It’s timely for me that The Cut would broach the topic of how interns are treated. My latest one, my third, started on Monday. With her arrival, I’d been thinking about writing an essay called something like “How to Train and Treat Your Intern”. I planned to solicit stories from all my friends – anonymous, of course—about their experiences and how bosses could improve. I thought is necessary since most who have help are not given formal training on what to do—or not. Interns get treated pretty much however the person they are working for was— good, bad, and at times, super ugly.
But then Kayleen Schaefer wrote a fascinating story about former Harper’s Bazaar intern Diana Wang who is suing the Bazaar parent company, Hearst Corporation, for violating federal and state labor laws since they did not pay her for her work. Her attorneys want Hearst to pay its former interns “back wages, overtime, and other damages.” Her suit, has become a class action one. My idea, went to the back burner.
Wang described her four-month internship as a “horrible” and “outrageous” experience. She worked five days a week from 9AM to 8PM and her pretty standard duties were to “track the thousands of purses, shoes, and pieces of jewelry lent to the magazine for photo shoots. She managed as many as eight other interns, sending them on 30 to 40 errands a day, and helping them file expense reports. She answered the accessories director’s phone, writing the caller’s name and holding it up, so her boss could decide whether or not to take the call.”
Her tales of woe include the night she stayed late at the office after everyone left to unpack “a trunk full of accessories, tissue-wrapped piece by tissue-wrapped piece, to dig out a single misplaced necklace. Or the practical agony of getting through a subway turnstile with seven shopping bags in her hands. She chafed at tasks unrelated to the magazine’s operations, like hand-delivering new outfits to editors between Fashion Week shows.”
Despite her “E” for effort, Wang was not offered a job at the end of her internship, and her editor declined to write a recommendation, which means Wang wasn’t so great at her duties or her editor was straight up evil. Both are possible. Hearst has derided the lawsuit as “without merit.”
Why? Probably because what Wang describes is a walk in the @#$%ing park.
This is the part where I’m supposed to go an old folks-like rant. You know how they describe how hard things were “way back when” and how kids “nowadays” don’t understand struggle or hard work. I’ll pass. Let’s just say Wang wouldn’t have lasted a day at Vibe or Oneworld or Time Out New York, all magazines where I interned and where working long hours for free, completing mind-numbingly frustrating (but necessary) tasks—you don’t know hell until you’re tasked with, on deadline, transcribing a two-hour interview with multiple speakers and all of them sound like they’re whispering — and catering to every editor’s competing whim was par for the course.
Let’s focus instead on what Wang missed, but will never realize because she gave up and didn’t make it far enough in The Industry to have an intern of her own. Interning – the long hours for little or no pay, the meager duties, the swallowing of pride (it is impossible not to be humble when as a college student or graduate, one of your duties requires you to stand at a copier for 3 hours)—is a necessary rite of passage.
At the beginning of each season, loads of bright –eyed students cross magazine thresholds, dreaming of getting a byline and turning their government name into a brand. What most don’t know until they arrive is all that glitters is not proverbial gold. There is an extraordinary amount of work and personal sacrifice and humility that goes into filling the glossy pages of your favorite magazines. As an editor, there’s the 2500 feature that was assigned at the last-minute that you researched and interviewed all those people for, then dutifully wrote, and then suddenly its cut. You’re lucky if it runs as a 300-word blurb in the front of the book. There’s the dressing down by a celebrity publicist, who represents near every A-lister and holds so much leverage, who is ticked at an image you ran of their client and threatens not to let others appear in your pages, much less that particular celebrity ever again. Whether it’s your fault or not, imagine explaining that to your boss when you know everyone likes to shoot the messenger. There are the never-ending meetings where you’re expected to pull ideas out your @ss because your higher up, who can shoot the side-eye of death, won’t let you leave until you produce a worthy idea, which means the ones that you’ve spent the last two weeks thinking of was time wasted. You can experience all this before Wednesday.
One of the purposes of an internship, from the intern’s perspective, should be to see the dream up close and decide if what’s behind the Wizard’s curtain is actually what you want. And if it’s not, that’s fine. Understand that your supervisor, in any stressful and fast-paced career, is evaluating you as much on your ability to do the work (if you got the internship, you’ve proven you can produce something of quality) as your ability to handle all the bullsh@#! that comes with the hard-won glitz. Your supervisor wants to see if you’re there for the “flashing lights” or if you’re willing and able to grind for the few and far between grandiose moments. You don’t get the privilege of being “[insert your name here] from [insert publication here]” and all the perks that can come with it without proving you can handle the headaches of being on the masthead. That’s actually what your internship is for. And your editor can’t know if you can handle the pressure if you’re there for the right reasons if you haven’t demonstrated the ability.
Those humbling, mediocre tasks that screw with your ego are actually necessary for the job. It doesn’t feel like it at the time, but they are teaching you something if you’re smart enough to open your eyes and observe what’s going on around you.
In between standing at the copier for hours at Vibe, I figured out how to pitch a story and get my first national byline. At Oneworld, where I was once tasked with, in teen-degree weather, of running around to various record stores to find an obscure, limited edition CD so that the photo editor could use the art in a story, I learned that writing well is more than a good hook and flipping a witty sentence, but actually having substance—a trait that a surprising number of published writers haven’t yet mastered. At Time Out New York, where my main duty was The Most Boring Job on Earth, ie, sorting through the mail and the hundreds of faxes they received daily, I learned how to decipher what was relevant to the audience. No one ever explained to me the purpose of my presence, I figured it out, and I realized long after the internship was over the priceless value of what I’d picked up just by being present.
An internship—even unpaid– is the opportunity of a lifetime for a person just starting out. Whether the tasks are endlessly Google-ing obscure facts or tissue wrapping precious baubles or giving your boss a head’s up of who’s on the phone, it’s still a front row seat at the How We Run This Operation show. You see the key players in action and if you are smart and/or borderline observant, you pick up the traits of how to get ahead in and stay in the game. It’s not about getting a job in the end, it’s about learning the ropes and getting a mentor who will connect you and advocate for you for the rest of your professional life. If you get the priceless chance to have and you can’t learn anything from it, that’s on you. Perhaps one of the hundreds of other applicants who applied for the spot and didn’t get it may have made more use of the experience.
Unfortunately, everyone doesn’t get to live the dream. If you are privileged and squander the opportunity, or worse, like Wang, don’t even realize when one has been handed to you, you don’t deserve entry into the world you thought you belonged in.
Demetria L. Lucas the author of A Belle in Brooklyn: The Go-to Girl for Advice on Living Your Best Single Life. ABIB is available to download and now in paperback. Follow her on Twitter at @abelleinbk