Internships, and why we really need to just harden up

The internship debate is one that has been pretty impossible for me to escape this past week. If the opinion pieces aren’t popping up on the home page of every national news site or blog I frequent, friends are posting/tweeting/retweeting links or opinions or links to their opinions or opinions on the links. I’ve been quietly simmering on the topic since the Sydney Morning Herald posted their first article last week from Georgia Leaker on July 9, where the 24-year-old media student bemoaned that her degree and a few internships hadn’t nabbed her a job yet. It inspired a response from Ed Livesley the next day, also on the SMH, where he took the very philosophical approach that, just because you have the piece of paper and a few lines in the ‘prior experience’ column in your resume, it doesn’t mean a job is guaranteed to fall into your lap.

I agree with Ed.

I’m 22 years old. I’ve just started a very desirable, highly sought after journalist position at the Illawarra Mercury. I’ve also just finished a four and a half year double degree at UOW. Things are going pretty well for me, I can’t complain.

But I’ve also worked damn hard to get where I am today.

I began a double degree of journalism and politics in 2009. I went to school full-time, had a few part-time and casual jobs to pay the bills, the usual story. By 2010 I began realising that a piece of paper and an outstretched, waiting palm at the end of my degree wasn’t going to get me a job – to get a position in the cut-throat competitive world of media and journalism, the bare minimum you need is experience.

I started firing off letters and applications and resumes to any media publication I thought would be a reasonable chance of taking on an untried fresh-faced journo for an internship. I got a response from Oyster Magazine, a Sydney-based independent fashion magazine geared mainly towards higher-end women’s couture.

I lived and worked in the Illawarra, and as a standard male, probably knew more about basic astrophysics than women’s fashion. But they took a punt on me, so I took a punt on them. I spent four months with Oyster, travelling two hours each way to the city on two or three days per week – juggling and changing uni and work schedules to work around my internship – and I learned. I learned about writing for a magazine and a website. I learned about time management and working towards a goal. And I learned about fashion.

Feeling that the internship wasn’t steering me to where I wanted to go, I contacted several other publications searching for another internship. The portfolio I assembled at Oyster soon nabbed me an internship at Sydney music magazine, Groupie. A four month internship later (working 2-4 days a week) saw me offered a staff writer job, which soon progressed to a position as assistant editor. Somewhere in there, I took on a month-long full-time internship at the Illawarra Mercury, and graduated with a Bachelor of Journalism degree.

My point is, I’m in a good position now. I know that the vast majority of the people I graduated with have not found careers, or even positions, in media. Many are working at the cafes or shops they worked at when we were in university together. I know I have done well. But at the same time, it was due to a combination of hard work, networking and a fair smack of good luck.

I chose a career in media. I chose a career in media against the best advice of career advisors and high school teachers, and continued on that path despite dire warnings from university lecturers and industry professionals on the dwindling job prospects in the media field. And against odds, I’ve found a good job. I knew it would be hard, which is why I never resented having to take on an internship – because, however you feel about it, that’s how it goes today.

Journalism is not a career path where “degree + hard work + internship = job.” Many positions might be like this. Journalism is not. Having a degree and putting in work doesn’t magically grant you a job. I’m going to paraphrase an article from Your Friends House here, but the media industry isn’t a poker machine where you keep putting in ‘hard work’ tokens and a job comes tumbling out eventually. To be blunt, if you’ve got a degree and a lot of experience and you’re still getting nowhere after a few years, there’s probably a reason; maybe you just aren’t very good.

Writing, and journalism, in general is an art; it’s not necessarily a skill that can just be learnt. Some of the smartest people I know struggle to construct a coherent and intelligent written sentence, while some of the best writers I know aren’t necessarily the smartest. In my opinion, it’s an art that is very difficult to teach.

It’s a bit of tough love, but if you’ve gone through such extensive unpaid internships and gotten nowhere, maybe there’s a reason. Working hard should get a reward, no doubt; I’m a big believer in people getting compensated and rewarded for working hard. But media is a tough game. There’s far, far less job vacancies than there are job seekers. You’ve chosen a tough field, so don’t be surprised when it doesn’t always go your way.

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