What’s the real cost of internships?

At a time when journalism jobs are plummeting and unemployment rates continue to rise (on what seems like a daily basis), I wonder whether this is a better or worse time to be looking for an internship.

I find the main problem with them lies with basic economics.

There are lots of problems with taking an internship. Many, if not most internships are unpaid, yet require full or near-full time working hours. On top of this some programs like mine require students pay a large fee in order to be granted academic credit. And that doesn’t even take into account the cost of housing, living and other expenses if interns choose to move out for their new job.

As someone who hasn’t had an internship but has been applying to many and reading lots about what to do, I’ve noticed how the eventual choice boils down to looking at a few simple factors. Here’s what I think are the key things to consider.

How much can you work?
Some internships are part-time, while other organizations may expect the job to pretty much be all you do for four or six months. If you’re someone still in school or already working part-time to pay off some of your student debt, jumping into a full-time internship may be a recipe for burnout.

That being said, if you’re someone who can handle a higher workload (and kudos to you if you can) keeping some sort of regular steady job in addition to your internship will help ease a lot of the costs incurred at your non-paying gig. These could be anything from basic supplies (notebooks, batteries for your recorder, transit fare, business clothes) to things like networking lunches or conference fees.

Which leads to my next point…

How much money can you afford to spend?
If you’re lucky enough to have a decent amount of savings, financial help from family members or a spouse or even have access to a low-interest loan, the number of places you can work can increase dramatically. Having access to such finances allows to you expand your job search zone far beyond your own city and in many cases allow you to be more specific in your job search.

When it comes to journalism, this could mean applying to publications covering specialty sports, certain political viewpoints or specific music genres that may only be lightly or occasionally touched upon in a local daily newspaper.

Places like New York City, Washington D.C. or even Toronto are often great places for internships, because of their higher concentration and more widely diverse number of opportunities. However, it’s important to keep in mind that such cities also come with higher-than-average costs for rent, food and other living expenses. While such costs can often make this option financially difficult or unfeasible for many, there are some internships worth the risk and hit to your bank balance.

How important is this job to your personal plans? How prestigious is it?
If working at that publication is all you’ve ever dreamed about as a kid or you know the internship at the media company will lead to great freelance and networking opportunities in the future, refusing a job based on its expensive location could not only be regretful on a personal level but also hinder your future career.

Name recognition with a company or with a possible mentor can and should be important factors to look at when making your choice, as they can provide valuable experience and a competitive edge on your resume. If the costs are considerable, try and work with the employer to find other ways to lower expenses, such as working part-time or finding connections for freelance work or even asking for tips on low-rental areas.

Finally, how happy would you really be at this job?

Working your butt off, not moving away to save money while still working at the big-brand-name may seem like all the right moves for starting a great debt-free career, but it doesn’t matter if you’re not really and truly thrilled about working there.

Remember, with most internships, you’re starting out there in a unpaid position through a probationary lens. If you don’t really love and care about what you’re working on, the difficult days at the office are only going to be even harder. A prestigious internship means little or nothing personally if you disagree with the company/publications’ views on politics, attitudes or its workaholic-encouraging-tendencies.

The key is to find places you love first and then start writing your applications. It would be wasteful to exhaust yourself spending time to compose resumes and cover letters for places you’re not even completely sure you want to work at.

And if anything, the real passion and enthusiasm you have for a company/publication you’re excited about will be far easier to be recognized in a resume or cover letter and is much more likely to impress a potential employer than one full of uncertainty and deliberation or purpose.

A final note
When I first started writing this particular blog entry, I didn’t mean for it to veer off the topic of journalism. I originally set out to write about how excited I was to find an internship that tied my favourite hobby with a great, established publication.

But when I was looking back at articles about how people in their 30s, 40s and even 50s are also pursuing internships, it made sense for me to go beyond writing about how I figured out a Radio Room gig at the Toronto Star wouldn’t be the best fit.

Let’s be honest, a career is journalism is now as much tied to job searching as it is to social media and branding.
The idea of staying at one particular company or publication for decades until retirement is has falling apart with every announcement of more layoffs. So it would make sense that a blog entry on the costs and considerations of an internship would also apply to someone recently let go, no matter what the career.

All I know is that at a time when I’m constantly being told I should be thankful to have a job when many people can’t find another, I’m still going to aspire to have a job I really want to be at everyday. And while times are tough for new journalism grads and aspiring writers, they aren’t impossible, and things are changing everyday.

If anything, the new generation has to work even harder to prove we deserve those unpaid work opportunities
because the job market is getting increasingly smaller while the number of applicants grows. That doesn’t mean we should stop being selective and specific in how we start new careers.

We don’t settle for a lesser quality of journalism when a publications are financially strained, so why should a weakened job market mean settling for just any initial opportunity to learn. If anything, you’ll only have gained more of the niche edge needed to get the paying job after the recession.

So think really carefully about the upcoming summer internship season. Otherwise, you might end up like the interns at Metro.

Further reading: No Internship Yet? There’s Still Time


4 thoughts on “What’s the real cost of internships?

  1. Solution. Only apply for paid internships. If you’re going to work for free, it might as well be for yourself. You could blog or freelance or start a company or work a real job instead.

  2. Great post, Karen — but maybe it’s just me in my Yankee bubble, but I’ve never heard of an internship that requires you to pay them! Wow. That’s harsh.

  3. fiercefab

    Will you stop posting interesting shit while I’m trying to focus on writing an article about multitasking?


    I’m never going to get this done, am I?

  4. […] Ho has voiced her opinion about unpaid internships through her twitter account and in several blog entries. Ho offered two possible alternatives to working in the city and being pressured into unpaid […]

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