Does being an intern work for your career?

Ali from Elephant Publicity
Is an internship the right move for your career? Well, it depends.


Internships. On the one hand, they can be a great way to get your foot in the door in an industry. On the other, they tend to be low-paid, unpaid, not that many hours a week, or a combination of all three. Hmm.

I’ve never done an internship, so I have no idea if they’re a good idea or not. So I caught up with a few people who have, to get to the bottom once and for all of whether being an intern works for your career.

Learning experiences

Internships can be great learning experiences. They’re different from regular jobs in that there is a clear expectation that you’re there to learn. This should create  an environment where it’s easy to ask questions and get involved in all kinds of things across the organisation.

For example, Felixe Laing interned for 6 months at Artists Alliance, a not-for-profit that helps visual artists develop their careers. In addition to day-to-day tasks, such as invoicing and managing the payroll, she also participated in weekly meetings. In these meetings, she’d help to brainstorm ways to get more members, and new ways to engage with existing members of the Alliance.

I got the same report from  Ali Nicoll van Leeuwen, who was an intern at Elephant Publicity (where, by the way, I’m told she was a “superstar intern”).

She shadowed staff to meetings and really learned what a publicist does, in a hands-on way. She said “The biggest asset of an internship is the space it allows for you to ask questions and learn without the pressure a job can put on you.”

The elephant in the room

Here’s the reality: lots of internships are unpaid. This means you need to find another way to pay your bills when you’re doing your internship. Felixe was lucky to have one of the paid internships, for three days a week. On top of that, she could set her own schedule, so it was easy to have another job on the side.

On the other hand, Ali’s internship was unpaid, so she had to work nights to make ends meet. This was, naturally, exhausting.

I also spoke to someone who didn’t want to be identified, who told me that “There are an extremely limited number of paid opportunities in the arts and very few people are in the position to intern unpaid for a long period of time, in the hopes of getting one of these positions.“

Making it work

If you’re going to do an internship, especially an unpaid internship, you should make sure you’re still getting something out of it. Ali told me that all internships are going to have some degree of day-to-day, not-very-exciting tasks. However, you should make sure that that’s not the entire focus of the internship. If you’re just doing tasks that other people don’t want to do, for free, then what are you getting out of that? The answer: nothing.

So, when you’re looking at internships, you should do so with a clear idea of what you want from them.  Do you want to make connections? Learn about an industry? Be involved in a particular process? If you have a clear idea of what you want, it’s much easier to assess whether you’re getting it or not.

If you find yourself in an internship where you’re not getting what you want from it, raise it with the organisation. And if they won’t make changes, don’t be afraid to leave. Your time is valuable, and you shouldn’t waste it on free work that isn’t getting you what you want.

Ali from Elephant Publicity

The bottom line

The bottom line here is that internships can be great for your career, as long as you choose the right internship and walk into them with your eyes open. Both Ali and Felixe are glad they did their internships, and would recommend them. Ali is now working as a paid publicist for Elephant Publicity, while Felixe is working at an art gallery. Even the anonymous person I spoke to enjoyed her internships!

So make sure you know what you’re getting into, what you want, and don’t be afraid to walk away if it doesn’t work out.

What do you think of arts internships?  

Artists Alliance provides information, career advice, resources and advocacy for visual artists. Their 6-month internship programme, funded by Foundation North, has been in place since 2011. Since then, it has placed 30 interns within 16 organisations. To find out more about an Artist’s Alliance internship, contact Executive Director Maggie Gresson:

Written by

Sam Grover

14 Jun 2018

Sam loves telling quirky stories about The Big Idea’s community of artists and interviewing successful arts practitioners to gather insights about funding and commercialising their art. 

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