You may be new to the industry and inexperienced, but you need not suffer through useless or exploitative internships or first jobs. Yes, we do have bills to pay. Yes, we do need to pay our dues and earn our stripes–but there is no excuse when an employer mistreats you just because it can. Here are some tips gleaned from years of my own mistakes and observations.
Criteria for Opportunities
- It offers a variety of work experiences, if that is what you are looking for.
Smaller studios will be looking for people willing to do many things, so keep that in mind.
- It offers the opportunity to dive deeply into a subject, if that is what you are looking for.
Larger studios will slot you into a team where you may not get to do a lot of different stuff, but you will get to have lots of specific experience in one or two things.
- There are great people with whom you can network and connect.
This is the true benefit of these early experiences: the network you build, the sources you cultivate, and the source you become to others. This is your community. Develop into the citizen you aspire to be and it will absolutely take care of you.
Once you are there, here are some ways to tell if you want to stay:
- It is fulfilling.
You are not just there to get coffee, you are an acolyte of a large and world-changing discipline, worthy of respect and cultivation.
- It is challenging.
You deserve to be challenged, not just handed the crap work.
- It leads you to a deeper understanding of what you want (or don’t want) to do with your next five years.
Have some perspective–start plotting out a course for the next five years, concentrating on a general trajectory without getting too bunged up in details.
- The culture of the organization is nurturing, meaning you will get useful feedback on your efforts, not just be treated as an indentured servant.
Bad reasons to pursue a certain internship/job:
- It’s with a big name designer or studio (i.e. the “name-ho syndrome”)
If this is the only reason, this is not great. It leaves you open to being exploited by someone who may be a luminary (or once was) but who is also going to exploit you.
- You didn’t find anything else.
This happens, but just stay open to finding other opportunities if the one you ended up with is crap. You can quit an internship without too much damage to your rep, just do not use them as references or even leave it off your resume.
- You want to make massive amounts of money.
My socialist roots are showing, I know. If you are only in it for the money, I think you will end up terribly unhappy. I speak from experience–the pull of the market often does not lead towards true innovation or admirable work. It leads to what sells that is cheap to produce. The corners that end up being cut are often little tee-tiny parts of your soul and they add up pretty darn fast.
Beware of the following
- “Startup” can be code for “no money, no business, no nothing.”
Be very careful when being offered work or opportunities from startups. I have nothing against small business, but honestly, these sorts of gigs are by and large a crap shoot: if they have no money now, they probably will never pay you. If you still feel like taking part, get the agreement, goals, deliverables and compensation plans all in writing. You could ask for shares or such, but just know that this is a gamble. Of course, there is the tale of the Nike logo…
- “This may lead to a full-time position.”
Be very suspicious as this is an empty promise, chumming you into giving way more than they can ever pay you for. If there is the potential of further employment, the terms for that being a possibility must be in writing at the start: when will they reevaluate you? How will they determine your worthiness? If they cannot give you a contract with these items spelled out, keep looking.
- “No pay, but this will look great in your portfolio.”
No. Keep looking for studios who can offer you portfolio-worthy opportunities and a paycheck. What you do is worth money. Your skills and abilities are worthy of pay and these people cannot do what they want nearly as well without you. They need to offer fair compensation. This line is literally telling you that your time is worth nothing now, but may be to someone else later on. No!
No. I pay my babysitter that. Yes, she is marvelous and yes, she is taking care of my lovely child. However, you have advanced technical and aesthetic skills (and soon a degree from a great school). You deserve to be paid more than this.