When I return home to England to visit, my friends still ask me: “Any plans to get a real job again soon?”
My answer is usually an emphatic “no.”
Three years ago when I quit my job as a journalist to teach in Thailand I figured I’d probably last a few months then come back and pick up where I left off at a new magazine. Instead, I rather liked the freedom of what I was doing and decided to stick with it. Although technically I did end up with a real job - I work at a university in Tokyo now - I still have no intention to return to the UK nine to five.
Of course, that doesn’t mean I gave up on writing. Quite the opposite - I just needed a little time off to reset.
To start to give a bit of context as to why I enjoy work that lets me travel and why my plans for the future start with this website but definitely don’t include an office, I thought I’d reflect on my first proper step on the career ladder: a summer of internships I completed after university.
Looking back, it was obvious that I was never suited to working indoors at a desk, let alone in the media.
My writing career since 2012: not dead, just resting.
First, a little work history
Sometime during my first year at secondary school I sit down at a computer and take an electronic career test. It asks me questions about workloads, deadlines and salaries. I am eleven so I mostly think about how I hate everyone around me and would rather be alone with my Playstation. After answering ‘disagree’ to almost every question, the computer says I am not suited to any profession at all, but would probably hate being a translator least. I remember that since a young age I have enjoyed writing stories. Isn’t that what a journalist does?
At age 16 I begin a work experience programme at the behest of my school but foolishly don’t organise my own placement. While my friends are frolicking around places like the Natural History Museum, I am assigned to the local Woolworths. I have to provide my own red jumper and am given a name badge reading ‘James’, which is not my name. Apparently there are three choices available and this is the only one left. After two weeks of stacking shelves I am renumerated in the form of a £10 gift voucher.
I learn that employment is generally not worth it and should be avoided.
I graduate from university with a degree in English Literature, thus far escaping part time work because my parents were unemployed when they filled out my loan application so I got a grant for some of my fees. My articles for the university newspaper made some people laugh and others quite angry, so I’m content to pursue journalism. A careers advisor tells me it’s competitive and that I’ll definitely get a better job if I stick around to do a master’s degree.
Now with an MA in Modern and Contemporary Literature, Culture and Thought, I graduate from university again. This time directly into a recession. I begin my quest for a career by living in rural Essex with my parents unemployed for six months. I spend a little time between job applications reading about marketing and decide that I’d make a mighty fine copywriter in this digital age.
Despite the terrible graduate employment market, I finally land a temporary role as a proofreader for a large media company in London. At the group interview they ask us:
“Where do you see your role when working in a team?” and I jokingly answer “patrolling the perimeter,” which doesn’t even get a chuckle.
I save up enough to move out of my ancestral home and formulate a long term plan: by working for free for interesting companies I can gather experience until one of them finally relents and gives me a job.
And so begins my quest for an internship.
The digital media internship programme
I nearly bought this t-shirt
Opinions are still split about the value of internships. For every CV enhancing achievement, there are three cups of coffee made. Some people think they’re a vital rite of passage and an opportunity to prove oneself, others say they’re basically slave labour.
It can be either, depending on the placement.
My university had a programme that gave about forty recent graduates grant supported placements at various digital media companies around Brighton. The scheme was designed to select the best candidates so companies seeking to fill a junior position could sidetrack the hassle of graduate recruitment and train people up before officially hiring them. After the three month internship probationary period, the majority of interns would be offered a job.
The majority of interns.
I was pretty pleased with myself when I passed the selection criteria as there were hundreds of applicants. Even though I did not get my first choice of a placement at a really cool looking social media agency (they said they liked me but decided to choose a guy who did his dissertation about Facebook), I was offered an internship with a company that specialised in healthcare content.
Hell is a media training event
One of the benefits of the programme was supposedly the training schedule. There were two days of workshops on ‘Presentation and Communication Skills’, ‘Networking’, ‘Project Management’ and ‘Professional Writing Practice.’ This struck fear into the very core of my soul.
I also misinterpreted the title of the first workshop. I assumed that ‘presentation and communication’ would involve patronising tips on dressing for interviews and getting your point across. In my 23 years on this earth I had at least learned how to wear a suit without my dick flapping out of the zipper, so I figured I had that one covered.
Sadly, we were instead lectured on public speaking and how to give presentations to groups of people – the revelatory secret of which, apparently, is to know your subject really, really well. Who’d have thunk it? After telling us this though, our speaker then gave us only 20 minutes to befriend the strangers next to us and deliver short presentations to the entire workshop on subjects of our choice.
I decided to make the exercise as painless as possible, and suggested the following to my group:
“We only get one minute each to speak – that’s not enough time to talk about anything. All she wants us to do is illustrate that we understood what she was saying and prove that we can do the techniques she taught us. What we talk about is totally irrelevant – in fact the simpler the better.”
One of our group agreed and suggested we present about how to do a proper high five because there is a cute trick to mastering it (hint: watch the other person’s elbow. You’re welcome). I thought that was perfect – it was silly and easy to prepare; it would be easy to inject with energy by demonstrating with audience volunteers, and it might even be useful.
Plus, it was really fucking twee, which media types love.
“No,” a girl next to me with an interest in public relations interrupted, “she wants us to talk about something media related. How about retro-rebranding?”
“What’s that? Is that even a real marketing term?”
“You know, like the Hovis advert.”
Yeah, I was screwed.
Even if retro-rebranding was a proper thing – which it totally isn’t – talking about the marketable appeal of nostalgia to the average Briton is way too complicated to explain in four minutes without doing any research. Also, who wants to talk about bread to fifty people?
Unfortunately, high-five girl and I were defeated by consensus of opinion in the group. Apparently these were the smartest graduates available, and to rub salt into the wound, one of them was the Facebook guy who got my internship at the cool agency. Awesome. Now I had to talk about something that was not only ridiculous, but that had already pissed me off, in front of a group of people judging me ruthlessly.
Out of a combination of protest and shyness, I offered to introduce the topic as my contribution to the presentation. I walked up on stage and said:
“So, does anyone know what retro-rebranding is?”
Awkward silence from the crowd
“Excellent. Over to you, Ian.”
Internship number one
I understand both arguments about the value of internships. I really enjoyed working for the healthcare agency and I learned skills that would help me get a real job a few months later, but I also spent a lot of time doing data entry.
It turned out that I would be mostly working on a guide to the country’s spas. Being egregiously vain, I was quite at home talking about grooming products, serenity and massages, even if I did make the odd faux pas with my boss like referring to Ayurvedic techniques as ‘something novelty’, only to be informed that they were older than Christ.
Nonetheless, I genuinely enjoyed my time there and the people I worked with couldn’t have been nicer to me. In fact, I could tell that they felt a little guilty making me rustle through filing cabinets when they knew I wanted to learn a lot more.
One of the team did give me free lessons in Photoshop when he had the chance, but ultimately, I was mismatched for this particular internship as I’d already had a job. It would have been perfect for someone still at university who wanted to learn about an office and who had no desire or expectations of employment afterwards, but I was looking for proper work and a vacancy that needed filling.
Internship number two
Over that summer I applied for so many jobs that my CV could officially be labelled promiscuous. One of these was for an internship at an organisation that handled funding and business relationships in the cultural sector. This wasn’t an area I had a particular interest in but at the interview I instantly felt at home with the company and the people working there.
The interview itself felt more like a conversation and one of the managers even told me that he enjoyed my writing. It seemed that I had stumbled into my perfect job, or at least a route that lead to it. So I was a tad miffed when I received a phone call saying I didn’t get it.
There was a silver lining though: apparently I was not completely suitable for that particular position, but there was another internship opening up that I might be interested in. A little later on, I had an informal meeting with the research department and was offered the internship that day without it even being advertised. I would only be working two days a week so I could still work for the spa team at the same time.
They were even going to pay me. Bonus!
My job as a research intern was primarily to write case studies on digital technology in the cultural sector, which I thought was pretty cool. However, before I got to the good stuff I had some other work to do: chasing contacts for an investment survey. I.e. cold calling haughty posh twats who despite being financially affiliated with the organisation, had never actually heard of it or knew what it was it did. Which was a bit of a bugger, because neither did I.
A script had been prepared for me but I was stumped as soon as they asked why it was important that they fill out the survey. The majority of people on my list assumed it was a sales call and even though I was extremely courteous, they were often quite rude or at least abrupt. It was almost enough to make me vote Conservative so they all get their funding cut.
Other than that, the internship was well structured and designed to give me tangible experience as well as general knowledge of office procedures. Sadly though, it did not turn out to be my perfect job. I liked everyone I worked with, but I always felt a little on the outside. Perhaps because I only worked two days a week and it was a large office so I didn’t get to know people as well as I would have liked to, or maybe because I wasn’t as enthused about the sector as they were.
On the plus side, I did get hilariously drunk at my first work Christmas party. It wasn’t long before I was leading the office in tequila shots and rounding up a posse to go to a club afterwards. It was a shame that my internship finished immediately after I felt I’d started to connect with everybody.
During the party, members of the team had organised various festive activities to fuel the good cheer. One of these was to write a limerick about the organisation. I was paired with a very senior co-worker I had never spoken to, so I thought it best to feign writer’s block and let her pen some sanitised verse. Of course, in my head I was secretly writing my magnum opus:
There was a young man from Brighton,
Who thought art was very exciting.
But he soon got quite sick,
Of phoning posh pricks,
And now he's much more enlightened.
What happened next?
A few months later I started eating Paleo
As both internships ended, my first full year after university was drawing to a close. Using the skills I already had – but could now prove I had, I was able to find a full time job in communications. Which I didn’t really enjoy and subsequently quit ten months later. Success!
Perhaps the real function of internships is therefore to find out if you’re actually suited for the industry you want to work in. At the time I was a little bitter that I’d worked hard for both companies but neither offered me full time work. But would I have actually enjoyed it if they did? Probably not. Maybe they were better at reading my internal compass than I was at 23.
What I find most interesting is how first career test suggested a career in languages. As well as teaching English, maybe it’s time for me to work harder on my Japanese and learn to say things other than “I’m sorry,” “forgive me,” and “three more beers, please.”
Disillusioned by digital media agencies, I decided my next move was to focus on print journalism and get a job at a magazine or newspaper. To arm my CV even further, I decided to invest in an NCTJ qualification and get some non-bread related public speaking experience. Volunteering to teach English abroad seemed like a fun way to squeeze in a holiday at the same time, so I started investigating further.
To any young graduates looking for direction who accidentally stumbled upon this article, I’m sorry to leave you empty handed. However, I do have this to say:
When they ask you where you’ll fit into their team, tell them about retro-rebranding or something, not about patrolling the perimeter.
Unless it’s true. In which case, come join me out here. It’s pretty great.
Cover photo credit: here