Bullish: Be A Badass, Not An Intern


Jennifer Dziura writes Bullish, a career column, for The Grindstone on Fridays and Bullish Life, a life coaching column, for our sister site TheGloss on Tuesdays.

Internships are frustrating for everyone.

When you’re applying for internships, it can be demoralizing to find out that no one wants your labor even for free. Even though – unless you have rich parents – you will very possibly have to work some second, paying job (folding jeans at the mall!) in addition just in order to be able to afford to work for free! And you still can’t give your damn labor away!

This has a lot to do with how most labor in this country is now intangible.

If you were an apprentice making tables, well, sure … your tables wouldn’t be as good as those made by a master. But, still: no one can claim you didn’t make a damn table. If it’s got a platform on approximately four legs, you did something! You are officially more than just a nuisance to have around.

But most interns’ position is more like, “I want to work in the music industry so bad I’ll do anything!” Anything? Like what? You’ve got a degree in Communications or something … so someone’s going to sit you down in a chair and let you write MTV’s press releases? And it’s not actually even possible to make coffee for eight hours per day.

From the perspective of the employer, not only are interns fairly useless – since it takes three months to get up to speed on most knowledge tasks, and that’s as long as the intern will be there – you also can’t just use them for the grunt work they are actually able to do, because if you actually ask the intern to just go pick up your prescriptions and some art supplies for your kid’s project so you can do the important work yourself, your intern will probably bitch about you on the Internet.

Obviously, there are exceptions – some sectors (i.e., finance) have very well-defined internship programs that are really proving grounds for full-time positions. And some internships are just meant as philanthropy, intended as wonderful experiences for a handpicked crop of fresh, young whippersnappers. Good luck getting one of those! (See Bullish: The Resume Wall Street is Laughing At.)

But for the rest of us – how the hell do you get your first toehold in the working world when you can’t even work for free?

Let’s see a letter from a writer I’ll call Catherine de’ Medici:

Hi Jen,

I’m in need of some Bullish advice.

I know you’ve written a lot about applying for things that don’t yet exist/aren’t advertised.

There is an art museum that I would desperately like to intern/work at but they don’t have an internship program. The website only has a general info email address to contact and the chances of them saying yes are very slim.

I was thinking that I probably need to contact someone high up in the organization who had the power to say yes despite there not being an internship program. I mean, the person most likely to say yes is probably [a famous person] himself, but I think there is very little chance of me getting in contact with him.

So, I guess what I’m asking you is: 1. How to find out who to contact and 2. What sort of things should my email include to make them say yes?

I would like to intern there in the first half of next year, so I thought that asking them far in advance might be good because they’re more likely to say yes.

I know this is very specific, but even some general tips in how to pitch a new job would be so very useful.



Catherine and I had spoken before, so I knew that she had a lot going on. For instance, while still in college, she’d been giving talks about art.

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