With graduation out of the way, one has to embrace the step into the ‘big wide world’ (even though I detest the patronising tone of that phrase).

Understandably jobs are difficult to come by, with the back log of graduates who have come out of education in a time of global financial troubles. But the point of this entry is not to radiate this negativity we often hear in our day to day lives. Rather it is an honest attempt to share my own experience; a cautionary tale of the unpaid internship; is it justified?

Personally, I have been there before, graduating in 2008 from a Fine Art degree. I spent 6 months in London, unpaid, financing myself from savings. Days involved jumping from one position to the next, going application crazy hoping to secure some money. The 3 month internship at Aicon Gallery was experience, but in hindsight was it worthwhile experience?

Being given a set of keys to a Regents Street gallery within the first week of the job seemed an honour at the time. Opening up the gallery early before the paid directors arrived, and staying until they decided to go home. Some days consisted of sitting behind the desk answering phones and filing, contrary to the original position of ‘Exhibition Intern’ suggested. Full days without a break. Imagine the ‘Devil Wears Prada’ heart pounding feeling of fear. Fear of doing something wrong or out of place in this pristine white gallery (which was probably the best thing about the job, as it was designed by Caruso St John).

On some occasions I remember eating my lunch which consisted of a spoonful of cottage cheese, with a tomato and half a pepper, as I couldn’t afford to buy food. But it was ok, I was working in an ‘art gallery’ – or so I kept telling myself.

The lowest point was when I did get something wrong, and sent some parcels by courier rather than by post. I was the only extra worker that day, having to man the phone and gallery at all times. The directors were in an ‘all day meeting, not to be contacted’, and at some point I was supposed to have magically doubled myself, and popped off to the post office while staying in charge of the gallery. From that day onwards, one particular individual make it her mission to make my life hell, finding fault in everything I did. But still, I carried on as a nervous, under fed, unpaid graduate. Not exactly the experience I was hoping to get.

I would certainly be reluctant to jump at the chance of unpaid work again. And I disagree that all experience is good experience.

A point came last year when I needed a reference. I asked the gallery for one, surely the least they could have done for someone who worked incredibly hard for them without pay. ‘The reply was, just write one yourself and I will sign it’.

It strikes me that being able to say you have work experience under your belt to a potential employer can hide the substance of what was actually learnt during that placement. This is the difficulty I am having again, this time as an Architecture graduate. I have no experience in an architects practice, as I had to seek paid work during my summers to afford to continue studying. And surely the point of the Part 1 placement year is to gain experience, and not to be declined because of the lack of.

I take my stance a little more cautious this time, seeking paid work only. Over the past month I have been offered two more internships, one in Denmark, and the other in Paris. The Paris internship offered 419 euro per month, barely enough to cover rent. The fact is, I would not be able to support myself financially whilst undertaking such a position. Both positions were declined, with a hint of satisfaction.

Surely it says something about the ethics of a firm who offer unpaid work in the first place. It is making a disgrace out of the profession. This is not ok.

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But what is one to do when there is little option of work, either succumb to the fact of gaining some kind of experience for no money, or stick it out for the foreseeable future in hope of a paid position?

I do not believe internships to be justified for a lengthy period. It takes advantage of skilled graduates or individuals who are determined to make a career for themselves. We have the ability to learn, and learn fast. Being thrown in at the deep end and having to learn the ropes is indeed a valuable suggestion. I am often alarmed when looking at architecture internships, the stipulations the companies require. For example, proficiency in a lengthy variety of packages, the ability to speak fluent Japanese, 3 years experience in housing, etc. I am also appalled at individuals who wouldn’t stop and question their cost of their free labour. By accepting an unpaid placement makes a suggestion that you agree working for free is acceptable, with someone else benefitting from your efforts. With the expectations of what an intern can do increasing, this means that companies now have a choice of highly skilled candidates to chose from.

So what can be done about this? I am an avid fan of ‘Don’t just complain, do something about it’. There is a UK government petition,



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that I would ask you all to sign and be a part of. Let’s help to make this wrong doing illegal, so that everyone benefits in the future.


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About the author: Professor Ball
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Opinions expressed in this article may not reflect those of THEGAYUK, its management or editorial teams. If you'd like to comment or write a comment, opinion or blog piece, please click here.