’ve never done before. That way I can be more informed about what job opportunities exist. What about you, Kim?

Kimberly:   Well, I didn’t really intern until I transferred to NYU my junior year of college. I had to assure my parents, and myself, that the move to New York — and tuition at NYU — would be worth it, so I put myself on a very strict timeline. I had to get a job out of college, so I told myself I needed an internship in time for my first summer in New York. I lucked out and got two: one at Kaplan Publishing and another at a play publisher, and the latter hired me part time for the rest of my time in school and then full time when I graduated. So I can’t say it wasn’t a worthwhile experience.

Though I’m especially curious about how people choose their first internships, because it really feels these days like you have to have work experience in order to get an internship– which seems like a bit of a catch 22. I think the “take what I can get” mentality is common, because it’s hard to feel like you have any experience to leverage when you have no job experience to speak of.

Samantha: My first internship in college was for the a non-profit. I didn’t like it. I just did office work that they didn’t want to do. All I learned how to do was a mail merge and how to stuff envelopes without ripping them.

Eshani: I got my internship through my grandparents who knew Blumenthal in some capacity. It wasn’t pure nepotism though. I think a political campaign will basically take anyone who seems semi-qualified.

Even if they’re a high school student.

Kimberly: Well, while the two internships I ended up taking were good experiences, I did have a weird application process. I was sending out a ton of resumes at the end of the spring semester, and I wasn’t hearing anything back. Then I got an interview for a small magazine, and I went. The women who ran the magazine were really nice, but there was something a little off. They only asked me two questions in the interview, and I thought I bombed it. Then they ended up offering me the internship. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that something wasn’t a good fit, so I ended up not accepting, even though I had nothing else lined up. It was a big risk for someone who didn’t know if anything else would come around. Luckily something did.

Eshani:  With the “take what you get” attitude I’ve had too many internships I didn’t really enjoy. Sure, I learned skills (and working somewhere you don’t love is a skill in itself), but it’s been more fruitful to work at places that are at least bearable, and hopefully, great.

Samantha: I remember applying for what felt like a million internships after my time at Norton was over. You never heard back from anyone. It was so scary. I was at the point of deciding whether or not it was worth it to stay out here. And then when I’d been laid off and was looking for work again, I was getting turned down for internships left and right. It felt so unfair. Isn’t that indicative of a flawed system though, that our first experiences “working” were so incredibly lackluster? Or maybe I’m being too idealistic.

interns tweet

Eshani: I have a friend who has been applying to not-for-profits and rarely ever hears back which seems insane. You’d think places that are trying to “do good” would take a lot of people and would put more emphasis on the work they’re doing rather than hiring 2 great candidates.

Kimberly: True, though I think a big point in this book, to bring it back to the book, is that this kind of desperation is a product of a flawed system. It’s already a big sacrifice to be doing work for free, but to be COMPETING so hard for these free work opportunities is frustrating. Or basically, what Sam said.

Samantha:  Well that’s why there are so many lawsuits these days, too!

Eshani: Yes, and maybe it’s one thing if it’s your dream job and there’s definitely an offer for a full time job at the end (although this might bring us to some of the points about Disney where this system is also unfair) but for crap jobs that don’t lead anywhere? Why are we spending so much time doing it?

Kimberly: One thing that I think is very tricky about internships is where do you draw the line? I feel like no matter what, they so easily lead to exploitation, even if that’s not the intent– at least not at the beginning.

Samantha: My first internship had almost no value to me at all. I didn’t learn how to work in an office environment. I didn’t even learn how to answer the phone in a professional way. I’m sure they didn’t realize that I was so miserable, but I was getting college credit for it, so I didn’t want to rustle any feathers. I think there are some places that are exploitative on purpose. Others just don’t realize that they’re asking too much, or receiving too much benefit from the work of unpaid laborers.

Eshani: It’s sort of strange though. If these people who now have jobs have interned, don’t they remember their days as the intern? Don’t they want to treat their interns better?

Samantha:  Ha. I have often wondered the very same.

Eshani:  Do you think — and this might be a loaded question —  there’s a part of each employer that doesn’t want to train the intern to be great because they don’t want that same intern to one day take over their job? Maybe not every employer, but some employers.

Samantha: I think it’s more a matter of, “this person is only here for 3 months, it’s not worth it to take the time to really teach them anything.” Which, I can understand in some ways, but at the same time, they’re there to learn the business!

Kimberly: As someone who has sat at both sides of the table, I do have to say that it’s really difficult to balance. Having interns is really difficult to manage on the employer side too. If an internship supervisor takes his/her job seriously, it takes a lot of effort to plan out someone else’s day, to always have tasks ready for them, at their skill level, to handle HR stuff to get the intern settled, and to train them in the company culture. This type of labor is also an expense on the part of the company’s, and it’s all spent on an employee that will only be around for a few months.

Samantha: Very understandable.  It’s a lot.

Kimberly: This isn’t to justify things. But it is to say that it’s a lot more work across the board for interns and for supervisors than many people realize.

Eshani: I can’t speak for what it’s like to manage me, but it seems nice that at MPI I know I have a few tasks that need to be done, so it’s more like I have a routine? Rather than a constant supervision? Maybe that’s a good route?

Kimberly: I don’t think companies as a whole realize the amount of work that is required of starting an internship program– and that’s how it should be run as an organized program, not just an empty desk to fill every 4 months.

Samantha: I think the lack of planning is what makes it feel like abuse to some folks, like Conde Nast or Disney, like was so thoroughly mentioned in the book.

Kimberly: Though in the case of Disney, that is definitely a “program.” They seem to have that organization down to a science. It’s just questionable labor practices.

Samantha: True.

Eshani: I think it’s amazing that in the Disney program the interns seem to be treated so terribly, but many want to continue because it’s their dream to work for Disney.

Samantha: Eshani, are there any internships you’ve had where you were taken advantage of as a worker in some way? You’ve had the most, so I’m curious.

Eshani: I was yelled at a lot during one of my internships, and I felt like that employer actually had no idea what she was doing so it seemed ridiculous. But I’ll be honest, I took advantage right back when I realized that. I’d call in sick days for minor things because I wasn’t getting paid and I wasn’t gaining experience, so it didn’t seem worth it to worry about being a good employee.

Kimberly: What stopped you from just quitting? Do you put that internship on your resume?

Eshani: Yes, it’s on my resume.  I might remove it now that I’ve had other places where I’ve worked, but it seemed important at the time.  Also, it was one day a week for about 6 hours.  So it wasn’t terrible. And I kind of wanted to be out of the house.  Plus I guess it’s been drilled into me that quitting isn’t an option. You put up with it for the, what, 3, 4 months?

Samantha: It’s just so hard for people that need recommendations. If you want that golden recommendation, you’ve got to be amazing. Especially at those bigger places I imagine that to stand out you’d really have to shine.  Not that I blame you for calling out and so on. You shouldn’t have been treated that way, Eshani.

Kimberly: Were you able to make meaningful connections with your supervisors at any of your internships? Did you have anywhere you really felt like you learned things that you wouldn’t have otherwise?

Eshani: Yes, I loved my employers at Sarah Jane.  I had lunch with one of them early this semester.

Samantha: I still hang out with my internship adviser from Norton regularly, and I stay in touch with my other internship supervisor from Joy Harris.

Kimberly: Do you see that relationship being helpful in the future?

Eshani: Perhaps not the most helpful relationship ever, but a nice one to have, someone in the industry who clearly likes me. (Also, she warned me about a few work environments prior to this semester which was helpful.)

Samantha: Gossip! That’s important stuff to know, and where NOT to apply. My boss at Norton was my number one champion the two times I was on the job hunt after my Norton internship was over. I wouldn’t have had either of my previous jobs without her. I’m sure of it. She got me face time with a lot of great people in the industry too.

Kimberly: Seriously. And they say that jobs in general are all about who you know, so casting a wide network is not a bad thing. Name recognition can be everything. Even if just in smaller circles.

Samantha: Oh absolutely. I think in publishing at least, you’ve just got to meet everyone you can.

Kimberly: So to bring it back to the book, were there any parts of Intern Nation that surprised you?

Eshani: This is not surprising, but it was put in really good terms in the book: internships are only for those who can afford to work for free, and that means jobs are being given to the already middle class or higher applicants.

Samantha: Exactly. I used the money one of my grandmas left me to support myself during my interning days. Without that I couldn’t have done it. I think the craziest part was where Perlin said that the internship is a damned if you do damned if you don’t situation. You either work a job that pays you so you can stay out of debt or have less debt, but then you sacrifice the chance to have an internship. But if you have an internship and gain “experience” you get even further into debt. What surprised you, Kim?

Kimberly: I don’t think anything surprised me, really. Though I think it is good that he covered so many different types of office environments. It was interesting to see how some big corporations were running on interns, while small home offices were even finding people to basically run their businesses

But I think Eshani brought up a good point.  It’s important to note the privilege that it takes to have an internship. I wouldn’t have been able to do it, once I left college.

Eshani: I found the entire section very disturbing about Disney. I think it’s terrifying that all these people come to Disney expecting learn a lot about the trade, and end up flipping hamburgers. And yet it’s a “children’s company” that is supposed to embody our childhood. I guess it’s one more facet of Disney that is disappointing. How did you guys feel about that section? And did it affect your reading of internships in general to have this really intense first section lead off the book?

Samantha:  Having the book start that way definitely put a sour taste in my mouth, that’s for sure. But, I couldn’t stop thinking about two friends of mine who did the Disney internships, twice (they’re a couple). And now work there as adults. They like it there a lot. They came back for more, twice. I’m not disbelieving Perlin’s research or doubting that terrible things go on in the Disney internship program. I know we’ve all kind of brought it up separately from this discussion, but it’s clear that Perlin is angry. It made me distrust him a bit.

Kimberly: I, surprisingly, was not all that appalled by it. But then again, I’ve worked part time retail for the past 8 years with salaries that were not much more than minimum wage. So for me, some of the criticisms were overblown, as some facets were like other service/retail jobs. And the added bonus is that Disney has a celebrated name, and for people who really buy into the culture, they feel personally motivated to do it. I guess the thing that did disturb me was the scale of the internship. For such a large company, it’s disappointing that it relies so heavily on cheap labor and that colleges give them the platform to preach to people about it so fervently. Like the fact that they import so many foreign students. That disturbed me.

Samantha: The example he gave about people getting negative paychecks since they got sick and their rent came out of the checks was shocking.

Eshani: That’s true. It’s easy to get caught up in Perlin’s anger. Like what he says about how this is basically indentured slavery? But at the same time, people do leave if they hate it.

Kimberly: Yes, I think a big difference is that these people are being recruited from across the country but are required to move. It definitely touches on the privilege thing, because it’s not a sustainable summer job.

Samantha: Oh absolutely. I thought another interesting part of the book that was brought up in different section but definitely applies here, is the glamour aspect of internships in certain fields. I think there’s a degree of glamour of being able to put “Disney” on your resume, which I imagine is a draw. The example where Perlin brought up glamorous internships was in regards to magazine and book publishing actually, which makes sense to me.

Eshani: I’ve heard similar things of some of the bigger publishers…that those companies weren’t as great to work at as it might seem.

Kimberly: Yes, well it reminds me a lot of that rockstar job article in the New York Times rather recently about how 20-somethings are basically running “glamorous” industries but are paid nothing. They talk in that article about these industries hiring 22-22-22, 22 year olds that will work for $22,000, 22 hours a day. So it goes beyond just internships when it comes to exploitation.  Though I suppose if the applicants keep applying for the jobs, there’s not a lot of motivation to institute that stuff (well, now there are lawsuits, which are pretty motivating…), which is part of the problem, too. Sometimes for interns and for the companies themselves, they believe the work itself is reward enough for a job well done.

Eshani: Right…theoretically the solution would also be for all these interns to stand up and say they aren’t going to work for places that don’t treat them well. Which will probably never happen.

Samantha: I think that’s why lots of folks are switching over to the paid internship model. They just take on less interns, which creates even more competition.

Kimberly: Which leads me to one of my big questions: do you think that internships are fundamentally flawed, or do you think it’s indicative of a deeper problem?

Samantha: I’m not sure. Part of me is tempted to blame this dang economy.

Kimberly: I think one of the problems is the competition for jobs. I think that there is more fluidity among industries these days, but I also think that the problem with internships is that they don’t automatically lead to jobs. That is why people are willing to work for less and less– to try to stay ahead of the competition because internships are becoming a requirement to land the job. More than one internship, at that.

Samantha: Ugh. It’s such a bummer.

Eshani: Totally agree, Kim.

Samantha:  I just don’t see it changing any time soon.

Kimberly: It IS such a bummer. And I think it stretches beyond just internships. There is an expectation now that people need to offer their services for free in order to be “vetted” so they can qualify to even cross the threshold.

Eshani: In some ways I feel like if interns were working less and being given more meaningful tasks, that might be okay…just to get a taste of what an industry is like?  The “pay your dues” thing. It’s so unfair sometimes.

Kimberly: Yeah, like how in the writing community, people are expected to contribute to blogs and stuff for free, with “exposure” being in lieu of payment. Or in the design community where people offer contests to try to crowdsource designers instead of hiring people outright. So if internships aren’t going away any time soon, what do you think is the ideal internship job description/organization?

Eshani: It’s also nice being able to produce something while you’re there: an article, a project, something. So you leave with a product that you can show people.

Kimberly:  Is that exploitative, though? To do that level of work?

Samantha:  One of the editors I worked with at Norton made sure I left that internship knowing how to write a solid readers report, which I really valued.

Eshani: I feel really glad that I’m allowed to write articles here for example. I don’t see it as exploitative, I see you guys valuing my ability to put something creative on the table.

Samantha: It is nice to have a tangible skill/portfolio item, etc to have in your proverbial tool kit once an internship is over.

Kimberly: Yes! Portfolio would be great.

Eshani: It would be nice also if employers helped interns find their next job. In the form of connections or advice.

Samantha: I think most people do that in publishing.  I can’t speak to other industries of course.

Eshani: I’ve never experienced it, but that’s just me.

Kimberly: Do you think all internships should be paid minimum wage?

Samantha: Ideally, yes. But I just don’t think it is ever going to happen.

Kimberly: I ask because a lot of big companies are downsizing their internship programs so they can have fewer interns, but pay them. But if smaller companies cannot afford to do this, is there still value in unpaid internships?

Eshani:  I guess in a perfect world, yes. Although it’s interesting to think what that would do to typical student jobs…although I guess if paid equals less internships you still need the typical paid student jobs because there aren’t a ton of internships to go around

Samantha: I think there’s value in them, and I think it’s always good to give SOMETHING in terms of compensation, if it’s not minimum wage pay.

Eshani: Definitely. I think it’s frustrating also when an internship wants you to break even (i.e. only paying for the transport you take to your job). You should get some benefit from the work. Other than “experience” and “exposure.”

Kimberly: For the record, we pay Eshani in Metrocards and undying love.

Samantha: And free soda.

Eshani: That’s the most important part.

I guess my last thing to say is that I can’t imagine not doing an internship. Maybe that’s kind of sad in a way, because of all the free labor stuff we’ve talked about, but I’m not sure I would understand various types of office culture and all of that if I hadn’t worked in some offices and that would’ve been stressful not understanding on a first job . It IS a really different experience than a typical summer job or just going to school.

Samantha: That is a very fair point, office culture is a whole other animal.

Kimberly: Yeah, I mean, I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for my internships, so I am incredibly grateful for the experience. Maybe it’s also like we talked about in our last roundtable about slogging through to get to the top and then enacting change from there. I know that I am a better internship supervisor because of my own experiences. Not that I am by any means at the top of this 5 person company.

One Comment

  1. Rachel Holt says:

    I’m at a crossroads with my career right now. Or career switch, I guess I should say. I’ve been working for almost 10 years out of school, and have found that publishing (editing, specifically) is where I want to be. And I’ve wondered if it might be better to get more school, or do an internship in Boston or New York. This posting and your discussion really helped to answer some questions. Thank you very much, Kimberly, Samantha, and Eshani!! I’ve got more research to do, but internship is a front-runner. 🙂

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