Seven internships. No job. So what?

I did seven too and I’m not suing anyone (unlike this girl)


A couple of happy interns (Symic on Flickr)

Diana Wang, a university graduate from Ohio, is suing Harper’s Bazaar after her dream internship with the fashion magazine turned into a nightmare.

Wang’s bosses wanted her free labour for at least 10 hours daily. Worse, a mean superior falsely accused her of not sending some hats to a photo shoot in Europe, she told CBC’s The Current.

Since Wang wasn’t in school, wasn’t getting supervised training and wasn’t getting paid, she says the internship was illegal. (That type of internship may technically be illegal here too.)

Needless to say Wang didn’t realize her childhood goal of becoming a fashion writer in New York City. Her other six internships didn’t get her much farther. She went on to work at a call centre far from NYC. Suffice it to say, she’s pissed.

But don’t let Wang’s lack of success after seven internships turn you off the world of unpaid and poorly paid placements. Like her, I did seven internships. Unlike her, I have few regrets.

Yes, the hours were long and yes, people occasionally blamed me for their mistakes, but I would do it all again. Internships taught me things that university never could. (And not just that you sometimes need to work long hours at low pay or that people will occasionally blame you unfairly.)

Here’s my story. In my first year of journalism school at the University of British Columbia, I applied to ten summer internships. I got one interview, caught a red-eye flight east to Toronto and borrowed a navy-blue suit jacket that was two sizes too big. I felt very self-conscious as I sat in the waiting room of Toronto Life while models from Fashion magazine’s nearby office gave me cut-eye.

But my clothes didn’t matter. I had been reading Toronto Life cover-to-cover for months and my knowledge impressed the editors. They hired me for 35 hours per week with a $125 weekly honorarium. I fact-checked and wrote web hits by day. I researched potential print stories by night.

It was, at first, intimidating. Veronica “Ronnie” Maddocks, Queen of the Toronto Life Interns, sat at the centre of the big U-shaped desk while I and another intern, Matthew, each took up a couple square feet at the tips of the U. If I tripped over a word when calling someone to fact-check, I’d see Ronnie’s spine stiffen. When I recovered the call, she’d relax again. I’d feel rather relieved.

I also learned about pitching. At the first story meeting I attended, I thought I had a good one—something exciting and exclusive. All of the information I’d practiced tumbled out. Then, silence, as I waited for a response. The editor didn’t look up. Instead, a sigh. “Anyone else?”

I also learned that writers often have to eat lunches at theirs desk to avoid missing important calls.

Most important, I experienced the excitement of when the magazine arrives from the printers, you open the box, flip through a fresh copy, and see your name in ink above a story that you wrote.

My summer at Toronto Life was followed by a stint at CBC Television in Vancouver during the Olympic Winter Games. I learned chase production and met B-list stars; one is still a friend today.

Two months later, I was at CBC National Radio in Toronto working eight-hour unpaid shifts that started each morning at 4:00 a.m. That’s where I learned that radio is a lot easier than TV.

The Globe and Mail Vancouver bureau over the Christmas holiday in ’09 was great fun. I learned that just about anyone is willing to talk to you when you say you’re calling from The Globe.

Then came Maclean’s exactly two years ago. I was out on the streets covering the G20 riots the same week that I started. Since then, the editors have taught me what makes a good story.

All seven internships (the others were as a blogger for this very site and at Canadian Family Physician) taught me different things. Together, they showed me the kind of journalist I want to be.

No matter the industry, internships offer lessons university that can’t, because university is nothing like the real world. In the real world, if you wake up and your apartment is flooded, you call your boss, apologize and stay late to finish your work. If you don’t show up at lecture, nobody cares.

The common argument against unpaid and under-paid internships is that poorer students can’t afford them. That will ensure that cool magazine jobs go to kids with rich parents, the critics say.

It’s not a bad argument, except that I don’t have rich parents and I managed to make it through. I did it by walking to work, eating as much free food as possible during work (a lucrative perk of interning at foodie magazines), and by allowing my student line of credit to climb ever higher.

I’m still paying back that loan now that I’m 27, but it’s surprisingly manageable. Poorer students than me had access to more bursaries, cushier government loans and plum work-study jobs during the school year, so I don’t buy the argument that they’re worse off. If they want it, they’ll make it work.

You might wonder whether my experience is common or if I just got lucky. I can tell you this: all of the interns I worked closely with at Toronto Life in the summer of 2009 are employed today.

Matthew Halliday is an editor at The Grid where he explores all of the weird, wacky and wonderful communities that make Toronto great. Karon Liu is a staff writer there focusing on the food scene, which gives him first dibs on every culinary innovation local chefs cook up. Kate Allen reports for The Toronto Star. Jessica Darmanin, former TL photo intern, is now a photo editor at Maclean’s.

We earned jobs in the industry we love, despite graduating after a global recession. We got them by doing multiple internships—some of them unpaid. It wasn’t easy, but it was often fun. If I had to do all seven internships over again, I would. So don’t let stories like Diana Wang’s scare you off.

Josh Dehaas is the editor of Maclean’s On Campus. Follow @JoshDehaas. Like us on Facebook.


Seven internships. No job. So what?

  1. I really enjoyed this article, up until you said:

    “Poorer students than me had access to more bursaries, cushier government loans and plum work-study jobs during the school year, so I don’t buy the argument that they’re worse off”.

    When I started at the University of Guelph in September of 2008, all of the scholarship and bursary endowments were underwater. They offered barely a fraction of the $$ that they did in previous years; many funds have still not recovered.

    As for “cushier” government loans, I have two major issues with that.

    1) They are just that. LOANS. Even if you collect the maximum OSAP amount (assuming you’re from Ontario), you will still owe $7000 per year. Even though there is a ridiculous cap on the $$ you can make while receiving your loan ($117/week), every little bit helps.

    2) Some students have parents who do make $$, but don’t share any of it with them. However, OSAP bases our loans off of their income until we are four years out of high school. This may necessitate taking out a private loan, which, as I’m sure you know, requires interest payments every month. Also, in order to qualify for a line of credit you need a co-signer, which I will assume was one of your parents. What about the student whose family doesn’t have the resources to be able to co-sign? Lastly, while you can live off a student line of credit in the summer (presumably to complete an underpaid/unpaid internship), your OSAP usually only lasts through one semester.

    3) Maybe the situation is unique here in Guelph, but we only have 500 work study jobs available. There are only 3500 on campus jobs, total. With an undergrad population of nearly 20 000 (not to mention grad students, etc), competition is fierce. This is a problem that is not going to go away soon; the class of 2016 will be the biggest we’ve ever had.

    Many students would be happy to intern for minimum wage to gain experience in their field (as they should be), but I think that unpaid internships are both unnecessary and cruel. I realize that we will all have to pay our dues for years after we graduate, but I don’t think minimum wage is too much to ask for. Not everyone has free food from work to fall back on.

    I’m happy for you that your particular situation worked out. A quick google search indicates that you actually attended the University of Guelph as well, but times have changed since you graduated from here. I would caution you to be less dismissive of recent graduates.

    • Hi Eileen.

      Yep. I went to Guelph (2003 to 2008). It was a difficult place to find part-time work even then, which was before the great recession. I worked at Subway (not exactly glamorous) and we’d get applications from students all the time. You’re right that it isn’t easy and it may be harder now. I’m just saying, there’s always a way—sometimes it’s bank loans. And yes, some unpaid internships are “unnecessary and cruel,” as you put it. So choose them wisely! Perhaps Harper’s Bazaar is one to avoid?


  2. Why even work for money if unpaid internships are so great?

    This article is a slap in the face to all those people that are struggling to make ends meet and completely misses the point of minimum wage jobs, you IDIOT.

    I have worked many jobs that have paid me for attending training sessions. That’s the way it was before this stupid internship loophole started to get exploited. Don’t promote its values. The article you wrote proves you don’t know anything about writing and your opinions belong in the trash.

  3. This article exemplifies an all-too-common attitude: why demand justice for all when you can have *in*justice for all? Heaven forbid that we strive for decent working and hiring conditions, when we can just exhort people to accept indecent ones. If you disagree, you’re a whiner and a weenie.

    “There’s always a way”? Is there? for every deserving person? The author has no facts or figures to defend this or anything else he says. This is smugness masquerading as robust common sense.

  4. All work should be paid for even if it was minimum wage. Remember these unpaid positions would have to be filled by paid employees if you didn’t volunteer for them. You were doing them a favour not the other way around.

    They profited from your work and your still paying for it. This practice preys on the on the inexperience of youth.

    It needs to end.

  5. I must admit that after having read the article, I am having more or less mixed feelings.

    I strongly disagree on taking a person, who is suing a company for “illegal” internship (even the author is admiting it), and ridiculing her to death. Not to mention, that there is really nothing written about “the unsuccessful intern”. None of real causes why she did not land a full-time job are mentioned etc etc etc.

    Talking about financial constraints, well, congratulations to the author for being so independent during university studies. But neglecting a simple fact that money matters, saying that you have to work hard is a pure science fiction. I don’t even want to mention the fact that the authour could have not landed a full-time job as the suer …. Let’s think one again about the “so praised” credit debt.

    I could continue on an on, but ….

  6. I am not a union sympathizer but I have to agree that these unpaid internships are exploiting youth trying to make their way in life. It is nothing but greed on behalf of big corporations who have the means to pay something to these kids. Young people do require real life work experience and it’s great that organizations are open to “hiring” them but come on some of these kids work harder and smarter than many full time permanent employees. They should be given a decent wage in line with their experience (something like 50 or 60% of the starting wage for the position they are working in so long as it is above minimum wage)

  7. I agree with the last comment. Life doesn’t work out for everyone just b/c they “work hard and deserve it”. The whole “If you work hard, good things will happen ” is garbage. If you work harder the rich get richer off your back and you never move up. If there are winners, there must always be losers and I think there are fewer winners out there now which means more losers than ever. There are two interns at my company. One is working for free, the other is getting paid. One of them is the daughter of a board member. Guess which one is getting paid…

  8. Waa! Waa! Waa! Just another of the entitled generation blaming everyone but themselves – so let’s sue everybody. I’m not the CEO of Via Rail making million of unearned perks and bonuses – so I should sue?

    Although there may be a few unscrupulous people exploiting interns, (which I despise) the old school of thought still applies to almost all jobs/careers: Start at the bottom, PROVE YOUR WORTHINESS and work your way to the top. It is called MERIT. If the job offers are not coming, ask what am I doing wrong – and fix it ( i.e. work harder & stop whining) – or – accept the fact YOU are not suitable for this career.

    We all know people who are in jobs/careers who do not belong there. “That guy should not be a cop” “Is she ever a bad teacher” “That crank should not be a receptionist”

    So if a company does the right thing and decides to stop hiring inappropriate personnel, “little whiny” gets offended and sues?

    The “new graduate” expects to start at the upper end of the ladder with upper end salary and benefits. Reality sets in and they start bitching about how unfair the system is.

    I have seen dozens of entitled lazy whiners. If they stopped looking in their vanity mirror and looked at their colleagues beside them being promoted/hired, they might realize that if they put some care, effort, dedication, pride into their work, they might find themselves being hired/promoted too. (I hire their non-whiny co-workers.)

    The dream job isn’t a sure thing. Sometimes people have to work at a parallel or different job until the opportunity arises. It took me 30+ years to land my dream job, and now that I can think about retiring, I might hang around a little longer because I love what I’m doing. I accumulated experience, education, reputation and ethics in order to become qualified and worthy to be offered the position I am now in. Patience has its virtues . . . It works.

    You can bet Little “Miss Whiny” Wang just flushed her hopes of being a writer down the tubes and her only career option now is flipping burgers – if they will hire a whiny burger flipper. There are very few companies that would hire a self important whiner who will sue the company every time she turns around.

    Just desserts.

    • ps. Josh (the writer of the article) is the type of person I would hire. He has gained from his experiences and become a better person therefore – better employee. Patience works.

      Good one Josh.

      This article should be forwarded to “Whiny” Wang.

  9. I applaud the author. He has an approach to life that is bound to succeed.

    At the same time I disagree with the notion of unpaid work. How much would it cost the employer to increase the honorarium from $125/wk to $500/wk for the “interns”. The latter figure would permit the intern to sustain themselves. The concept is a slippery slope for employers to get something for nothing under the guise of providing a learning experience to the intern. There may be an element of truth to the idea but, on balance, the employer is the run away winner.

    This is just another example of why young people today have such a tough road to travel as compared to their parents generation.

  10. A very interesting blog and great writing.

    I think it’s different with every industry. For example, I did journalism at university, did 3 internships and got a crappy but well paid job 2 years after graduating. Those 2 years were spent working in retail while I was waiting for my dream job to come along. Media is very difficult to get into because there is no one resource which will list all the available GOOD jobs and say, “there you go!” Unfortunately, it all depends on how hard you want to work.

    At the moment, I work at a University – a role I found at a niche job site (www.unijobs.ca I think, don’t remember) but I teach English Literature to my students. I guess there’s other ways to use your degree and work experience if journalism doesn’t quite suit you.

    Just a thought….

  11. Oh, how nice, “more bursaries, cushier government loans and plum work-study jobs”! I can tell you that I did get all of these. I then worked some more in addition to work-study (which can get you at most $1800/year anyway.) Still, if I wanted to do an internship this summer, I would not have had enough to pay my rent. Instead, there are only 2 options: go back to school and take some more “cushy government loans” or find a real job. That’s reality for some of us.

  12. I have to disagree with the general sentiment of this. Unpaid internships are exploitation, nothing more, nothing less. Companies are filling positions that should go to paid employees with unpaid students desperate for work experience. It’s bad for the students, and it’s bad for the people who ought to be filling those positions (who, I might add, may well be the very same students). If you are doing work for the company, you should be getting paid for it. Really and honestly, THIS is the type of thing that should have students out in the streets protesting against–laws that allow companies to exploit them for free labour.

    I guess I should congratulate the author on being independently wealthy enough to be able to afford seven unpaid internships. That’s about the only positive thing I can take out of this entire article.

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