Can I be an intern?

The last few years have seen a boom in the number of internships being offered in the arts, and undertaking one is increasingly seen as the given route into the sector.

Despite the negative press they have received, unpaid internships are still common and many are willing to look past a lack of pay to get their first work experience in the sector. However, there are positive, valuable internship experiences and there are negative, useless internship experiences. Taking some time to reflect before beginning an internship search can go some way to avoiding the negative, and ensuring that the time and effort you invest (for little, if any, pay) is rewarded with new skills, knowledge and networks.

Whether pursuing an internship is right for you will depend on your individual circumstances, but everyone will benefit from asking themselves the following questions before progressing any further:

How will I fund myself?

More and more internships, particularly at larger publically funded arts organisations, are becoming paid roles. However, unpaid internships are still very common in the arts. Furthermore, even a paid internship at the rate of National Minimum Wage is unlikely to be enough to live on if it is part-time. Many people choose to complete internships while they are still a student and have the benefit of student loans. Others will take up part-time work alongside interning, or rely on savings. Using a credit card to finance an internship is unadvisable, and could quickly lead to a lot of debt. Remember, a Professional and Career Development Loan cannot be used to fund an internship.

What kind of organisation do I want to work for?

Arts organisations come in all shapes and sizes. When thinking about what kind of organisation you’d like to work for, you might want to consider whether you’d get more out of interning at a small organisation (where you may get to take on more responsibility) or large organisation (which may have more impact on your CV). Check out the ‘About Us’ section of an organisation’s website and see if their ethos appeals to you. Would you prefer to work for a charity, social enterprise, or commercial operation?  You may find that undertaking an internship completely changes your ideas of what kind of organisation you’d ultimately like to work for.

What are the gaps in my skills, experience or knowledge that I want to fill?

Before you start your internship search, identify your learning goals. These may be general – gain a better understanding of how small galleries operate – or more specific – learn how an Arts Council funding bid is put together. It may sound obvious, but if you want to learn more about a specific area, such as arts marketing, focus your search on internships offered in this department. You might find it useful to map your current skills, knowledge and experience, to see where there’s room for improvement. Looking at person specs (in job adverts) for the kinds of positions you wish to apply for can also be a useful starting point. Bear in mind that any professional experience you have gained in the past (e.g. working in retail, or volunteering with young people) may have equipped you with valuable transferable skills and attributes.

Should I consider an alternative to doing an internship?

Although it can feel like doing an internship is the only way into the sector, there are other avenues. Volunteering can be a good way to gain experience without being tied to set working hours, and should still offer opportunities for learning and development. While not as wide-spread as internships, apprenticeships in the arts are available and can offer structured, on-the-job learning paid at the apprentice wage, rising to National Minimum Wage after the first year. Alternatively, you may find that working with friends to self-organise some exhibitions or events, or even to set up a new space, a more useful learning experience than undertaking an internship.

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