3 May 2023

Why I Regret Doing an Unpaid Internship

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I left university a wide-eyed twenty-something, with a head full of Charles Dickens quotes and a vague idea of becoming a successful editor.

I’d never actually set foot inside an office, but I loved books so how hard could it be?

So, after graduating, I made the big move to London to live in my Aunt Mabel’s box room where it didn’t take long for me to realise, it’s very, VERY hard.

After painstakingly crafting over 30 cover letters to publishing companies, I still hadn’t had a single response. And to make things even more fun, I was the only one of my friends not to have a job yet.

There was Zara on her £45,000 a year banking graduate scheme. Ali had somehow wrangled a high-flying job in advertising. And Sam, who had dropped out of uni after first year, was already on his second promotion.

So when I was finally offered a three-week internship in the editorial department of a top publishing firm, I was so desperate that I didn’t even care that it wasn’t paid…

Fast-forward six months and I had four unpaid publishing internships under my belt, but still no job. So what was the point?

[Spoiler alert: there wasn’t one.]

Here are THREE reasons why I regret ever doing an unpaid internship in the first place…

1) I didn’t actually learn anything

At my first internship, I spent a whole morning scouring every newsagent within walking distance for a magazine that was no longer being stocked in shops.

At my second internship, I was asked to open hundreds of copies of Boris Johnson’s new book for him to sign. The one “silver lining”, they promised, was that I’d get to meet him afterwards. And I didn’t.

I spent the duration of the third internship cold calling independent bookshops (a skill that has come in handy throughout my career, but that made me cringe with anxiety as a young intern).

And the most exciting thing to happen during the fourth was my manager falling off her chair.

Other than getting very cosy with Royal Mail and mastering how to use four different coffee machines, I didn’t develop any skills that would actually help me in the workplace.

Nor did I learn much about how the publishing industry worked, other than that they got through a heck of a lot of photocopying ink.

It didn’t take me long to realise that if an employer doesn’t value you enough to pay you for your time, they aren’t going to give you any work of value. It’s as simple as that.

2) All work and no pay

To sweeten the deal, each employer ‘paid’ me in more books than I could hope to read in a lifetime. A nice gesture, however, a shelf full of unsold obscure novels, trashy airport reads and Gino D’Acampo cookery books doesn’t pay the rent.

According to The Sutton Trust, it can cost an individual £926 a month on average to live in London – meaning a lot of interns have to rely on distant family relatives offering up their spare rooms.

If it wasn’t for Aunt Mabel’s rent-free hospitality, there’s no way I would have been able to work for free.

And it wasn’t just hurting my bank account. Juggling a five-day working week with a part-time waitressing job takes its toll. I was tired ALL the time. And whilst my friends headed to the pub after work most days, I spent my evenings on my feet, working for minimum wage.

I began to ask myself why I was even doing these unpaid internships. I was being paid decent money to balance three plates on one arm (a personal best), yet I was paid nothing for all the hard work I put into my internships. Was this fair? 

3) Interns are disposable

I’d come out of university feeling on top of the world, and after six months I was staring into the dark abyss of unemployment.

I’d been told time and time again to ‘make yourself indispensable’. But despite carrying out every task to the very best of my ability and making the tea with a smile on my face, I was never offered what I came for: a real job.

Eventually, after hearing colleagues openly discuss ‘the next intern’, ‘the June intern’, and ‘intern CVs for next year’, it dawned on me. I was just one in a long line of hopeful interns, each one going the extra mile to stand out from the pack, each one not quite making the cut.

The ugly truth is, employers who don’t pay their interns aren’t likely to convert them to paid employees.

After all, why would they hire you for £20,000+ a year, when they can just replace you with another intern for free? It’s a broken system – and one that left me feeling demotivated, dejected and jaded.

Do you know what your rights are as an intern? To ensure you’re not being taken advantage of, read our comprehensive guide to your rights on work experience.

My first mistake was assuming I just didn’t have the experience to be paid.

My second was to let four different companies exploit this lack of self-belief. But the joke’s on me, because I spent the first six months of graduate life delaying the start of my career for no reason.

Not only did this put me off publishing altogether (I’m now a copywriter and have never looked back), it put me behind my peers.

Those who carry out unpaid work after graduating end up £3,500 worse off than those who go straight into paid employment. I know it’s tempting to just bite the bullet and take an unpaid internship.

After all, you might be the one intern they do offer a job, and even if they don’t, it’s the only way to get into your dream career, right?

However, an estimated 70,000 internships are filled every year in the UK. A fifth of these are unpaid, which means the remaining 80% of internships ARE paid. So, there’s simply no reason to undersell yourself.

We only support paid internships

Here at RateMyPlacement, we champion employers who pay all their employees a fair wage. 

These employers are better motivated to ensure both parties get the most out of your internship. This means more mentoring, more responsibility and more learning.​

With more and more companies now offering competitive salaries, interns should expect to start on an average salary of £17,439 a year.

Unfortunately, unpaid work experience is still symptomatic of competitive creative industries such as publishing, journalism and fashion.​

It’s time to take a stand – which is why our co-founder Oliver Sidwell recently took a trip to Parliament, where he discussed changing the laws around unpaid internships with Lord Holmes. You can listen to his interview here or on any major podcast platform.

If you are currently doing an unpaid internship, call the Acas helpline 0300 123 1100 for advice on how to take action.

Make a difference. Make an impact. It’s time for a change.