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Bigger Isn’t Always Better: How to Make the Best of a Big Bad Internship

internship goals
Thomas Martino
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Published on March 27, 2014

This is an anonymous guest post.

When I was applying to college, I attended many tours and accepted students days. Some guides tried to impress me with their facilities, others with their alumni and a few with their winning sports teams. However, as a student going into a communications, it was the internship connections that drew me to my future alma mater.

At this particular school, a list of past and present places where students were interning was handed out. The list included big names like: VIACOM, Vogue, HBO, NBC, Scholastic, the EMMY’S, Sirius satellite radio, and many more.

My mind went crazy with the possibilities. I could be working along side Matt Lauer at the Today show. I might be assisting the head of Marvel studios with development. I could even get the chance to be backstage at a major awards show. The experience would be incredible, and (perhaps more importantly) my resume would look incredible.

I chose that program. Two years later I had landed an internship with a popular daytime talk show in New York City. I was beyond excited. I was going to be working on a nationally aired TV show with celebrity guests and fun segments. I might even be on the show! Now my name and internship would dazzle the minds of incoming freshman. They would recognize the company and so would future employers.
On my first day I wore my best “casual chic” production outfit. I walked through the studio doors with a smile on my face. I imagined how much I would learn and grow in such a professional and high end environment. Unfortunately my experience was more work than fun or learning.

There are negative sides to landing a big gig, and there are also ways to make the best out of the bad.

1. When there’s enough money in the budget for all necessary employees, interns become extra.

The bad: A lot of major companies don’t need an intern to go about day to day operations. There is a lot of money and politics involved. They won’t let an untrained person complete important tasks. Sure they will let you look up that days’ Twitter trends, or research “everyday objects turned into something else” on Pinterest. Maybe they will even have you take back all those unused make-over clothes to the department store, but it’s rare that you get to sit down with and associate producer and brainstorm a segment.

The best: Being an unpaid intern means being able to make mistakes now and then. You may not be able to work with an AP to produce a segment, but in your downtime you can research one on your own. Then bring it to the person with whom you share the best report. Even if they turn down the idea, they might be able to tell you why.

2. If you are an unpaid intern, you should be learning not working.

The bad: The definition of an intern is a trainee. Especially if you are not being paid by that major company (that absolutely can afford to give you minimum wage), you should be shadowing different aspects of the job. As an intern on the talk show I was unpaid. I spent 90% of my time getting coffees, picking up lunches and running errands for higher ups.

The best: Getting good at the little stuff often shows that you can handle the bigger stuff. At least at first, put on a smile and completing minor tasks as best you can. After a few weeks, ask for more responsibility. The intern coordinator might not see you can handle more if you don’t tell him or her.

3. When there are 5-10 interns on in the same day, there will be favorites.

The bad: Bigger companies/productions will hire more interns. A lot of times the interns that got hired through a family member or friend will instantly be granted more responsibility and power. Unless that’s you, it feels incredibly unfair. Others will befriend higher ups quickly. Of course it is best to try and do that,  but sometimes certain personalities don’t mesh. At the talk show I found it hard to wiggle into the inner circle, because I hadn’t ever done a juice cleanse and I wasn’t a big fan of Justin Timberlake. (Don’t judge me).

The best: You never know who could help you out in the future. It can be just as beneficial to network with other interns, who will actually answer your calls, as it is to get coffee for the executive producer everyday. (I wound up subletting an apartment from one of my fellow talk show interns!) Some of the other interns I’ve worked with have gone on to nab great jobs. I still keep in contact with them in case there is ever an opening that I want to apply for. Plus, you might just make some friends!

4. More interns means more competition for jobs.

The bad: Most companies prefer to hire from within and that’s no different for big ones. However, if a job opens up in a small company with one or two interns then your chances of getting hired are good. At a big name, you have to compete against the other 20 interns from that semester, and the 2o from the last. Moreover, these companies are sought out by people all over the world. If a job opens up at MTV there are hundreds of applications in a day.

The best: Even if you don’t get hired at the company you interned for, the big name on your resume will most likely get you in the door at smaller companies. 

5. At the end of a major internship, you may feel you barely learned anything. 

The bad: Besides learning how to return something without a receipt anywhere in the city, I can’t say I gained much technical or educational knowledge during my internship. I left feeling just as ignorant as I came about producing, writing and performing. I couldn’t tell you how to use a studio camera or how to get a shooting permit. I definitely didn’t know how to book guests, negotiate with advertisers or decorate a set. If you had asked me on my last day to sum up the internship in one word, it would probably have started with “SH–“. 

The best: Although I couldn’t see it at the time, months later I realized how much I learned by observing. When I began my first assistant job I understood the hierarchy of production from PA to CEO. I had absorbed information about audience demographics and advertising tactics. I knew how to act professionally around A-list celebs. All these things I learned or improved on by working for the show.

A big name internship may seem like the best way to break into the industry, but sometimes smaller start-ups can offer you more extensive training and a better chance at a job.

If you do find yourself stuck in a dead end, high end company, try to make the best out of the bad. Get that coffee like a champ, work hard even though you’re unpaid, and remember to treat your interns better once you get to the top. 

Thomas Martino

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