What I learned about professional self-worth going from senior manager to unpaid intern
“Just so you know, it’s your choice, but we expect our interns to do these sorts of things.”
I had thought a conversation with a new boss from my part-time unpaid editorial internship, whom I’d never met before, was going alright. In the midst of a summer thunderstorm, she had called me after business hours, on a day I wasn’t working, for what I initially perceived as a favor. In her genteel but hard-to-place accent, she asked me to pick something up in the city the next morning before work — a messenger couldn’t deliver it that night, because of the storm. I told her I was sorry, but that I would be coming into our office from the opposite direction, so I wouldn’t be able to run the errand.
And then, “just so you know,” she informed me in so many words that it wasn’t actually an option to say “no” to tasks I viewed as outside of my job description. It was not my prerogative to demarcate the border between “my job” and “not my job” at all. And my lungs descended into my stomach. After five years of compelling myself to speak up, of forging relationships with admirable bosses and mentors, of learning to command authority around a conference table, a too-familiar panic of smallness, of powerlessness, was back.
A year ago, I quit my Los Angeles job in entertainment marketing to make my culture-writing side-hustle my full-time gig. Abandoning a secure yet ultimately unfulfilling career for a volatile, creative one was terrifying. But after accumulating savings, I felt I had to take a chance on what time, dabbling, and experience had revealed as my dream job. So I enrolled in graduate school in New York City to train as hard as I could for my new career, and set out to break into the journalism industry from the bottom up — as an intern.
I’ve had two internships in the year since I began my career makeover. The first resulted in my first piece of writing ever published (and many subsequent articles!), a new mentor, the experience of being on an editorial team, and learning what it felt like to spend my days writing.
The second, after just one month on the job, resulted in my firing. In spite of — or actually because of — the fact that the internship was unpaid and loosely structured, I was vigilant about my time and my duties. I insisted from the beginning that I only work during the times I was assigned, and that I only perform job functions that were both in my job description and legal. As a result, my bosses found me uncommunicative, uncommitted, and inflexible; I was not the hungry, malleable “yes” intern that they needed, so they let me go. But this second internship taught me just as much about myself as a professional — and about what it means to have professional self-worth — as the first. Maybe more than any other job I’ve had in my life, actually.
Looking back on my past two internships, and comparing them to all the internships and jobs I’ve had before, I had a realization: that starting over doesn’t mean starting from square one. The fact that I’m beginning my climb on a new job ladder does not erase what I learned as I ascended the rungs during the first part of my career.
Specifically, here’s what I learned about my career goals (and myself) when I went from a senior manager to an unpaid intern.
1Having work experience actually means that I have confidence and communication skills.
When I initially interviewed for both of my internships, I touted to my prospective bosses that I would come to the internship with five years of professionalism under my belt. But I didn’t know what that meant until I actually started working in these new roles.
It turned out that, yes, it meant that I was used to full days in an office. It also meant that I knew how to send emails without agonizing over wording, and how to go directly to people to get what I needed instead of waiting for colleagues to anticipate my needs. I felt (almost) comfortable sharing my ideas and opinions in meetings, which is crucial for an editorial intern who won’t get bylines unless she speaks up. And I requested clarity on deadlines and product delivery expectations, because I knew I needed to do so if I was going to do a good job. Without those inquiries, I would have blown deadlines or misunderstood instructions.
I don’t recall having the confidence or communication skills to do any of those things while I was an intern in college. And I know that the ability to professionally conduct myself in an office made me a better intern, and more of an asset to my bosses.
But having work experience had some unexpected consequences, too.
2Work experience and pride made me over-correct in my new role for past injustices and insecurities.
After my first post-college job working for a cool but understaffed and chaotic marketing agency, I got my second job with a new boss who led by example. The contrast between her and the actions (and expectations) of my first boss at the marketing agency couldn’t have been starker. She demonstrated that it was okay to put a cap on the hours during which you respond to messages, and that staying late is not proof of how hard you’re working, so long as the work you do during business hours is excellent. I even saw that not sending emails late at night earns you respect with your colleagues, because they view you as more level-headed. My boss was fiercely protective of her team and her own time, and I molded my professional behavior — of setting limits between work and home life — after hers. Because of these standards and boundaries, I was able to perform at work wholeheartedly, efficiently, and without burning out.
It turned out that what made me a good employee did not always make me an ideal intern. In my first internship, which was paid, my experience translated. I was only allowed to work 20 hours per week for tax reasons. Because the role itself set limits on my time, I was eager to make the most of those hours. I worked hard, but maintained the balance I had spent five years in my previous career cultivating.
But in my second, unpaid, internship, it was up to me to delineate the time during which I would work, and when I was off. I was supposed to work two days a week. But because I was unpaid (and therefore un-taxed and un-regulated), there was no legal cap on my time. However, the work for editors at a small magazine does not stop on holidays or after hours. Almost immediately, my bosses started sending me requests on days I wasn’t working and after 7 p.m. Their style and pace of communication was too reminiscent of previous jobs and colleagues who inspired anxiety with constant pinging and expectations of responses at any hour. So I resolutely did not respond: I wanted to make a point that I would only work the days and times I was assigned. It was after not responding to a series of messages over the 4th of July holiday weekend that my boss and I had the “this isn’t working out” conversation.
I see now that I was overcompensating for past insecurities about my time being taken advantage of. I was over-correcting on the basis of pride: I wanted to show them, show myself, that I wasn’t someone who could be walked all over anymore. So I was less than “all in,” intentionally. But a small company like the one I was interning for needs their intern to be flexible and eager. Specifically because of my work experience, and how guarded I was over my time commitment, I was not the right intern for the job.
3I no longer assume that anyone will know or enforce my legal rights. Now, I know it’s up to me.
Even though my prior work experience made me the wrong person to fill that specific internship role, standing up for my time was still important. I viewed enforcing the parameters of my job description as not only professionally responsible but legally imperative.
My guard was up from the start of my second internship because of the fact that it was unpaid. As I’d learned from companies I’d worked with and friends who ran their own businesses, paying people for the work that they do signifies integrity. I had also had a great experience with my paid editorial internship the prior semester. I noticed that with compensation came program structure, HR presence, respect from bosses and colleagues, meaningful work, and a clear expectation of working hours. Essentially, because of taxes and labor laws, wages guarantee corporate oversight.
However, unpaid internships are still fairly standard in the publishing world, as long as they conform to the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). In April 2010, the Department of Labor issued a fact sheet about unpaid internships. The gist of the FLSA, as it applies to internships, is that the work an unpaid intern does must be educational, the role must exist for the benefit the intern, and the work produced by the intern cannot provide financial gain for the employer.
But it quickly became clear to me that the management of my unpaid internship was either unaware of these standards, or that they did not care to enforce them.
When the woman who I later learned was a consulting managing editor “asked” me to run that errand for her during the thunderstorm, and I declined, I had the FLSA in the back of my mind. I knew that there was no way that fetching something across the city was “educational.” I also knew that running errands was not in my job description.
Another red flag went up when it turned out that management intended to use my ideas to monetize the publication — without paying me for my work. For my first editorial meeting, the consultant asked interns to bring in story ideas. This was exciting! I love discussing potential sparks for articles, finding the right angle, collaborating to make a cohesive calendar. But over the course of the meeting, I learned that the magazine planned to use our story ideas to jumpstart their advertising plans.
They intended to package our ideas as sponsored series in some cases, and in others, to include product placement among larger lists of recommendations. As a former marketer, I knew that the latter plan was straight-up illegal: All paid editorial must be clearly communicated to readers as advertising. Moreover, I recognized the plan, as a whole, as a direct violation of the FLSA. They intended to use work produced by unpaid interns for profit. At this point, I was trying to make it work, so I only signed up for stories that didn’t fall under the monetization umbrella. The 20-year-old intern was assigned the product lists.
When I was a 20-year-old intern back in 2010, I was unaware of the FLSA — I was just grateful to get a start, any start. But this time, I entered a new industry armed with information and legal precedent. Even more importantly, I had honed the assertiveness necessary to put that information to work on my behalf.
4I’ve re-affirmed that the professional integrity of a company is more important to me than its product.
There will always be the company that ignores regulations. Or even within the legally-by-the-books companies, the bosses and colleagues that will send you texts and emails at all hours of the night. In those cases, the onus to maintain my legal rights, professional standards, and work-life boundaries will fall on me.
But enforcing what I think is right will not compromise a job at any company I might actually want to work for.
My first job in marketing often seemed glamorous, but I recognize now that, like so many recent grads, I was taken advantage of because of my inexperience. Nevertheless, I value my time at that job. On the one hand, I learned what it meant to be accountable and responsible for a ton of important work, all at the age of 22. But on the other hand, I observed the way my boss treated me, bit off more than the company could chew, and used interns as free labor. By watching her, I learned how I did not want to act as a boss in the future. The underpayment, working on holidays, g-chat screaming, lack of HR, and collegial shit-talking of my first workplace has become a sort of barometer for what I now consider unacceptable.
After that job, I promised myself I would only work for bosses and companies who were deliberately ethical, and with whom there existed mutual respect. I would be diligent and committed, but insist that my title and job expectations matched what the job actually required of me. And through emails and texts and meetings over the years, I learned not to be afraid to share my opinions, negotiate my salary, and enforce post-work and weekend boundaries. With every tough moment of assertion or conflict, I imagined Sheryl Sandberg cheering me on. And I’ve seen that the companies that I feel are worth working for nurture and reward these qualities, rather than penalize for them.
When I began my unpaid internship, I realized I had returned to an environment that did not share my values of professionalism, compensation, and boundaries. I ignored my misgivings because the product they put out — artistic, edgy fashion editorials — was so…cool. But after seeing how I clashed with the inner workings of the company, I realized that the product didn’t matter nearly as much as the people and the organization. Now, I’ll never push down those qualms again. I know that if you respect yourself as a professional, the companies actually worth working for will respond to you — and reward you — as such.
5Sitting in a position of learning feels even better after having had responsibility.
Observing my bosses at both of my internships, I saw them grapple with office politics and monetization, with managing their own time and the needs of their employees. I watched them juggle responsibility, and I didn’t feel insecure that we were peers yet they were farther along in their careers. Instead, I felt recognition. And even stronger — I felt lucky.
As an intern, I’m getting to learn actual job skills like writing and interviewing and editing and strategizing without simultaneously having to learn things like how to ask for vacation or send a professional email. Those practical and social skills that are necessary to survive in the workplace ended up occupying so much of my mental energy when I was first starting out that I didn’t get to appreciate a lot of the creative and rewarding work I was doing. But I even enjoy flexing those workplace muscles these days — saying “no” to something I know isn’t my job feels empowering and even exhilarating. Now, as an intern once again, learning communication and confidence isn’t getting in the way of enjoying the actual work, like it did the first time around. And when I ask for help or clarification, I know it’s because I’m just learning. Not because I am a flawed human being.
Finally, without the anxiety surrounding how to interact with bosses, or the circular, endless thinking about what I really want to do, I can enjoy myself. I know when to stand up for myself, how to say “no,” when to be flexible, and when to insist. I can pursue my new career with the clear head and self-assuredness that only time has given me. And I can learn how to be the best version of myself in the workplace, as a writer, and as a professional with determination and poise. I’m beginning again, but not starting over. For the first time in my professional life, I feel like I’m right where I ought to be.