While working on national titles I have overseen numerous work experience students – aka workies – some good, others not so good. But in my experience, it can be a valuable exercise for employers and students alike.
While Head of Features Journalism at Southampton Solent University I championed employability skills and placements. In 2015 I organised an Employability Conference at the university chairing an alumni panel. Our guests – alumni as well as industry professionals – not only reinforced the value of getting work experience in terms of gaining kudos on a CV but also explained that it helped some of them decide on a career path post-university. The conference provided a valuable learning experience.
So how can you make the most of an intern? Below two journalists – one now an academic, the other a graduate – share their insights.
An academic and industry perspective
Carole Watson, programme leader of BA (Hons) Fashion Journalism at the University of Sunderland and former deputy editor of Grazia, says that from an academic perspective an internship is essential. Her students are required to complete a minimum of 10 days work experience, in addition they also have an opportunity to contribute to the course website, Fashion North.
“Any student wanting to go into any industry should get out there before they graduate, or their university is doing them a huge disservice. Imagine a medical student who’s never been in a hospital.”
Despite encouraging professional practice during university assignments – with real-world deadlines and pressure to speak to primary sources – Carole feels that it is only when students get out into newsrooms at magazines, newspapers and online platforms that they can understand what they have been learning, as it is put into practice in the dream jobs they aspire to.
“I see my students returning brimming with confidence, often after praise,” says Carole, adding that quite often they tell her they have taught real journalists new employability skills which older staff members were unaware of, such as digital tools.
Having experienced internships from an industry and academic perspective, she points out placements should be of equal value to intern and employer. To ensure their cohorts gain maximum benefit from placements Carole and her team have developed a critical reflective assignment. “This helps students look back on the challenges they faced and subsequent lessons learned.”
Recognition as to a workie’s value is also important as often interns who are keen can be extremely helpful in a crisis. “I have read of students who’ve saved magazines hundreds, if not thousands, of pounds by finding long-lost fashion items such as designer shoes or jewellery loaned by PR companies, because they stayed late to completely sort out untidy fashion cupboards.
“Seeing the flatplan on the wall, the book being put together and hopefully a by-line or two in the published publication makes the whole academy journey a reality.”
However, during her time in the industry Carole admits perhaps underrating interns passing through. With hindsight, she feels that many were often underused and may have been dissatisfied with the experience. Reflecting on this she thinks that “allocating a mentor would have helped” and reveals the experience has provided a much-needed insight into her current role when it comes to giving advice to her students. This advice includes being proactive, taking in ideas and judging the mood before constantly asking a busy journalist: Have you got anything for me to do?.
So far Sunderland’s student placement destinations include Glamour, Elle, Grazia, Hello!, Fashion Monthly and Fabulous at the Sun on Sunday.
Case study – Aidan’s story
Aiden Dalby graduated with a degree in magazine journalism from Southampton Solent University in 2016, where he and three peers won a national award for Best Original Concept with their magazine Tucked. Aiden is now a staff writer at Future plc. Here he reveals the challenges of securing work experience and how he made the most of his placement.
Finding work experience was harder than I expected it to be – I couldn’t find many places that would offer it, especially magazines. My first experience of working on a print publication was Pulse, Empire Cinema’s staff magazine put together by Solent students, but in my third year of study, I worked at the NME over a period of two weeks. I did odd jobs like sorting mail but editorially I would go through the magazine’s archive to help the writers research features, transcribe interviews and write artist profiles for NME.com
One day I came into the office and was immediately asked to write a news story for NME.com on the movie The Founder. It was the first time I was given something to write in a short time frame (I think I was given an hour but I could be wrong). This experience not only helped me grow as a writer but I feel that more importantly, it helped my confidence.
The most valuable lesson I learned was the experience of being in an office. I can write numerous features at home, but actually being in an office is a completely different experience.
My advice to potential employers on taking on interns/workies would be to give interns by-lines. It’s a small thing that goes a long way for those just starting their career. I was never given credit for any of the work I did while at the NME and it was disheartening because I can’t use any of it in my portfolio.
Five tips to make the most of internships
- Select candidates carefully and ask for an example of their writing
- Interview all placement candidates before they start and ask what they hope to get out of the placement
- Create a structured temporary editorial role with some responsibility
- Allocate a member of the team who can mentor the student
- If possible, try to ensure the student gets at least one story or feature published.