The intern net

Two weeks ago we asked you to share your internship experiences – good and bad, paid and unpaid, exploitative and rewarding. This selection of your stories is a snapshot of what the graduates of 2013 face when they enter the world of work

Illustration: Zack Blanton/ISP/Getty

Illustration: Zack Blanton/ISP/Getty


‘Unpaid internships preserve job opportunities for the wealthy’

I did two internships with commercial law firms in the summer of third year in college . Both were for two weeks, and both were structured, paid jobs. I wasn’t expecting to be paid and would have done it for free given that it was for such a short time and that I live within easy commuting distance of Dublin. But I wasn’t just sitting around. I was expected to take notes in meetings, contribute to client files, research legal issues and write basic internal and external legal opinions, so I think that the fact I received remuneration is fair enough.

The main issue with unpaid internships is that there is a huge risk; de facto, they preserve job opportunities for the wealthy. I would have been able to support myself for two weeks at a time without being paid, given that I was living at home. But I doubt I could have done it if the periods were any longer.

Some of the advertisements on JobBridge are outrageous and are an example of people abusing the system to take advantage of young people. It doesn’t seem fair. M ost people leave because they can’t find work, and those of us who do stay are made to feel wretched because we’re constantly told “the best people leave”, implying that we’re the dregs . I have a first-class honours law degree from Trinity and am studying for my master’s at the London School of Economics before I come back to work in Ireland, so this particularly gets my goat.

‘They made me answer phone calls from their creditors

I graduated in a rchitecture at Dublin Institute of Technology in 2008, just as the s*** hit the fan in the Irish construction industry. Nobody was hiring, and architecture practices were going bust by the day. I considered leaving the country, as 90 per cent of my class did, but after spending six years in third level to get my degree I was happy to chill out in part-time jobs and see what would happen.

I had various run-ins with Fás offices in the two years I was out of work. I was once sent on an i ntroduction-to-c omputers course, even though I had met a job placement officer in the Fás offices and explained my degree and level of computer proficiency. They didn’t seem to know what to do with the huge influx of highly educated people who were now on the dole.

I took up an internship in an architecture office, with the intention of making myself more employable. I was in a c atch-22 scenario: no chance of a job without experience; no jobs out there with which to gain experience . It was clear to me from the outset of my internship that the firm I worked in was never going to be in a position to hire me on a full-time paid basis. I knew that from the first week, in which they made me answer phone calls from their creditors and banks and say there was no one in the office that day. I quickly learned to recognise the numbers that weren’t worth answering at all.

I did gain experience, but with a l evel- eight d egree already under my belt it felt like slave labour at times. I left before the end of my internship, as I felt I was doing the same job as others in the office who were being paid €30,000 a year for the same job as I was doing for €238 a week.

‘I don’t have family financial support, so I work evenings and weekends’

I am an intern at a publishing company, in the middle of a six-month unpaid internship. I’m not a recent graduate, and this is not part of the JobBridge scheme. I decided to do this rather than to go back and do a master’s . By the end of it I hope to have secured a paid position in a publishing company. I say “hope” because I’m not sure this is what’s going to happen if I stay in Ireland, given the dearth of publishing jobs at the moment.

I was told almost everyone in publishing started out as an intern. It’s how the industry works. But I wonder if these people were living with their parents when they made the choice to do an internship rather than to apply for a master’s or some other qualification in order to get their foot in the publishing door? It’s tough taking on an internship in this economic climate, because you really need to have savings to get yourself through the months of no salary, or have family support to survive.

I do not have family financial support, so I have to rely on savings, and I work in the evenings and at weekends. I am exhausted. I knew this when I started to consider internships , however. I was prepared for the nine-to-five hours, plus the extra hours trying to p ay Dublin rent.

I can see how internships can be quite abusive, and you can be treated like a slave. But if you go into it with the mindset that you are going to squeeze every drop of knowledge and experience out of it, and you get contacts, you could do very well in the long term.

My internship has been invaluable, and I wonder if I would have received the same knowledge from a master’s . The people I work with realise that I am there to learn, and for this reason I count myself very lucky indeed. I will be taking my knowledge and experience abroad when I finish, because there aren’t many opportunities here , but I was prepared for that.

‘It has been a challenging and highly rewarding job

Tricia Purcell
I recently interned with and had a very positive experience . I was lucky enough to go on and get a junior role there as an online journalist and subeditor for the website. I have a BA in n ew m edia and English, and a graduate diploma in journalism, both from UL. When I left college I did some work experience with two newspapers but couldn’t get any paid work until I started with SpunOut. I initially began working three days a week with them as a subeditor intern, but as they got busier with relaunching their website this became five days, and I started back there last week with the junior role.

I have been very lucky with this internship, considering the current position for graduates . It’s a great place to work, as they pass every opportunity they can my way. If I hadn’t been interning with them I wouldn’t have got to do training courses or got the chance to take part in the Youth Media and the Irish Presidency programme run by European Movement Ireland, in which 25 young journalists get to cover events to do with Ireland’s hosting of the presidency of the European Council.

Through this I have met Enda Kenny and interviewed Christine Lagarde. SpunOut is a small team of only five people, all with individual areas, and I’ve learned so much about youth engagement, communications and IT skills from them. It has been a challenging and highly rewarding job.

‘I became resentful towards the firm

My first experience was with a solicitors’ firm, where experience counts for a lot. I sacrificed a wage to gain experience. I quickly lost interest in doing a good job, however. When I was given more and more responsibility and was not getting any money, yet spending a fair bit on travel and lunch, I became resentful towards the firm. My hard work wasn’t being recognised, so what was the point?

I had another experience with JobBridge: a waste of time. I had nothing to do, not even office cleaning. The firm was not busy enough for an assistant but just wanted the free labour. I am not a lazy or unmotivated worker, but a financial reward is needed to live a life and feel the work is appreciated. If I cannot get work by the end of August I will dip into my savings and emigrate.

‘Recently I’ve been made permanent’

I have done two internships since finishing my master’s, and they have been polar opposites. My first, with a media company, involved doing the same job as the eight other people in the office except I was only getting an extra €50 a week as part of the JobBridge scheme.

I replaced a paid member of staff, and when I let the company know I was leaving they offered me quite a modest salary .

I left this company as I got a paid internship in PR and communications. I finished my first year in that organisation recently and have been made permanent. While getting great experience from the internship, I feel the JobBridge scheme is being abused by companies looking for free labour, and it does need regulation.

‘The firm took me in and really helped me’

Alex Towers
I did an internship last summer with a corporate-law firm in Dublin. I was just out of a law degree in Trinity and a little bit lost as to what the next step should be. The firm took me in and really helped me discover the type of career I’d like to aim for.

The thing that really surprised me was how far they went in educating us. We interns were not only given a lot of practical training with office administration but were also given weekly lectures from people in every practice area within the firm . So while my daily work was limited to a specific department, I also learned a lot about how the firm was run overall.

On top of this I was given a lot of work that had practical consequences to it, not simply mindless busywork. I prepared reports, researched client issues and was invited to contribute at every weekly department meeting.

At the end of my time I was assigned to give a presentation to senior partners, who included my conclusions in their client services. It was genuinely challenging work, with just as much praise as criticism, and overall I really felt that I was contributing to the running of the firm, albeit in a small way. They also paid their interns, and although it wasn’t a lot it really helped with the idea that the work I was doing for them had a value.

Although a lot of my time at the firm was defined by stress, the staff were understanding. They expected a lot but gave you a lot of support as well. I think ultimately it came down to respect.

I learned that a lot of senior staff and some of the partners had started at the firm with internships themselves, and this made for a much more respectful environment than I’ve experienced with younger Irish companies.

‘If you pick the right organisation, you get something out of it

Six months after I completed my master’s I decided to take the leap and do an unpaid internship. I had been working part time in a pub and was willing be unpaid if it meant I could do something meaningful.

My first internship was advertised in the JobBridge scheme. It was in a town too far and difficult to commute to from my home. The interview was intense, just like an interview for a paid position would be. It was a position with a start-up NGO with a very small team. It was 40 hours a week for three months, with the possibility of an extension. They paid for my accommodation, and I was able to receive the basic social -welfare entitlement.

I was immediately accepted as part of the team and never treated differently because I was an intern. This position was my first look into the work of being a professional, and it was amazing. I honestly believe that if I had stayed I would have become a paid member of staff.

The thing that made me move was another internship with a well-known NGO. This one focused on my main area of interest and was in Dublin. Again the interview was very professional and tough, and I left feeling like I didn’t stand a chance. It was 20 hours a week and unpaid except for a lunch and travel stipend.

I found some casual work with another NGO through an ad I saw on Twitter, and that led to a paid 20-hour -a -week position for most of my time in Dublin. This was a completely different type of experience from my first one. I was sharing an office with the rest of my team, and they had been using interns for many years; I was nothing special or new.

But I worked my ass off and developed great relationships with the team and contacts with others working in the sector. They were completely flexible about what hours I worked and were so encouraging when I applied for positions within the organisation and the sector in general.

I ended up leaving to work as a volunteer with the UN. My experience in the two organisations was definitely what secured me the highly competitive position, and a year on I have finally been hired as a consultant. I know that internships are sometimes seen as exploitative and meaningless, but if you pick the right organisation you can definitely get something worthwhile out of it.

‘A lot of interns have talent but operate in a student-like way

I had a well-paid job in commercial banking, but after only two months I knew it wasn’t the career for me. It took me two years to decide on and make my next move. I quit my job in 2009 and went back to do a marketing master’s with a view to getting into the business -tourism sector.

The difference between being a graduate in 2007, when I had any number of job opportunities and options, and being a graduate in 2010 was huge. Obviously, there were fewer jobs out there, but now the option of doing an internship instead of going into fully paid employment was a real one: the term “ intern” in Ireland no longer meant spending a month or two out of the lecture hall to make tea and transcribe a stack of business cards into a spreadsheet.

The internship I secured was in an events agency, which matched exactly the kind of company and work environment I had dreamed of as I plugged numbers into a computer and chased property developers for commercial-loan arrears. Luckily for me, I also had an offer of a paid job , but it was in a company that didn’t appeal to me as much.

My current manager and then interviewer levelled with me and declared, “I f you’re good enough, there’ll be a job here for you.” That was nearly three years ago, and most of my colleagues don’t even realise that I started as an intern.

Having entered via the intern route, I’m now looking at the current interns in the office, and it’s pretty clear to me and my colleagues which ones are keepers and which are not. The keepers are the ones who realise that they are participating in a three-month job interview and adjust their attitude accordingly.

Unfortunately, a lot of the remainder might have the talent to succeed but are still operating in a relaxed, student-like way that the class of 2007 would have got away with after giving a good interview or two.

‘There are days when you’re forcing back the tears. But they pass’

My first internship experience was as part of my undergrad degree at Dublin City University . I was studying journalism, so we were required to do one as part of our course. I did an internship with a radio station, and overall it was a really rewarding experience. The placement was for three months, and I received no remuneration but did get to go to events, attend cinema previews and so on.

After graduating from DCU, in 2011, I found it extremely difficult to get work. I decided to take a leap and go back to college, this time to do a postgrad in public r elations. The course ran for 12 weeks, and I also had to complete a three-month work placement.

My second internship was with a festival. Again, I received no remuneration, but this internship was vital for me in terms of what I’ve learned about the Irish PR industry. I was thrown in at the deep end, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

The decision to start a third internship is one that I’m starting to think twice about. I have an awful lot of experience in PR as it stands, and I suppose I was doubting that I would be good enough for an a ccount -executive role. Now that I’m in it I’ve realised that I’m capable of more.

The PR agency where I am currently an intern is giving me €150 a month for expenses. It will cover my travel, and maybe a lunch out once a week, but that’s it. I’ve also been asked to do some typical intern-type things, such as organising the bins and going out to get breakfast or lunch for people .

There are days when you’ll be as low as low can be, when all your colleagues are going out for a nice lunch and all you have is your measly home- made brown-bread sambo because you literally haven’t a penny. There will be days when you’re forcing back the tears because you feel you are overworked and under appreciated . There will be days when you want to throw in the towel, and make unreasonable plans to just book a flight to the promised land, where it’s always sunny, and everyone on Facebook seems to be having the craic.

But these days pass, and you realise that you really are doing this for your own benefit, not for anyone else. Looking back now, my internships have been some of my happiest memories of my early 20s. I’ve made some great friends and worked on some really cool projects, but now I’m ready for the next step. I want more responsibility; I want to feel valued as an employee. And so what if I want to be able to afford a nice lunch every once in a while?

‘The longer I’m out of work the less employable I become. I’m desperate’

Garret Moran
I have a degree in logistics and supply- chain m anagement. When I graduated, in 2005, I had worked with a national retail company that supplied markets that served the construction sector. I had gained excellent skills that are transferable to a variety of other jobs. After working there for three years I thought it was time to get something new and get out before the company folded due to the property crash. I got a job in a distribution centre but was let go after a year. I was out of work for two years until I started the internship.

I browsed the jobs that were on offer on JobBridge. I was disgusted to see how some companies and shops exploited the scheme. I couldn’t get a job, however, and needed experience. I applied [for a medical -device -company internship]. Despite this internship not offering exactly what I wanted, it still promised to give me experience in areas that I never had before.

I relocated to the town where the internship was. I was given duties for which [other staff] would usually be responsible . I didn’t mind. I was happy to be doing something, to have a job, to be getting up in the morning and working and meeting other people.

I had hoped that getting my foot in the door might get me a job. It wasn’t until about one or two months before the end that I realised that I would not be kept on, and I began to lose motivation from then. I finished the internship last November and have yet to secure employment. The internship has stood to me in job applications, but at interviews I keep finding myself referring to what I did in previous jobs because I can’t help thinking, Was there much value in the work I did as an i ntern?

I don’t want to leave the country. I can’t afford to, and I want to be close to my friends and family, but it is getting tough, and it’s like watching life pass you by.

I keep coming so close to getting back on track, work wise, only to be disappointed. I had a quick look at the Jobbridge website yesterday and saw an advertisement for a relevant internship. I am going to apply for it because I have to.

The longer I remain out of work the less employable I become. At this point I am desperate.

‘It is the responsibility of the employer to make it worthwhile

I have interned with a consumer centre and a G overnment department through the JobBridge programme . The first internship was for three months, part time and unpaid. I wanted to put something on my CV relevant to what I was studying. I didn’t get employment out of it, and I was aware [that I wouldn’t] when I undertook the internship.

My second internship was through the JobBridge programme, so I received the dole and an additional €50 a week. I worked there for eight months, initially full time, then part time near the end of the internship. Again, I knew I wouldn’t secure employment out of it, as it was in the C ivil S ervice, but I felt it would provide me with experience.

I continued to apply for jobs throughout the internship, but I think my lack of relevant experience held me back.

My colleagues were very friendly, and my supervisor tried her best to give me interesting, useful work. I also did a lot of administration work, but I think that’s to be expected.

I left the internship a month early, as I got a temporary post in a different department. I applied for that position separately, but my experience of working within the Government was a definite advantage.

I don’t regret doing the internships, but at times it was difficult to remain focused and engaged. They can be very useful, but it is the responsibility of the employer to make it worthwhile for the intern.

‘The experience in the s enate was priceless’

Colm Bergin
I was lucky to take part in two internship schemes in the US, one in New York and one in Washington , DC. Both were great experiences that I look back on with great memories. The first internship that I did was at the New York s tate a ssembly, in Albany, and was organised by the d epartment of government at University College Cork , giving us the opportunity to complete our work placement there. We got paid for this opportunity. It wasn’t a huge amount, but it definitely did help with things.

The other was in the US senate for Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York. For a person who studied government, and has a huge interest in politics, this was a dream come true. It was unpaid, but I so badly wanted to do it I would have accepted the position even if they said I couldn’t put it on my CV.

The experience I got while working in the senate was priceless, because I was working with people who were the best in their business in the world. I did come back to Ireland with a greater sense of enthusiasm than when I left.

I probably was too confident when I came back, because I was expecting job offers to come flooding in with these experiences. It did take me a few months to get a job. But without these internships on my CV I would have been forgotten in a bundle of applications .

I understand that people disagree with unpaid internships, and I can understand why you would, but the opportunities that you have to meet people, to witness events and prove yourself with them is undeniable, and for that I would do it again and again if I had a chance.

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