Thursday, July 29, 2010

To Intern or Not to Intern?

Should you intern or not? Is it fair that some people can afford to work for free and others can't? Does it worsen the advantages of privilege and make certain industries more homogeneous and less diverse? Is it slave labor? Isn't that illegal? Shouldn't you get paid when you work? All these issues and more will not be addressed here today. They're all certainly legitimate concerns and problems, but I'm not going to change anything here. I'm not telling people how to break down the walls of publishing, but how to get their foot in the door. On her blog Marian Schembari has a couple of posts about internships that do address these issues and more.
A story in The Atlantic in the spring takes a stand on the issue, and they put their money where their mouth is because they now make sure to pay all of their interns. But I find it odd that they also have lectures and homework with their internship. Time Magazine also had an article about how more adults are actually taking internships and how these are hurting recent college grads.

Some interns complain that all they do is answer phones, get coffee, and open mail, and therefore how is this supposed to be experience for "a real job"? Well, wake up, that is a real job! At my first job in publishing in New York as an editorial assistant for the head of an imprint, my primary job responsibilities were... answering the phones, sorting the mail, watering his plants, keeping the office fully stocked with office supplies, fixing paper jams in the printer, making appointments for my boss, calling to make his lunch reservations, and other menial tasks. Interns aren't given those tasks just because their menial, nor to keep them from getting "real" experience - that is in fact the main component of the job as an assistant in publishing. Yes, it would be great if you'd get to do some "real" work, along with the mundane office tasks. Often that will require some initiative on your part.

Unless you have a very conscientious and thoughtful boss, you might have to approach them and ask for more responsibility, ask to work on a project you find interesting, offer to do a task you've seen is necessary in the office, something like that. Not only will many bosses appreciate you asking - it shows your interest, enthusiasm, and relieves them of having to constantly think of something for you - but that initiative is a personality trait highly valued in prospective job candidates, so you want it to be a word that will immediately come to mind when your internship boss is called to provide a reference for you. If your boss truly is too busy to give you tasks, ask the other people in the office. They will be usually be happy to have someone who can help out a little bit, and the more people you work with in your internship, the better, as that's more people you can ask to be a reference.

Here is a listing of publishing internship contacts, small publishers and agencies as well as the big houses. The ones to look for are ones that offer a variety of experience, a paycheck, college credit, and/or flexible hours (so you can get a paying job as well), like Hachette (in Boston and Nashville as well as New York, and theirs are paid), HarperCollins (this is my favorite internship, as they actually rotate you through a variety of departments, so you get a rounded education in the industry as well as many times more networking contacts), MacMillan, Penguin (paid!), Random House, and Simon & Schuster. One thing to keep in mind: after you've graduated internships aren't closed to you. You can intern that last summer. There are more job openings in the fall than the spring anyway, so this would postpone your serious job search until when there are the most openings.

And most major publishers have a travel division. Travel books are mostly annuals so they come out in the very early part of the year. Which means fall is crazy-busy in that department, but obviously spring wouldn't be, so they need seasonal help every year. There are often fall internships with travel imprints. If you go to a college where you have flexibility in your schedule, you can be at a huge advantage as fall and spring internships often have very little competition.

After your internship has ended, write your boss a (handwritten but legible) thank you note. Be sure to link to all the people you met through LinkedIn. Internships are by no means necessary to a future job in publishing (I didn't have one) but they can be a major help, particularly with networking. If you get an internship and can afford it, take it. In the long run, it'll be a bigger help than an unrelated hourly job even if the pay is a lot less.


Rebecca Chapman said...

Whst an interesting post! I think all the difficulties associated with internships are the same between industries. I did a couple of internships while I was doing my law degree. One was in a private immigration firm and it was so terrible and we were so taken advantage of that I quit after 3 weeks. It was the worst job I've ever had. The second one I did was perfect and I ended up with a permanent job and stayed for 2 years. My general advice is this - you will have to do the boring tasks but don't let anyone take advantage of you. It's still a professional environment and you should be treated like a professional

Natalie~Coffee and a Book Chick said...

Such great information! Oh, if I could do my life a little over, I would be a happy camper and would travel down the publishing/writing/editing walkway! I was an English & Creative Writing major 15 years ago and somehow got into Corporate business and am in National Accounts now in an unrelated industry...sigh...reading this post has made me nostalgic and makes me see if I should try a career change! Any suggestions for someone in my situation? Thanks for the post, I am hopeful something else more up my alley may hop my way!