The Artifice of the Internship

are you (non) experienced?

by by Rebekah Bergman

illustration by by Drew Foster

Coffee cups and copy machines. Nervous smiles at stern superiors. Straining one’s ears to hear snippets of debates as meeting room doors slam shut. All the sycophantic drudgework of an underappreciated college student. This is one vision of the summer internship. For version two, hold the college student constant but change the rest; working side-by-side with professionals and offering insightful input at every staff meeting, this eager intern marches toward greatness and learns new skills with every step.

Brown’s Career Development Center would like you to see the latter. The CDC’s website provides pages of internship tip guides, funding possibilities, and consortium links where employers post open positions. But this fall, not every student submission to the CDC’s “Summer Experience Database” will reveal a straightforward narrative of happiness, growth, and success. Not every submission will reveal an “experience,” per se, at all.


Interviews with several of our peers illustrated the classic extremes of life-changing and life-draining internship. Sandra Camacho, a current Brown senior, spent the summer at Teach for America, developing podcasts and other multimedia projects. “My manager would ask me for input all the time,” she told the Independent. “She really cared what I had to say.”

At the opposite end of the spectrum is sophomore and current Independent staff member Gillian Brassil, who worked as an editorial intern at GQ. Gillian was occupied with a range of trivial busywork, including small online research tasks and picking up staffers’ lunches. Of course the transcribing, copying, and filing have to be done by someone, and in a way, it’s only fair that the wannabes—the college students looking to break into the field—should be the ones to pay those dues.

Harder to understand, though, is the nonexperience: that strange gray space that is neither a life-changing experience nor bitch work; it is empty time, a seat filled in a cubicle and no evidence left behind save for some ink on a resume. At one point this summer, Gillian edited a GQ article for her coordinator but discovered later that her edits were never considered. “He was clearly trying to make me ‘part of the process,’” she says, “but it was actually demeaning for me to be given a task that had no bearing on anything…There were so many days when I didn’t do anything.…Since there wasn’t enough to do, I felt this weird malice toward the other interns. On an empty day I’d walk by and see somebody else transcribing something and I’d be like, why does he get to do that?”

More and more frequently, economic stresses have turned what were formerly entry-level positions into unpaid internships occupied mostly by college students. One would expect organizations to rely heavily on interns for important work. In this climate, the internship of nonexperience seems illogical. If a company has a pre-existing internship program and there is so much work to be done due to positions left vacant, why are employers assigning pity projects to their free laborers?


We, the authors, know the nonexperience intimately, having participated in our own this summer. For the most part, the jobs come back to us as long expanses of nothingness. One of us worked for Boston magazine, commuting from Providence three days a week to sit in an office, send emails begging for work, and read old magazines. The other worked in a creative writing center. After being introduced to the three-person staff as the nameless “new intern,” she sat at a table and stuffed envelopes with middle-aged volunteers. Three weeks later, she quit. She is not totally sure anyone noticed.

It might seem that we are unfortunate outliers, but the phenomenon of the non-experience crops up even in internships that are ultimately rewarding. Baird Bream, a current Brown senior, spent the summer working at the Community Transportation Association of America, a nonprofit transportation advocacy group in Washington, DC. Baird enjoyed working with dynamic professionals in a field he hopes to join after graduation, and feels he made valuable connections. Still, there were days when he found himself frustrated with little to do, reading the New York Times to while away the hours.

Employers are often uneasy around their interns. While they undoubtedly hope their young minions are engaged in something more worthwhile than Facebook, it may be that they themselves are too overworked to structure an intern project. Even so, the resume entry for the nonexperience is indistinguishable from the actual, hands-on one. There may be no skills resulting from the internship and little understanding of the field, but the mere fact of having had an internship marks its bearer as somehow more worthy than those who have not.


That fact brings up the uncomfortable question of who can pay the literal price of gaining that (non) experience. One Brown senior, who spent her summer working at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, had her share of days spent sitting in an office with little to do. However, she loved her boss, got to organize a national conference of teens in the arts, and even met notorious graffiti artist Shepard Fairey. These facts would have made the experience a worthwhile one.

The only real problem was the money. Everything she earned in a part-time paying job was gone by the end of the summer. When she spoke with her boss about the likelihood of getting a job in museum education after the ICA internship, her boss told her frankly that the chances weren’t good. She might have to do another unpaid internship. Maybe two. The former intern told the Independent that she would “literally not be able to afford” to do so. When the question of economic equality is brought into the equation, the notion of an internship in which the intern does relatively nothing but still gains a resume boost becomes all the more disturbing.

No matter what the intern’s financial situation, an excess of downtime on the job can be much more demoralizing than endless Starbucks runs. Someone has to get the coffee, but sitting in an office Gchatting for hours on end helps exactly nobody. With measures of unoccupied tedium and financial insupportability often coming with the territory of traditional internships, the time for pushing back against their conventional wisdom seems to have arrived.


For some students, the remedy is to set aside the internship label altogether and piece together a summer that fills their own personal specs. Katie Delaney, a pre-med English concentrator, decided to spend her summer exploring her two passions. After a friend sent her the information, Katie emailed the editor-in-chief of the web-based alternative music magazine Magnet Magazine. As a summer intern, Katie had an array of interesting tasks to do predominantly from home. She uploaded free mp3s and attended and reviewed concerts including the Shins and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. She rarely had to enter the office and so was able to spend several days each week volunteering on the maternity ward of a hospital in Philadelphia. The hospital provided enjoyable work that furthered Katie’s love of medicine.

Katie saw her summer as a way to try different careers on for size: “It gave me a way to reconcile going to med school while keeping writing or some kind of literature in my life as well.” Far from feeling frustrated, Katie gained invaluable personal insight and—one might bet—some worthy resume ink as well.

In the same vein, Jordan Mainzer, a sophomore considering a concentration in history, hoped to get some experience with academic research this summer. After contacting a professor at Roosevelt University, Jordan became an unpaid research assistant. He worked mostly from home on the professor’s forthcoming book. “This was definitely not a traditional internship,” he admits. “In fact, when [the professor] told his colleagues about it, they didn’t believe that I existed. It’s very untraditional for a professor to take on a student research assistant from outside the university.”

Conventional or not, Jordan knows his work was worthwhile. He has formed a great partnership with a potential future contact and accomplished his goal of learning about academic research. His name will appear in the acknowledgements of the book, proving those dubious colleagues wrong.

This year, before we decide to again embark on the internship hunt, we should be critical of our own motivations. If the experience is the one we want, we may happily give up our salaraies and take coffee orders. But if the internship itself offers no experience at all, we might do ourselves a favor and forget our resumes to do something truly worthwhile.

REBEKAH BERGMAN B’11 loved serving coffee this summer, and HANNAH SHELDON-DEAN B’10 wishes she’d done the same.