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Top tips on interning in the arts

1 February 2012

Aiming for a career in the arts? Whilst greatly rewarding, it can mean facing tough competition, and interning is a great way of getting your foot in the door. But as Victoria Lee tells us here, there are some definite dos and don'ts in the world of interning...

In the contemporary arts industry, interning has become an integral part of the career trajectory of any graduate aspiring to success. Internships vary, from fully paid to utterly unfunded. While some schemes are structured, intent on providing their interns with a wealth of knowledge and experience, many are casual, unstructured and unpaid. Since the recession and collapse of the job market, graduates have found themselves fighting tooth and nail for these placements in attempts to crack into the art industry’s tightly sealed door. A highly sought-after internship might turn out to be a dream, full to bursting with exciting tasks and amiable colleagues; yet one may just as easily find oneself incarcerated in an expanse of boredom, left at an empty desk for hours on end, ignored point-blank by the workers around you.
 
While a successful internship has undoubtedly become essential to career prosperity, the potential pitfalls are as copious as they are damning. I am graduating from university this year so have spent the last few years undertaking interning programmes within the media and arts industry. However endearing (or not) graduates find their new placement, they must remember why they are there and what must be achieved.
 
By adhering to these principles, the uncomfortable embrace of failure might just be avoided:
 
Attitude
A negative attitude transforms an intern with a CV to die for, into an instantly undesirable presence. Many internships today are, in essence, laboriously drawn-out job interviews. Complaining and rudeness rarely feature in success stories. When asked to undertake even the most arduous task imaginable, your enthusiasm must remain boundless, the smile on your face, insatiable.
 
Social Networking
Even if you are not being paid, and have been left alone without any work, logging onto social networking sites such as Facebook or Twitter are the fastest way to fail. There is a certain stigma around exploiting your employer’s time and resources to satisfy your personal social life. If you sit on Facebook and appear bored, no one will be enthused to approach you with more exciting tasks.
 
Dress Code
Email before you start to find out the office dress code. If you are unsure, arriving overdressed is always superior to rolling up in your jeans and hoody only to find everyone around you suited and booted. You will have a better idea of the type of dress worn after a few days in the office. The aim is to fit in: don’t turn up looking like something out of Vogue magazine, in Lady Gaga-esq attire (unless, perhaps, you are interning for Vogue magazine).
 
Let your hair down
If things are going well, after a while you might go out for drinks and gossip with your new colleagues. While bonding with co-workers and making contacts is an integral part of interning, don’t burn bridges by letting your hair down, gossiping about the boss and saying something stupid after that third glass of wine you really shouldn’t have had. If you are on a long internship scheme, in particular, you might become friends with your colleagues; this is great but never forget you are there to impress them and, ultimately gain employment.
 
Text language / abbreviations
You are trying to demonstrate your intelligence and capabilities. Firing off a quick email to your boss telling him or her that you would “like 2 no wat emails 2 snd l8r”, will be somewhat detrimental to such efforts. Send such an email to a client and you will end up looking at the wrong side of the door.
 
Always be willing to learn and fully researched
You are interning to gain experience and learn. Always be eager to attend meetings, shadow your colleagues, and undertake any tasks offered. Beyond demonstrating that you are constantly eager to learn, ensure you are fully researched in the industry you are working in. If you are working for a newspaper, you should have looked at every major paper before you arrive at work. If you are working in art publishing, you need to be aware of all the recently released art books, as well as those pending release. Ignorance will not mark highly on your record.  
 
 
The modern world of interning is a tricky game, requiring infinite skill and etiquette. Play the game to your advantage, and the result of even the most hopeless seeming placement, can be highly advantageous.  
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