My Year as an Unpaid Intern: A Story in Two Acts
by Eric Chiu
Part of a series about the best and worst internships we’ve ever had.
It’s been a year and a half since my last unpaid internship.
Since then, I’ve finished my last year of college and readjusted to living in one place for more than four months, but one notable thing has remained elusive: a real job.
Admittedly, the realities of being a college graduate In These Troubled Economic Times have adjusted my expectations accordingly — I’m not harboring any delusions about landing a spectacular job anytime soon. When it came to a career, though, the trajectory for internships and a decent-paying job always seemed reasonable: Start off as an unpaid intern, and move from smaller places to bigger outlets until you land a real job.
I even believed in this strongly enough to make a bet: I’d take a year off from school and work as an unpaid intern. A year and a half later, though, I still can’t answer the biggest question behind that gamble: Were the unpaid internships worthwhile?
Like any aspiring editorial intern, I cut my teeth as a student reporter during college. I was a decent enough reporter, though I was never particularly good at staying at one place for long — for a variety of mostly banal reasons, I managed to get sacked from not one, but two different student newspapers.
This inability to hold down a job notwithstanding, my time at those student papers doubled as an introduction to the unpaid internship. In every newsroom, there were always the wunderkinds who parlayed their unpaid internships into jobs at places like The Wall Street Journal or USA Today — the type of outlet that didn’t require a Google background search beforehand. At the time, those people seemed to be proof positive: If you did unpaid internships, you could get a real job.
In practice, landing a gig was a bit harder. My search for internship No. 1 started at the same time that local newspapers were imploding everywhere, and early results were equally grisly. The closest I got to a summer job was a reporting internship across the country in rural California — they couldn’t cover relocation costs or pay minimum wage, but interns could stay at a nearby farm and work for rent money, the editor said. Despite having a bank account that barely reached four digits, I was perilously close to saying yes, but cooler heads prevailed.
After two years of searching, I still couldn’t land an internship, and the problems gave rise to the expected career concerns. By your junior year, the realities of past failings have a way of recalibrating whatever ambitions led to your first declared major — pre-med students move to liberal arts, aerospace engineering majors move to film production, etc.
At this point, I’d focused on nothing besides ways to jump-start my sputtering career. Some early encouragement from a few advisors at the journalism school made a career seem less insane to consider, but even if the chances of finding an internship were nonexistent, giving up on the closest thing to a potential career felt like a cop-out at best.
(And of course, the issue of post-graduation employment wasn’t far from my mind. As zeitgeisty as being overeducated, in your twenties, and unemployed currently is, anything that could prevent the glamour of living from paycheck to paycheck was readily taken.)
I was preparing to spend another summer at home when the offer came: A consumer tech magazine in New York City wanted me to work as an editorial intern for the summer. For the first time, the logistics looked feasible — it was unpaid, but on a part-time schedule and with family in Long Island, the internship could make financial sense. After two years worth of sent applications, the prospect of having them pay off with an actual magazine internship squelched any other concerns. I told the editor that I’d take the job and quickly packed my bags for New York.
Let’s be clear: Most unpaid internships are awful and let employers take advantage of a surplus of college students willing to do nearly anything for a job.
That said, I’ll acknowledge my relative luck upfront. Both of my unpaid internships had a minimum of grunt work, flexible hours, and little scandal — there were no tyrannical editors, or scalding coffee being lobbed at an intern’s face, sadly. Of course, most interns are rarely as lucky: see the “Black Swan” interns, the frequency of full-time unpaid internships, and whatever the hell this is.
For potential interns, it’s nearly impossible to have an unpaid internship that doesn’t level your bank account without running yourself ragged or having someone else pay your bills. Part of this boils down to practicality — if you’re already working a 40-hour or 50-hour workweek for free, having a second job and time for sleeping or eating would be difficult, to say the least.
For college interns who want to juggle multiple jobs, the fact that most can only guarantee a semester-long commitment makes them a hard sell for potential employers. When I mentioned my internship at an interview for a part-time job at Kmart in Midtown, the supervisor laughed before saying that she’d call if they needed the extra help.
But despite the potential price tag, what continues to make unpaid internships so alluring? Certainly, a healthy amount of denial helps. It might be a financial hit, but the improved chances of landing a better job could maybe possibly be worth it, eventually?
The platitudes about being young, poor and in New York aren’t well-worn so much as they’ve been ground to a fine powder, but I was unabashedly jazzed about those first few weeks in the city. The spectacle of being an intern in New York made up for most of the downsides of being unpaid, even if my knowledge of the city barely stretched from Chinatown to Times Square.
I couldn’t find a second part-time job, but staying with family in Long Island mercifully took rent and most living expenses out of my budgeting. I still had to cover $334 monthly train passes into Penn Station and the occasional lunch in the city, but some previously saved money minimized most of those costs.
For that summer, the magazine had hired two additional editorial interns. Each workday, we’d all help out with assorted production tasks: laptop testing or writing blog posts were frequent assignments, and occasionally, we’d even have the chance to snag a print byline.
Every month in the office’s conference room, the magazine’s editorial staff had a production meeting to pitch story ideas for upcoming issues. The interns were encouraged to come up with their own pitches, but it was encouragement in the same way that an NFL team playing their fourth-string players in the preseason is encouragement — you’re not expecting anything amazing, but as long as they don’t embarrass themselves too badly, it couldn’t hurt to give them some practice time. I’d only pitched a few times during college, and those first production meetings were accordingly rough (pitch notes during an early meeting: “Android…smartphones?”).
As the summer progressed, though, my pitching and writing eventually started to improve. Midway through the summer, I was troubleshooting my smartphone when an idea came — maybe I could write about this?
The next day, I went to my editor’s office and made the pitch. Whenever you’re in a situation where you’re trying to sell someone on a proposal, the telltale signs that things might be going south are always easy to spot: the extended pause, the pursed lip, the noticeable smirk. But for once, I couldn’t spot any of them.
“Sure,” he said. “Go write it.”
Most unpaid interns usually operate alongside a healthy amount of desperation and/or an inching suspicion of fraudulency. Your work is ostensibly valuable, but like anyone occupying the bottom rung in their respective field, you’re looking for some sign from the universe to prove that your chosen career wasn’t a colossal mistake. And even if the chances for success are a crapshoot, you have to believe that the internship offers some semblance of control over your future — reassurances of security are always alluring.
The pitch was good timing more than anything else, but it helped to kick off an equally fortunate few weeks. Near the end of the summer, the editor who I’d pitched earlier brought me into the conference room for a surprise meeting. Unexpected talks usually ended extremely well or poorly, but before I could speak, my editor made the offer: They needed to find a new staff writer, so in the meantime, would I mind staying on for an extra month as a paid contributor?
It’d run over into September — so I’d have to drop fall classes — but the magazine offered $20 per hour on a mostly full-time schedule. Coming from on-campus jobs that barely offered half of that, I was close to purchasing a monocle and top hat in celebration.
Most surprisingly, the internship interviews began to pile up. I’d planned on finding another internship after the summer, and every week, my Gmail inbox would fill with emails from outlets that I never thought I’d come anywhere near. With interviews at places like U.S. News & World Report, CNN and Forbes, there were two distinct possibilities at play: A) I might actually have a legitimate career or B) all of these internship coordinators had joined in on an elaborate long con.
But in the end, the comedown came as quickly as the upswing.
Interview after follow-up interview failed to pan out and within weeks, I was unemployed and back at my parents’ house. And, as it was before the New York internship, those same lizard brained employment worries slowly returned.
Besides being despondent over the possibility that my career prospects had peaked and bottomed out within the same month, I constantly replayed those final weeks in my head. The first unpaid internship wasn’t even finished, but as with the wunderkinds back in the college newsrooms, I might have been an interview question away from joining them — what could make the difference between another rejection letter and a job offer?
And just as before, another unpaid internship arrived. I had sent a handful of winter internship applications out as a backup plan, and a few weeks before winter classes started, a research group in Washington, D.C. called with an offer. The internship had the details that could Take Everything To The Next Level — political with a capital “P” reporting! — but unlike in New York, I wouldn’t have a safety net to fall back on. Without family or friends in the area, I’d be responsible for my own bills.
Never mind the details, though — with the stinging failure of the fall still fresh on my mind, I cancelled my winter classes and hastily began planning the move to Washington, D.C.
At the start of the internship, I planned to stay in D.C., but with rent costs and limited housing options, my search gradually drifted northward into Maryland. I’d never stepped foot in the state, but after a few weeks of panicked Craigslist hunting, I eventually managed to sublease a room in Wheaton, a small town around 11 miles north of D.C.
The room was in a house owned by a couple that wasn’t much older than my own parents. Only a few blurry photos of the room were available, but I could check out the house and bring my security deposit once I landed in Maryland, the landlady said. I replied that I was looking forward to it.
Wheaton had the weird demographic mishmash common among towns that’d undergone an immigrant influx and white flight. Having a cheap Cantonese restaurant, taco stand and bánh mì place within five minutes of each other was a godsend for my budget, but the city didn’t have the best reputation. “Really?” was a coworker’s response when I mentioned that I’d moved to the area.
The region had an immediate tendency to make life difficult. Two weeks into the sublease, my neighborhood was a victim of the local power company’s annual catastrophic power outage. After a snowstorm, my house lost power and heat for close to a week, but as miserable as the blizzard was, I chalked it up as another compromise. The neighborhood might not be great, but it’d be worth it in the end.
After the first month in Maryland, the financial issues started. I’d spent my first few weeks in Wheaton sending applications to anywhere within commuting distance, but with imminent deadlines, I choked down my pride and took the only job that could pay someone with my skillset: writing technical guides for a content farm.
The work was undeniably tedious — assignments had titles like “Compare Mobile Broadband” and “How To Compare Samsung And MP3 Players” — but at $7.50 to $18 per article, it was the closest thing to a steady income. On my days off, I’d chain myself to my desk and punch out guides, but since the site’s assignments depended on the number of usable titles the SEO generator could spew out, steady work was rarely guaranteed.
After groceries, relocation expenses, and initial housing costs ($1,000 for a deposit and January’s rent), my total earnings after the first month in Maryland? $367.50.
The turnaround time for articles gradually picked up throughout the winter — I eventually averaged close to $180 every week — but at the end of each month, these earnings rarely made a dent in my budget. After rent ($550 per month) and living costs (around $60 to $100 per week), a low paycheck or unexpected expenses meant dipping further into my savings.
On that last point, it was a testament to how fast the internship’s plan went south. The initial idea was something less than an afterthought, but it seemed perfect. In the end, though, I was thwarted by math.
Outside of adding a third job or becoming a prostitute — I lacked the necessary uppers for the former and abs for the latter — the savings account was the only way to keep my finances afloat. The New York internship provided a significant cushion, but the anxiety over using that money to hastily patch my shoddy budgeting constantly ate away at my insides. After every swipe of my debit card, the nauseating feeling that came from immolating my bank account was never far behind.
The financial pressures soon gave way to other problems. At the Wheaton house, a second room was leased by an older divorcee, but after a contract dispute, I quickly became the house’s only tenant. Occasionally, the couple would come by, but I’d frequently have the entire house to myself. Coming from campus living, there were few initial objections with the change (I’d have a gigantic single!) but within weeks, the seclusion began to fray my nerves.
There’s something unnerving about the sense of crushing loneliness that comes being completely and utterly isolated, and living in an empty house hundreds of miles away from anyone only exacerbated those pressures: It simply wasn’t possible to do anything besides eat, sleep, and work.
And eventually, the accumulated stresses of being perpetually broke, depressed and miserable made something break — for the first time, the plan behind the internships seemed suspect.
My early motivations were the same as any intern’s: ambitious, and desperately fearing squandering those ambitions. Despite all of the problems outside of the office, the internship’s benefits still managed to reinforce those initial aspirations. My articles were decent enough to be linked to by some larger outlets, and wrestling decent quotes out of corporate spokespeople was good practice for any aspiring journalist. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else besides writing — the problem was, I also couldn’t afford it.
By early April, I gave my two weeks notice and booked a flight back home.
In the end, I took a loss of around $2,000 from the D.C. internship. I’ll readily admit that being poor for a few months skirts dangerously close to those unanswerable and uncomfortable privilege questions, but let’s put aside the pretense of the unpaid internship as a Girls-esque rite of passage for a second.
The chances of getting those $30,000/year entry-level jobs certainly improve if you’ve put in the time as an unpaid intern, but what happens when earning that professional experience becomes the de facto barrier to entry? Do unpaid internships reliably benefit interns?
Here, the results are reliably messy. If one or two or three unpaid internships don’t lead to better work, the expected response is to add another, and this is as terrible of a plan as it sounds like — a non-media friend who graduated two years ago is currently on his third full-time unpaid internship. If you want a job that uses your college degree, but can’t afford to pay an extra $2,000 or $4,000 per unpaid internship? Well, there’s always grad school.
(From anecdotal evidence, STEM majors rarely have to do unpaid internships, but considering the number of hapless undergrads STEM programs regularly chew through, placing your bets on a major where paid internships are common isn’t without its own risks.)
For anyone who’s already put in their time as an unpaid intern, though, where does this leave them? My own results are decidedly mixed. If it weren’t for my unpaid internships, I know that my chances of having a career would be in much worse shape, but the collateral damage of betting my savings on the D.C. internship makes it much harder to justify a third go-around.
As for now, I’ve joined the ranks of the underemployed. Like everyone else, I’m revising applications and hoping for the best, but for the first time, those “what if?” questions aren’t lingering in the back of my head. After the intern year, I’ve got a better idea of how much my work is worth. I only hope that someone else agrees.