Internships: valuable work experience or glorified volunteering? 

Before you go chasing an internship hoping for on-the-job training, there are many factors to consider.

Internships can be helpful if you’re starting out in your early-career path, particularly if they offer you genuine workplace experiences or a chance to get a foot in the door of your industry.

However, the possibility of exploitation is something to be mindful of when considering interning in your chosen field.

Here, we speak with two past participants about their experiences interning in the writing and visual arts sectors. We also hear from Carol Mackay, part of the Internships Change Management Group at Never Not Creative. She offers an important perspective for would-be interns and employers alike.

Harriet* had completed her education in Professional Writing and Editing, written a couple of novels, and volunteered for a major literary festival prior to her internship at a writers’ centre.

‘I ended up emailing them to ask if they had any positions available. I was interviewed by the CEO and Office Manager, signed a contract, and started helping out once/twice a week’ she said.

‘I stayed in the [unpaid] internship for ten months. The organisation offered me a paid position after that and I didn’t feel exploited at all, it was a fantastic experience. I was involved in creating their magazine, editing their quarterly magazine, and running literary events.’ 

Anna’s* experiences as an intern were not as easy or straight-forward as Harriet’s. Anna is an emerging writer, curator and researcher working at the intersection of art, fashion and culture. A recent BA (Hons) graduate majoring in Art History and Sociology, Anna has undertaken three internships to date: at a not-for-profit gallery, a commercial gallery, and a major art museum. Her experiences have been mixed.

During her first, unpaid stint, she did ‘a mix of everything: reaching out/managing stakeholders and sponsors, general administration, communication/customer service, database management, artwork handling, event support, processing sales’. 

The second internship involved similar daily chores consistent with the running of a gallery. She received $20 per day to cover lunch and transport.

For the major museum. Anna was initially assigned two specific cataloguing projects to work on. She has been steadily working on one of them, though she has her sights on other projects in the offing at the institution. 

Unsurprisingly, Anna said that the major art museum was the most competitive in terms of gaining a foothold, but that she finally managed to do so with the help of one of her university lecturers.

Were internships helpful in terms of creating a future career path?  

Harriet’s response was unambiguously positive. ‘It was a perfect introduction to the literary world. I built connections with writers, artists, illustrators, publishers, and literary agents all over Australia.’

Anna was more circumspect. ‘In a way, yes. A lot of the practical skills and experiences I have amassed have very much been relevant to paid work I have done further down the line,’ she said.

‘Career-wise I am unsure about how much the internships have helped me; there is still a layer of opacity that shrouds my understanding of what I need to do to become a curator. I am also very aware that the area I want to get into is extremely niche and underdeveloped/premature in Australia, so there aren’t really many resources and clear pathways that I can follow.

‘‘These experiences have been eye-opening and given me insights that I do not think I would have learnt in a Masters degree. To that end, my internship experiences have definitely given me a better understanding of what I would be looking to get out of any further study I do,’ Anna added.

Exploitation and disorganisation in internships  

Although she agreed that internships can sometimes lead to casual work, Anna believes that exploitation in the field is rife.

‘The fact that these internships are unpaid, while you are often doing the work that a paid employee would do, is fundamentally against the spirit of an internship,’ she said.  

In all her placements, Anna was thrown into environments that she described as being in disarray, with supervisors ill-equipped at understanding their role as mentors.

‘Oftentimes it felt like they didn’t quite know what to do with me; they didn’t really understand the skill-set that I could provide, and that they could provide to me. It got to the point where I though my initial ideas of how an internship was supposed to be (i.e. nurturing, educational) was just a fantastical notion – I felt more like a glorified volunteer’ she said.

 ‘I felt like I was the one who needed to take initiative to seek advice about forging a career in the arts, while not wanting to feel like a burden by asking.’

What does the Fair Work Ombudsman say about unpaid internships?

According to the Fair Work Ombudsman, an unpaid internship or work experience can be okay if the applicant is:

For more information about different types of lawful unpaid work, see the Ombudsman’s Unpaid work fact sheet.

Protecting the vulnerable

Carol Mackay is a board member of Never Not Creative (a community of creatives seeking to improve the sector); she also chairs the Internships Change Management Group, a not-for-profit community supporting the creative industries, primarily around wellness and mental health. 

‘Our work around unpaid internships is to protect the vulnerable,’ Mackay said, adding that internships are often ‘elitist – a majority of graduates do not have the means to work for free.’

ArtsHub asked Mackay for advice for both employers and prospective internees. Here are her tips.

Three tips employers hosting an intern should know:

  1. Successful internships are all about managing expectations. The Never Not Creative minimum standards are a good place to start. 
  2. Always, always designate a buddy for the intern. Someone responsible for them, to help them learn and identify opportunities. It’s great to share the load so the mentee can experience all aspects of a creative business, but give them one person they can rely on.
  3. Understand that interns learn through a variety of methods: by watching (shadowing), by listening (being mentored) and by doing (playing an active role on client projects).  A good internship is a mixture of all three. 

Three things all interns should know:

  1. Working for free is wrong at any stage of your career. It’s hard to ask employers to ‘respect’ your talent if you are willing to give it away for free. Paid internships can be a win-win experience. Read and understand this business case for paid internships. 
  2. The aim of an internship is to accelerate your learning in a real commercial environment. Commercial means doing ‘real-world’ work. Not all of it may be as creative as you might want, but it’s a perfect opportunity to participate in a real-world environment and confirm it’s the career you want. Be a sponge. Soak up as many aspects of a creative business as you can e.g. not just design. Ask to attend a WIP meeting and a client presentation. Perhaps you can learn how to cost a job.
  3. Use the experience to build your soft skills like communication, collaboration and presentation. Studios hire on attitude not just skill. So ask lots of questions. Be a valuable team member. If that means getting coffee because everyone has their head down on a deadline, that’s what you do.

Improving internships

Never Not Creative is working to improve the lot of interns in the arts and culture sector, and offers a range of materials for employers and interns to use when planning an internship, as well as during and post-internship. 

‘Previously, studio and agencies recruited internships when they were busy. It was less to do with mentoring and more to do with tapping an unpaid labour market. There are not as many unpaid internships advertised post-COVID – maybe due to remote working, making internships a little less “easy” – but they’re still around. We actively advocate against unpaid internships’ Mackay told ArtsHub.

‘We’re working on educative materials for final year design students: presentations and role-plays explaining why unpaid internships are bad for them and bad for the creative industry. Part of that exercise is a business case for paid internships, explaining how, even using the minimum wage, internships can be a valuable experience for both the intern and the employer,’ she added.

The Never Not Creative site has

Information for interns:

A business case for interns (not updated since minimum wage change July 1).

How to land an internship guide.

How to have a great internship: the NNC Never Not Better Internships guide for interns

Information for employers:

A guide to Minimum standards for interns.

Can I afford an intern? (not updated since minimum wage change July 1)

How to host a great internship guide.

How to run an internship: the NNC Never Not Better Internship guide for employers.

ArtsHub urges prospective employers of interns in the arts and cultural sectors to make full use of these resources, in order to ensure best practice in this field in future.

*Harriet and Anna are pseudonyms.

Thuy On is Reviews Editor of ArtsHub and an arts journalist, critic and poet who’s written for a range of publications including The Guardian, The Saturday Paper, Sydney Review of Books, The Australian, The Age/SMH and Australian Book Review. She's the outgoing books editor of The Big issue. Her first book, a collection of poetry called Turbulence, came out in 2020 and was published by University of Western Australia Press (UWAP). Her next collection, Decadence, was published in July 2022, also by UWAP. Twitter: @thuy_on