All internships are not created equal: how to spot the best opportunities and have the courage to reject the duds


14 June 2018


Back in March Amalia Illgner wrote a long read on The Guardian describing why she is suing Monocle over her “dream internship”. The article pinpointed many of the issues of internships and how it “excludes the less privileged from the arts, media and politics”. Below, Amalia talks of her experience and the research she has found on the creative industries, providing some golden rules that graduates should be aware of.

It’s your first day as an intern. And it feels pretty much how you imagine it might to win the lottery. You’ve been salivating over a magazine, fashion label, branding agency or gallery since you can remember, spent a year perfecting your portfolio, and stayed on mates’ couches to attend London interviews. And now they’ve chosen you. You look around. Everywhere are shiny multilingual staff, who don statement spectacles, box-fresh trainers teamed with rolled-up jeans. You feel like you’ve landed in some parallel dimension where instant coffee, economy class and BMIs over 25 simply do not exist. 

You get a pass with your name on it. Perhaps even your own desk and company email. The editor/creative director/lead designer warmly greets you and casually asks your opinion on a layout. Your heart pretty much jumps out of your chest – but you manage to say something not terrible. In other words: you feel like you’re on your way.

Fast-forward six months and you’ve never seen (let alone interacted with) the editor/creative director/lead designer again. Instead you’ve become best friends with the local coffee barista who knows the agency order by heart. Most days you’re stuck by yourself in a dusty cupboard sorting out pitch decks from 1995. And you’re eating rice sandwiches because, well, that’s all you can afford, since you’re not being paid.

It wasn’t meant to be like this. How did I get here? Where did I go wrong?

“If you want to get ahead in the design industry, offer anything, do anything. Work for nothing, make tea, carry bags, and learn, learn, learn,” said Dick Powell, chairman of D&AD and co-founder of design agency Seymourpowell, in front of a captive audience of graduates at the 2013 New Designers exhibition in London.

It hardly needed saying. Every budding creative knows that on-the-job experience is key. Without a few internships, summer work experience stints, or placements, even the best portfolio will struggle to stand out. Last year almost three-quarters of students achieved a 2:1 or higher, compared with just two-thirds five years ago, so it’s no surprise that a University of Glasgow study showed that 42% of all graduates from the creative sector take unpaid roles after graduating. Everyone wants to get the edge on everyone else. Today’s top graphic designers, illustrators, copywriters, art directors, journalists – were all yesterday’s hardest-working interns.

After his speech Powell told Dezeen, that doing an unpaid internship was the “easiest way to get a job”. However, the same Glasgow study found that 45% of respondents reported unpaid roles led to paid work. Powell came under fire for these comments and “clarified” them the next day, apologising for giving the wrong impression that unpaid work was acceptable.

"Today’s top graphic designers, illustrators, copywriters, art directors, journalists - were all yesterday’s hardest-working interns."

-- Amalia Illgner

But many graduates know exactly what Powell meant. They know the industry is rammed with qualified hopefuls, they know the expectations of the industry. So they take the advice to “do whatever it takes” to heart. I know I did.

After graduating with an MA in journalism, I did a two-month internship at media company Monocle, finding myself up at 4:30am for 5:30am shifts for just £30 a day – less than half the minimum wage. A few weeks in, what had seemed like a golden opportunity, started to feel like a bit of a con. I knew that dues had to be paid, I knew I couldn’t just waltz into the top, but surely, even at the bottom, I was at least worth something, at least the minimum wage?   

So how can a fresh graduate bursting with ideas and new skills find the right internship that will be a launch pad to a career?

"A few weeks in, what had seemed like a golden opportunity, started to feel like a bit of a con."

-- Amalia Illgner

“Not all internships are created equal, so shop around before you commit,” says Tanya de Grunwald of Graduate Fog, the UK’s leading blog for new graduates making the leap into the world of work.  “Employers do a great job of making young people feel your time isn’t valuable – but it is, both to you and to them. The best internships are one to three months, properly paid and structured and with a good chance of leading to a job afterwards. Of course, in the creative industries there are lots of crummy internships around that don’t meet these criteria, but ignore those and make it your mission to find the best ones. Trust me, it’s time well spent”.  In other words: resist the temptation to “panic buy”, and if someone implies they’re doing you a favour by letting you work there for free, move on.

For Tom Baker, 27, a graphic designer who turned a one-month internship at award-winning London branding agency Rufus Leonard into a four-year career at the agency, it was “all about asking the right questions”.

Upon graduating with a BA in Graphic Design at the University of Gloucestershire, Tom was selected to represent his university at the annual June D&AD New Blood Festival in London. It’s here that senior creatives can get first dibs on fresh talent and fill up their internship slots from the summer onwards.

Tom’s branding and packaging skills, on display at his university’s stand impressed two senior creatives – one from innovation agency Bow&Arrow and the other from Rufus Leonard – both in London. The creative from Bow&Arrow was the first to contact Tom. They invited him for an interview at their Soho offices for a two-month internship to start in October. “I was blown away by their work, they had clients like Google and the BBC, they made it clear I’d be hitting the ground running on day one,” he says.

"Not all internships are created equal, so shop around before you commit"

-- Tanya de Grunwald, Graduate Fog

Needless to say Tom was thrilled when, a week later, he was offered the role. At £150 per week, the internship was well-below the minimum wage, but Tom had savings he was willing to invest to cover the cost of moving to London.

But just hours after he was offered the role, he got a phone call from Rufus Leonard, inviting him to an interview for an internship the following week. At the Rufus interview Tom says he “got a good sense” of what he’d be doing day-to-day, and was impressed by the assurance that he would get a lot of mentoring and room to develop as a designer. He was also told the agency was “on the lookout” for a junior designer, so the month internship had scope to turn into three months and potentially into a full-time role with salary of £18K.

Luckily, Tom didn’t have to choose, because the Rufus role started in July. So Tom accepted both. By the second month at Rufus, Tom was working with Neil Svenson, the owner and executive creative director of the agency on a special client project. Tom also had weekly catch-ups with his manager, the same senior creative who initially spotted him at New Blood, and was paid £300 a week. “The money wasn’t why I accepted the offer, but looking back it meant I could pay rent, travel and food without dipping into my savings or relying on my parents – I didn’t have much at the end of month but it was manageable”.

All throughout the internship, Tom got regular feedback on his work and says he felt like part of the team from the minute he started. He was delighted when it was extended to the full three months and almost couldn’t believe it when he was offered the full-time role – due to start on the same day as his Bow&Arrow internship.

“It was the hardest phone call to make, because I was really impressed with Bow&Arrow, but I couldn’t turn down a real job, with a real salary and a chance to build a career with a team I loved, for an internship for £150 a week with no guarantee of anything at the end of it,” he says.

Tom took the job at Rufus Leonard, and told Bow&Arrow he’d be unable to take up their opportunity after all. For the next four years Tom worked his way up to middleweight designer. In many ways Tom’s internship at Rufus Leonard could be seen as an almost prime example of what a good internship looks like.

"The money wasn’t why I accepted the offer, but looking back it meant I could pay rent, travel and food without dipping into my savings or relying on my parents"

-- Tom Baker

Tanya de Grunwald has some “Golden Rules” that graduates should be aware of when considering their options. As a general guide, look for signs the employers views the internship as an investment. That shows they’re taking it seriously.

An internship should be paid

“Firstly, the role should be paid, and I don’t mean expenses,” she says. “Nearly everyone doing an internship in the UK is entitled to the National Minimum Wage.” As of April 2018, this is £5.90 per hour for people aged 18-20, £7.38 per hour for people who are 21-24, and £7.83 for people aged 25 and over. Having money in your pocket isn’t the only bonus – you’ll also know right from the start that you’re with an employer that respects and values young talent.

An intern should be managed

Next up is some sign of the employer career development in the form of a manager. “Good internships offer regular feedback and will give interns a clear idea of how they can learn and improve,” she says. “Interns should not just be left to it, which interns sometimes confuse with the flattering idea that they are being ‘given lots of responsibility’. Often, they’re just being badly managed.”

An intern’s workload should be structured

Structure is also key – so always ask about how you’ll spend your time, and what you’ll get from the internship. If they’re hazy, it’s a sign this is not a good internship and it may be best to keep hunting. Should you make tea? “Of course it’s good to be a helpful team-player, but if this is all you’re doing, you may be better off elsewhere,” says de Grunwald. “Ditto if there’s nothing to do. Value your time, and move on.”

An intern should be interviewed for the role

“Alarm bells should ring if there is no formal application procedure, it shows that the company isn’t taking the role very seriously”. Other things to look out for are: the promise of a written reference, a firm idea of what to expect at the end, and a clear time limit to the role. “It should definitely not be ongoing,” she says. Everyone wants their internship to turn into a paid job, but you have to work on the assumption that it won’t. Always line up something else for when it ends. It sends the message that if they really want you to stay, they’ll need to make you a decent offer.” And if they don’t? “For God’s sake leave! If they miss you once you’ve gone, they can always call you. This happens more often than you think.”

"Interns should not just be left to it, which interns sometimes confuse with the flattering idea that they are being 'given lots of responsibility'"

-- Tanya de Grunwald

Right now, as reported on It’s Nice That earlier this year, a group of 34 leading ad agencies including Wieden+Kennedy London, Creature, AMV BBDO, Grey, Droga5 and WCRS have joined the Real Living Wage Pledge campaign to make it a standard practice that everybody working in the ad industry, including interns and those on work experience over the age of 18, is paid the real living wage of £10.20 per hour in London and £8.75 elsewhere.

Other creative sectors such as PR have even issued “best practice” internship guidelines for employers and many job boards now refuse to advertise unpaid roles. But there are still a lot of opportunities that work to exploit the goodwill and often sheer desperation of graduates keen to get their foot in the door.

Tom knows how lucky he was to have the London career he set out to achieve, and he knows just how nerve wracking – and intimidating – it can be to start from scratch. But his advice to new creatives applying for internships is to “always know that – to some extent at least – you are also interviewing the agency”. This doesn’t mean being cocky or entitled, but rather to show the employer that you are serious about your career and are clear about what’s important to you. This means if mentoring is important, make sure to ask if they offer it, and if you have specific skills, ask if there will be an opportunity to use them.

“My internship at Rufus made me the designer I am today, it wasn’t just something good that I did, it was everything,” says Tom. “But I knew it would be great before my first day, I knew they saw potential in me and were willing to invest in my development. I knew this because I had asked all the right questions."

Supported by Lecture in Progress

If you’re after more advice and insight into creative work and careers, check out Lecture in Progress, It’s Nice That’s sister company. Student membership is free and includes exclusive promotions from partner companies. To sign up, visit

The It’s Nice That Graduates 2018 is supported by Lecture in Progress and Polaroid Originals.

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