DC confidential

 

WORKING LIFE:Thousands of graduates flock to Washington every year to kick-start their careers, only to face a succession of unpaid - but madly competitive - internships, with a slim chance of advancement. Nine months on, SARAH GERAGHTYrecounts her experience as an intern on K Street

November 2009

After a cosy year as a postgrad in Edinburgh, I set off for Washington DC, with one small bank loan, one serious coat, three smart office outfits, three American friends, no job and a year's working visa contingent on my pulling in at least $700 a month from a job related to my degree (in EU politics and law). And all to be executed in the hysterically networking, money-sapping capital of recession-thumped America, a city fuelled by the ferocious energy, ambition and free labour of young interns.

In a way, internships are great. My American friends have done a string of them, resulting in enviable CVs. What a prime example of that go-get-'em American attitude. How I cursed those summers waiting tables in Boston or dancing till sunrise on a Thai beach with fluorescent paint on my face, when I could have been licking envelopes in a law firm or making tea in the backroom of a politician's constituency office - unpaid sure, but building my CV into a monument.

Too late. Now, I'll have to do it the grown-up way. I assumed - and based my unwavering admiration of the concept on the notion - that interns (unpaid ones that is, not the grown-up ones in Accenture and Google), were invariably callow undergrads in their late teens and very early 20s. This isn't the case. An American friend, job-searching on Capitol Hill for the previous month, picks me up from the airport and - while I'm still trying to visualise a map of northern America to decipher where I am exactly (Virginia? Maryland?) - uses the rush-hour tailbacks to pass on his concerns about how often he's been advised to concentrate his search on an unpaid internship rather than an entry-level job. What with him being in his mid-20s, with a cumulative two years of unpaid work experience, including a stint on Capitol Hill, a year in a law firm, not to mention his master's degree, he'd arrived here assuming that he'd paid his internship dues. Apparently not.

This news fails to dampen my spirits about this new US adventure, but then we enter a place called Tryst. Feeling way too much like a (very trendy) college library, the low-lit cafe/bar is packed with twentysomethings on shiny white Macbooks, nursing organic honeydew and mint smoothies while perfecting resumés and crafting cover letters for paid and unpaid work on and off Capitol Hill. The relentless objective is to stand out as much as possible in a city where everyone has done about a zillion internships, an advanced degree, been published, and where everyone wants to do pretty much the same thing: "Something in politics or development." Hmmm, how to narrow that down in a cover letter.

*****

Wanting to avoid the apartment hunt on Craigslist, I decide to be realistic and embrace this internship lark. I give "EU internships DC" a lash on Google and land on a related think tank looking for a communications intern: "Please note this is an unpaid position".

I fire off my CV and cover letter anyway, if only to marginally reduce the chances of having to spend the next idle month in Tryst pulling off that industrious but cool look.

After packing up my not-so-shiny black Dell and spending a few hours exploring the city, I check my emails to see if anyone at home misses me yet. They don't. But I'm immediately suspicious to see that the think tank, the only place I've applied to, has responded already and wants to meet me in person.

Dressed in one of my three smart office outfits and serious coat, I arrive at the K Street address. The office manager, who's obviously well used to bright-eyed interns showing up full of vim, gives me the once over and says, "We dress down Fridays." She locates my emailer, who's obviously thrilled that a 25-year-old master's graduate has come this far and is not only eager to work for them for free, but is enthusiastically offering to do so on a full-time basis. She goes over what I'll be doing - "don't worry, you won't be making coffee" - and asks if the unpaid nature of the work will be a problem.

Well, obviously it's not ideal and nobody wants to work for free in a strange city where rent prices are scary and cool supermarkets such as Wholefoods are affectionately referred to as Wholepaycheque, but who am I to argue with the system? And it's always easier to find a job once you're in a job, right?

And it's only until after Christmas anyway.

****

At a reception in the Irish embassy for the 2010 George Mitchell scholar nominees, I feel slightly inadequate about my unpaid internship, but even the two human rights' lawyers I'm talking to feel inadequate. One has written an amendment to Obama's health-care bill, for pity's sake. "All these kids had to do internships or they wouldn't be where are right now. Chin up," I'm told. That doesn't make me feel much better.

But what I'm most curious about - apart from how many internships they've actually done and whether they started them while in the womb - is that they've all applied for this fiercely competitive application and interview process so that they can go to an Irish university for a year.

At precisely 8pm (because receptions end at the time specified on the invitation and any loitering beyond that time is delinquent behaviour), I leave and go for dinner at the Old Ebbit Grill, a restaurant beloved of Washington's politicos and power-brokers, and a drink afterwards at POV, the rooftop bar of the W hotel, which has postcard-perfect views of the city.

It could be that I'm still in the post-college phase where working in an office with set hours and not slopping around in tracksuit bottoms all day is a novelty, but I like my job and realise from the start that I'm on to a winner by landing in a small organisation run by former Time and International Herald Tribune journalists who actually care about providing their interns with a placement of some value.

One mentor routinely gives me "lessons that kids pay $10,000 for at journalism school". Another takes me for lunch at old Washington establishments such as the Metropolitan Club to see how I'm finding the US, to laugh at Sarah Palin, and ask me again if I've been to the Newseum. I have.

JANUARY

After Christmas, the glow has worn off a bit, which could be something to do with the sub-zero temperatures. But I start to worry: I think even I have normalised the idea of unpaid work. It took an uncle at a family dinner to make me realise this: "You work for free? But why? How . . . No. That's mad." It is mad.

I imagine it happening like this: one day, a proactive young student arrived in Washington and knocked on the doors of politicians offering to do any job going, so she could get a foot in the door. She would stuff envelopes, she would make coffee, she would clean up after the boss's dog. Anything. So of course they took her on. And then they told all their friends.

So a contract of sorts was drawn up. You do all the mundane work that we won't admit (or legally cannot admit) is often fundamental to the running of our organisation and in return, you won't get paid because we've realised you're not actually looking to get paid; but you will get a reference and be able to put this fabulous experience on your resumé.

I'm not bashing my experience because, all in all, landing this position was the greatest stroke of luck. I can see the virtue in getting real-life experience while in college and having something useful with which to fill up the yawning gaps in the college timetable. And in many cases, interns get academic credits.

But I am bashing a system that is undoubtedly prohibitive for a large portion of college students who made it into college on merit but at a certain point hit a wall which, they are told, is unavoidable, giving the more affluent ones the chance to race ahead. And I'm also bashing a system that encourages students with expensive degrees and often some degree of work experience to compete against each other for the privilege of sitting at the front desk of an office, fielding phone-calls from verbally abusive stone-mad constituents, or maintaining a "filing" system that's comprised of newspaper cuttings from 2005.

But what are the options? What if you actually can't afford to spend an unspecified amount of time working unpaid? Well, you either don't do the internship(s), aware that you're instantly far less competitive, opening yourself up to questions from potential employers (even though you may have done four years in law school or a master's degree). Or you do the internship(s), and join the "intern army that keeps Washington afloat", according to one friend, aware that this still doesn't put you ahead of the game.

****

A co-intern of mine is very concerned that I'm a clueless European with not enough "bulk" on my resumé. So he - an unlikely graduate of "drums", who once dreamt of being a rockstar but went to Paris instead to do a master's in political science and is now sheltering from the non-job storm by applying for another master's at Columbia University - suggests that I pay a mere $140 to participate in a day-long writing class at Johns Hopkins University, specifically to learn "Writing for political staff". I ask him if he thinks this is a little expensive, considering we do not have an income.

"We have to do these things - how else are we going to climb that ladder?"

I thought we were already doing that.

"We need to do more," he says, so I decide to go, but only if I can get the student-rate.

I arrive at 8.30am on an icy Sunday as the first snowflakes of Snowmageddon 2010 sprinkle down. I secretly hope I'm turned away - it'll probably be jammed, I say. Not exactly. The registration man might have let me in for free if I'd been bad enough to ask. And then I see why. The majority of attendees are retired and veterans of these events, learning to start/write/finish a novel or at least get published by the New York Times.

One of the more relevant speakers is a man who started work at 19 as a reporter for his local newspaper in Virginia and now heads a communications firm. I introduce myself, tell him what kind of work I'm interested in, and ask has he any advice: "Have you considered an unpaid internship?"

FEBRUARY

My boss becomes concerned that he's harbouring an illegal immigrant and asks what needs to be done. "Well basically," I tell him, "I need to be paid." So at a time when the city is slammed by the snowstorm and the federal government has given the go-ahead to take the week off work, we meet at a downtown restaurant to iron out the details of my becoming a "paid intern".

And while I am questioning my value and the need for me to be there Monday to Friday (especially as I spend a lot of time counting car-park receipts and explaining the inner workings of Twitter), it's still a little victory that they care about my immigration status enough, and appreciate my Twitter smarts enough, to pay me money. It would be nice to shake off the actual "intern" label itself, but baby steps . . .

APRIL

When spring arrives, it's good for everyone's soul. The cherry blossoms add a flash of colour to the city only a few weeks after the last of the snow has melted, and thousands of tourists flood into town for the one weekend when they're at their peak. On the advice of a friend, I start to tell anyone who asks that I am a communications assistant, rather than an intern. And in the spirit of CV bulking, I've started German lessons at the Goethe-Institut.

I try to stay quiet when Americans from both sides of the widening political divide discuss the signing of the healthcare bill.

On Easter Sunday, I go to the ribbon-waving, heart-lifting, song-filled mass at the National Cathedral and have a grand old time, celebrity spotting Washington-style. There are no chocolate eggs here for Easter, but instead I'm introduced to the much healthier tradition of painting and decorating normal eggs, so we spend the rest of the afternoon dipping and dyeing.

****

New interns flood into the city. I suspect technology has a lot to do with it. A German friend, who is used to paid and practical internships and works for a non-profit organisation, thinks she is only there to answer such questions as: "How can I make the font bigger?" or "I can't open this attachment . . . fix it would you?" I also think it's a lot to do with getting used to having eager servants who'll sprint in the second they're needed or make sure that before the boss comes in everyday, his computer is turned on. So by the time my mother visits even she's looking at me funny: "So hasn't your internship reached a natural end, eh?" and "Why can't I see your apartment?"

She's right, of course. By the time she leaves I'm all fired up and doing what I should have done months ago. I email anyone and everyone, sending them letters and CVs asking for advice and meetings and tips and contacts.

I become one of those people I was scared of becoming, those who see every human interaction as a chance to network. I've become one of the Tryst set. Some people genuinely feel for anyone in this never-ending plight and are helpful; others do the unspeakable and suggest either an internship or worse, another master's, while some are just plain unhelpful and look mystified when you turn up for the meeting you arranged over super-friendly emails the week before.

But I'm so in this zone that during a White House tour, I'm tempted to break away and storm the Oval Office, avoiding the hail of bullets, just so I can leave one of my crafted cover letters on the president's desk detailing why I, above anyone else, would be perfect for any jobs going - I have a master's, French, I even do German lessons for God's sake.

JUNE

It's already been a long summer but the oppressive heat and flash rain storms haven't hit yet. I've moved to a new house in Woodley Park, an area that makes you feel like you're on holidays when you walk by the terraced restaurants on a balmy night. On Friday nights, there are free outdoor movies in Roslyn and jazz in the park at the Sculpture Gardens off the Mall, where crowds laze on the grass with pitchers of sangria after work. The city's public swimming pools are clean and accessible, and you can't beat Eastern Market on a Sunday afternoon.

****

Email responses have been less frequent now as people take holidays or maybe they've just become tired with the pleading emails and 15-minute meetings with panicked graduates who at a certain stage just want the person they're meeting with to tell them they have a job and to start Monday.

At the same time, nobody has said at any point that there are no jobs here - it's how to get the jobs that's the problem. Because the number of internships has mushroomed, it has become a complicated matter of bypassing existing interns if you want to get the entry-level position. And from the outside, it's unlikely to happen so your only choice is to get an internship first, then seek out the jobs. One of the most disillusioning moments was when I was told that the jobs posted on various sites are really just for official purposes; mostly they've already hired internally.

JULY

Eight months on and you could say - as my mother put it - that a bit like Lourdes, Washington has worked in unexpected ways for this naïf: it doesn't cure the problem, but it sets you up for the next phase. I've learned that networking is king but sincerity is its consort; I can spot a soul-dead networker a mile off. I know that 95 per cent of those "Irish" contacts can be charming but woefully forgetful and that total strangers with not a drop of Irish blood (my employers) took me in and treated me like a daughter - which is not what I expected in cold, scary Washington. I know that modest reserve and self-deprecation will land you back in the dole queue. I've shaken off the academic language, learned how to write a good memo, how to negotiate office politics, how to state a case, how to whittle down a head-banging 250-page report during lunch hour. And I've learned that, for all its faults, the EU is a concept worth defending.

And the German is coming on a treat. And hey - did I tell you? I can call myself a "fellow" now. I'm not sure what it means, but dead-eyed networkers (whose eyes close like alligators' when they hear you're an intern) stick around a bit longer . . . they think I'm somebody.