Running a Successful Internship

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In the seven years I’ve been managing the Profile internship, nearly one hundred interns have fought with our franking machine, climbed mountains of slush, checked hundreds of indexes, and made numberless cups of tea. I think almost all of them have found the experience to be rewarding. It’s a good internship and it works. So how do we do it?

1.Give them something to do

Internships should be about gaining publishing experience, not developing an encyclopaedic knowledge of which postcodes are next day delivery. I’m not saying don’t ask them to sort the post, but I am saying don’t make that their sole reason for hiring them.

Profile interns manage the post, but they also assist at launches, deal with slush, complete press requests, book author travel, check indexes, update Biblio, make show cards, help with social media campaigns, compare contracts, and generally do lots of little things they might be expected to do at an entry-level job. By the end of their time with us they have transferable skills to use in their first permanent role.

2. Give them examples and clear deadlines

In my experience even the best interns can suffer from a paralysing fear of “doing it wrong”.  So, once you’ve given them a task, point them at an example of the sort of work you’re expecting. Let them know how closely you want their work to adhere to the example and be clear about when you want it. Though it sounds rigid, “It has to be in this format, and I need it by 2pm on Thursday,” is more helpful than “I need the information, I don’t mind how it’s presented.”

3. Give them a clear reporting line

The first thing your interns will need to know is where to go with their questions. Give them a single point of contact. I’m that contact for our interns and if I don’t know the answer, I know who does and can send them in the right direction.

If possible, all work should filter down to the interns through their contact. That person should know when to increase priorities and the ability to recognise when workloads are reaching capacity. It’s unlikely an intern is going to have the confidence to say no to an Editor or a Senior Publicist – even if they need to – so make sure someone who can has their back.

4. Pay your interns

Really this shouldn’t even need to be said, but I’m saying it – loudly – for the people at the back: PAY YOUR INTERNS. And I don’t mean pay travel costs or reimburse lunch money provided they give you receipts. I mean pay them an actual wage for the actual work they are actually doing.

If you cannot afford to pay your interns, then investigate a partnership with a publishing course that has a work experience component. The only time it might be acceptable not to pay an intern would be if they are getting course credit – and then only if they haven’t got to attend classes over the same period.

Pay them. It’s probably the single biggest thing you can do to improve the internship experience you offer, for one simple reason: if you do not value the work your interns do enough to pay them for their time, how can you convince them that their work has any value? How can you expect their best effort when you aren’t willing to reward them for it?

If that doesn’t convince you, think about it this way:

If you do not pay your interns, you will always have the same type of intern. They will be local (and for much of publishing this means London). They will be able to afford to turn down paid work for the duration of their internship with you. They will probably be white.

If you do not pay your interns, you will be ignoring the huge number of candidates who are not based near you. You will be ignoring candidates who depend on paying jobs to cover their bills. You will be ignoring people, viewpoints, and experiences your office probably lacks and which publishing so desperately needs.

Running a successful internship programme doesn’t take much. Any effort you put in will be worth it. At bare minimum, all you need is a willingness to engage, but more effort won’t go unrewarded. You can motivate your interns to complete the simple tasks you give them to a high standard. You can help them develop the skills they need to get permanent jobs. And as they succeed, your reputation as a provider of valuable experience and qualified staff will lead to a higher calibre of applicant and an even wider pool of talent to draw from. Their success is your success.

I’m serious though: Just pay them. They work hard. They deserve it.

Alia McKellar is the Office Manager at Profile Books and has managed the Internship Programme there since 2012. She rages about unpaid placements on Twitter as @AliaMcK.

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