Under federal law, most for-profit businesses are required to pay their interns (and increasingly, getting sued when they don’t). But despite recent claims that unpaid internships are “going out of style,” the practice is still widespread, often in the form of course requirements at colleges and graduate schools. Recent debates point out that this system can exacerbate the strain of student debt, prevent workplace diversity and interfere with hiring practices — and yet for some industries like media, unpaid internships remain the gateway to professional advancement. The prospect is disconcerting enough when you’re a recent college graduate, but if you’re making a career change later in life, the dynamic can be downright unnerving. Here, My Two Cents columnist Charlotte Cowles talks to a woman who did two unpaid internships during grad school in her 30s, and how the experience has shaped her life and work since.
When I was 28, I was in graduate school in the U.K. (I’m a dual citizen), on track to get my doctorate in literature. The cost of school there was almost negligible, and I had a research job that paid pretty well, so I was able to support myself and even save money. It was definitely the most financially sufficient I’d ever been in my life. I’ve had paying jobs since I was 16 — I cleaned houses, and was a receptionist at an insurance company for a while. My parents never had any money, and I wanted to be independent. I’ve always hated feeling financially insecure.
Then, I decided I wanted to be a journalist and move to New York. I had previously thought I wanted to teach at the college level, but then I realized that I wanted to write for a more mainstream audience. I’d felt a little bit lost in my 20s, and once I decided on this new path, I was very determined for it to work out. I took a year to apply to journalism school, and then my boyfriend and I came to New York right after I turned 30.
In journalism school, you’re taught that interning will help you get clips and build this body of published writing, but the whole concept of doing it for free was a little shocking to me. My school actually required at least two internships as part of the curriculum, for course credit — you weren’t paid because it was part of your education. I tried to be positive and treat as part of the whole experience, but it was hard to stomach.
Between grad school and interning, I didn’t have much time to work for money. I was earning a little doing transcriptions for $10 an hour — I made about $180 a week. We did get a deal on a one-bedroom apartment in Williamsburg for $1,500 a month, but it was still a stretch to cover it. I took out the biggest loan I could, about $5,000, but we burned through that and our savings pretty quickly. My bank balance was zero, zero, zero. It was awful.
My first internship was at a news organization that, at the time, wasn’t doing great. There were layoffs left and right, and senior editors would send emails to the whole staff, including the interns, saying, “Hey, if anyone knows of a publication that’s hiring, here’s my résumé.” They gave me more and more grunt work because there was no one else to do it — a lot of menial tasks. I was once sent to pick up cupcakes at Magnolia Bakery for someone’s going-away party, and they didn’t give me enough money to pay for the order. I didn’t have any money of my own to subsidize it, literally none, so I had to go back to the office and ask for more. It was humiliating. Another time, I had written something for the website, and the editor I worked with had inserted a sentence with an error in it. When one of the higher-up editors pointed it out, the guy blamed it on me, and scolded me in front of everyone at an edit meeting. I’d had some really bad jobs before, and definitely been treated like shit, but it’s different when you’re getting a paycheck.
Meanwhile, almost the entire staff was younger than me, in their early- to mid-20s, and that may have affected my attitude a bit. It wasn’t that I didn’t respect their authority, or thought I was better than them; it was more that the whole dynamic was foreign, and that was lonely. I had always been the youngest person in the room in any workplace, and I was suddenly on this very different level. It made me ashamed. I was embarrassed about my lifestyle, and how little money I had for my age. I was embarrassed that I couldn’t even afford to subsidize a cupcake. And I was shoulder-to-shoulder with these 25-year-olds who had so much more than me: A job, a life. I could smell it and see it, but I couldn’t have it.
At one point, I actually did lie about how old I was. I was talking to another intern who told me she was 22, and I said, “Oh yeah, I’m 26.” When the words came out of my mouth, I was like, “Oh god. Did I just say that?” When I was younger, I lied about being older, but it’s ridiculous to say you’re 26 when you’re 30. Then I had to keep the lie going. I distinctly remember telling another guy on staff that I was 26, too. Most of the time I just sort of pretended like I was in my mid-20s, and I think everyone assumed it was the truth.
My second internship was a much better experience, and I think it boiled down to being taken seriously by the people I worked with. It was at a print magazine, and I felt like they were teaching me things and giving me responsibilities instead of just dumping whatever crap someone else didn’t want to do. Even though I was still doing the job for free, the staff made me feel like one of them. Also, it was a bit more established, and most of the editors were older. I’m not sure if that made a difference in my outlook, but maybe it did. Most importantly, I got to do some writing and reporting, and build relationships with the people there.
Somewhat ironically, it was actually one of my under-the-table transcribing gigs that led to my first magazine job. I was doing transcripts for a writer and she put me in touch with someone for an editorial assistant position. I started at $15 an hour and no benefits or job security. But I was getting paid, and for that I was so grateful. I remember not wanting to go to the bathroom in case I lost that job. I was like, “I’m staying in this fucking seat.” Then I got a salaried position, which improved things so much. I still wasn’t secure financially, but at least I wasn’t so desperate and terrified. For about five years, I made $30,000 annually, and supplemented it with other writing assignments. I tried to pay back my student loans, but I wound up defaulting, so my credit is shot. I did get a promotion last year, though, which helped.
When you’ve been taught that your work isn’t worth money, you do internalize it. I watched a lot of my friends from journalism school, most of whom were the real 26 that I was pretending to be, write for free well into their careers. Often it was the case that the publication could pay so little that it was like, why bother asking? But it’s also a mind-set. I haven’t put as much energy and time into the writing I want to be doing because I have to focus on what pays. At the same time, it’s hard to reconcile it, because I do like my job and I’ve chosen my lifestyle for a reason; I get to do interesting work with interesting people, and I love New York even though it’s so expensive.The other day I was thinking quite seriously about taking a part-time job in retail. If I had about $400 extra a month, I could stop worrying about money so much.
I still work with interns, and I will go out of my way to be kind and supportive to them — but mostly to a specific type of intern, if I’m being honest. I’m easily annoyed if an intern seems like an entitled rich kid. And that’s not fair of me, because who knows what’s going on in their lives or how much money they have. I’m probably projecting. But I don’t think that overidentification with them will ever go away.