Copy-making, coffee-fetching, envelope delivering. It’s a job description that seems typical of a personal assistant’s job, just like that of Anne Hathaway’s character in The Devil Wears Prada. These days, it’s not uncommon to find the same job description applied to interns, except unlike the college-grad P.A. Hathaway portrays in the movie, interns usually don’t get paid for running errands. In recent years, unpaid internships have muddled the lines between personal assisting and educational learning experience. In our new series, “Internship Confessions,” we will take a look at the world of college internships by interviewing different NYU students in a variety of fields, to see what makes an internship great and what makes one seem like slave labor.
In March of last year, the integrated-media giant Condé Nast reformed their internship policies in order to reflect positive changes against the growing controversy of unpaid internships. According to the Atlantic Wire:
•Interns aren’t allowed to stay at the company for more than one semester per calendar year unless granted special clearance by Human Resources.
• Interns are required to do an orientation with HR where they are told to contact them if they are working unreasonably long hours or are mistreated.
• Interns can only work until 7pm and their security badges will actually be modified so that they won’t work after 7pm–meaning they won’t be able to get back into the building after 7 (making any late-afternoon errands or pickups particularly stressful)
• Interns are given stipends (around $550 for the semester)
• Interns have to receive college credit to be eligible for an internship.
• Interns will have to have official mentors
• Interns are only allowed to work on tasks related to the job at hand and no personal errands
While these all seem like steps in the right direction, one intern who recently worked for Condé Nast told NYU Local that the company didn’t hold up their end of the bargain.
Meet Rachel*, a CAS Metropolitan Studies major who worked for the company last semester.
Why were you interested in working for Condé Nast?
I know I want to be a writer, so I want to get as much publication experience as possible. I’ve wanted to try some journalism-related topics and the magazine just seemed like a very good fit.
What was the application process like?
I knew somebody who knew someone who was pretty high up at the magazine, so I didn’t even do a formal application. I just spoke to the person I knew about wanting to do the internship. They contacted their contact. Before I knew it, I got an email saying ‘Can we call you tomorrow and interview you?’ and I hadn’t even sent a resume or a cover letter. I learned later that all of their interns are hired through nepotism pretty much. It was really typical.
What were your expectations for the internship?
I thought I would be able to build up to something substantial. I thought that I would get trained. I really wanted a chance to write. Even though, looking back on it now, I was a little bit naive.
Were you given a chance to write?
No. I really wasn’t given a chance to do anything except make copies and do deliveries. They basically only use their interns for ‘bitch work’.
Did you have to make any sacrifices in order to do the internship?
I mean 30 hours a week, unpaid, is a lot of time. That’s almost as much as a full-time job. I could have gotten a job or two with that time. Three jobs, even. I basically never slept because I was always at the magazine. They basically ate my life. I couldn’t do as many extracurriculars as I wanted to do. If I ever wanted to mail something or have a meeting with anybody, I couldn’t , because I spent every single business hour that I wasn’t in class at this magazine. So anything I might have to get done at the magazine just didn’t get done.
What’s a typical day like at the magazine?
I got there around 9:30 and usually a couple of people would have deliveries for me to do. I would do other odd tasks as needed. Usually people would approach me and ask me to do things. Sometimes I would just get an email with a request, but I had a lot of downtime, where basically my direct supervisor told me to fuck around or go into the back of the closet and straighten up their archives until someone else could think of something for me to do.
Have you ever run into a tense situation with one of your supervisors?
I really wanted to go get coffee [in the middle of the semester] with my supervisor [to talk about my performance] and she kept putting it off saying ‘yeah we’ll have time next week…next week.’ It just never happened and that made me pretty sad. During Hurricane Sandy, I was asked if I could come in anyways because the subways weren’t working. The other interns actually did go in during the hurricane, which was insane.
Did the magazine give you any other unrealistic demands?
I was asked to stay pretty late sometimes, much later than they told me I could leave, which was 6pm. They would have me walk around 40 blocks just to run errands for the editor-in-chief. I don’t really think that’s right.
Did this job open any doors?
It’s a really big-name magazine, so I’m not going to say that having it on my resume will never help me down the road. But it didn’t lead to anything else substantial this semester. I really loved my direct supervisor. She’s probably the only employee there that I felt ever stuck up for me. In fact, if she noticed another employee asking us to do something a little tedious or unfair, she actually spoke to the other employee about it. I have every confidence that my supervisor will maintain a relationship with me and maybe send an opening or two my way once I graduate. But I can’t say it’s led to anything substantial.
What were your other interns like?
All the other intern’s were full time because all of them were taking a semester off. They often had a little bit more to do because the 30 hours a week [I worked] wasn’t enough for them. They wouldn’t take another part-time intern. They’re basically only looking for full-time.
Did you take the internship for credit?
They say you need credit, but I didn’t want to pay NYU to take the credit, which had nothing to do with them at all. I just got a letter from NYU saying that they supported my internship.
Did you learn anything?
I learned more about what it’s like to be an intern in the magazine industry, but I didn’t learn anything substantial about the industry itself.
What disappointed you the most?
The magazine is prestigious and the employees get to do extremely awesome things. They get to go to movie premieres, they get to interview celebrities, and they occasionally get to write for the website. Condé Nast will send them places to meet their counterparts in offices in other places around the world. As an intern, I got none of that–not even a little taste of how awesome it could be to work there. I really think they should have shared the wealth. It’s hard to know that my direct supervisor’s happiness is bought by those perks and as an intern working almost as many hours as her I didn’t get any of that.
If they’re going to go through the trouble of hiring really bright, really capable interns, they should let us actually do something. Honestly, I’m not a messenger and they treated me like I was one. It’s not my job to go out to the Upper West Side every day and carry a letter. I don’t understand why they couldn’t just hire someone to do that and just let me stay in the office and do something real.
On the company’s new guidelines:
There were a couple clear violations: I definitely never met anybody from HR, let alone had an orientation with them. I had a direct supervisor, but I wouldn’t say she ever “mentored” me. And I went on tons of personal errands [for other employees]. I bought people lunch or coffee and actually went to several employees’ houses to bring them personal items…[The editor-in-chief]‘s assistants would ALWAYS have us run out and buy him things from the drug store.
*Name has been changed