Making Internships Worthwhile with Alice Wilder | Crooked Media
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August 23, 2023
Work Appropriate
Making Internships Worthwhile with Alice Wilder

In This Episode

Of all the roles you can have at a workplace, “intern” is one of the most vulnerable. Alice Wilder, writer of the Starting Out newsletter, joins host Anne Helen Petersen to answer listeners’ questions about how to get taken seriously as an intern, how to justify paying interns when you think they don’t add much to the company’s bottom line, and how to make an internship program worth everyone’s time.

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Anne Helen Petersen: Hi, everyone. I’m Anne Helen Petersen, and this is Work Appropriate. [music plays] Of all the positions you can have in a workplace intern is one of the most vulnerable and part because the position itself is often so poorly defined. Like, what are you supposed to do? What are you responsible for? Who’s responsible for you? Do you have a future at the company? Do you definitely not have a future at the company? Are you even getting paid? We have questions about how to navigate those experiences today, but we also have questions from the other side of the employment relationship. People who work with interns and want to know how to make the experience better for everyone. To answer these questions, I wanted someone who’s been an intern, obviously, but who also thinks interns are great and then does exactly what I described above, tries to make the intern experience better for everyone. [music plays]


Alice Wilder: My name is Alice Wilder. I’m a podcast producer, and I write a newsletter with Transom called Starting Out, that is for aspiring podcast and radio makers. 


Anne Helen Petersen: So how did Starting Out, start out? [laughs] Sorry. 


Alice Wilder: So no, absolutely fair. I started writing it in 2017 when I was an intern, and I realized that, like with a lot of things, you have institutional knowledge, like at my college newspaper, you would like sit next to the editor and watch them edit, and then the next year maybe you would have that job. And there are ways to get that institutional knowledge. But with an internship, the person who spent the last few months getting the lay of the land learning all these things was gone by the time you got hired. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Right. 


Alice Wilder: And so I was like, I wish there was a way to, like, build a knowledge base of institutional knowledge. And the other part of the origin story is that I did not go to journalism school, and I learned after graduating that J-school had an internal listserv of like internships and job postings. And I was like, Oh my gosh, I was hearing about these internships after they had been announced that like certain people got hired. And I was like, If I had known that existed, I would have applied. But turns out there’s this secret network. I didn’t know when I was 18 that I wanted to do this. I just didn’t have access. So I was like, I wonder if I could figure out a way to recreate that, but like, anyone could have access to it. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah, I mean, this is so valuable because I, I personally feel like part of the reason I went to grad school is because I had no idea how to, like, do things like get an internship or even get a job and was so terrified of the prospect that I saw grad school as like a straighter path. Like it, somehow grad school was an easier path than getting an internship. I also graduated in 2003 from undergrad and back then internships were a totally different game. Like, it just wasn’t the same. 


Alice Wilder: Yeah. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Sort of like everyone gets an internship, everyone has internships in the summer, that sort of thing. Particularly where I went, which was a small liberal arts college. It was more like, Of course you’re going to grad school. But I think that anything that can make what is oftentimes privileged institutional knowledge like this listserv make that accessible to people who don’t necessarily have those doors open to them like that is so fantastic. I love it. And I hope anyone who is interested in this, even, you know, I actually think it would be a great idea to subscribe, even if you’re not interested in getting into like podcasting because it shows you a model of what this could look like. So if anyone, like in their own industries are trying to figure out how can we open the doors wider, it’s really awesome. 


Alice Wilder: I mean, thank you so much. Each issue has like an interview with like a radio or podcast person, but then there’s also like a resource guide and there’s some that are really like applicable to anything like, you know, how to have a difficult conversation with your manager or like, what is the union? How do I start one? What should I know about, you know, how a union might change my job? There’s things that are like applicable outside of just like nitty gritty podcast kind of stuff. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Totally. And a lot of that stuff, you know, we get these questions for the podcast a lot are I don’t know who to ask about, like how do I have a conversation with my manager, especially like maybe your peers are in very different fields. When I was [laughs] like my peers were like someone was a waiter and someone was a ski instructor and someone was working in a nonprofit. Like it wasn’t necessarily knowledge that could be like spread across my friend group, but something like that would have been really useful. 


Alice Wilder: An early internship I had had something amazing, which was an intern doc. It was a Google doc where I think it was restricted only for the interns, so every intern would write their notes and observations on like how things worked, advice, even like, here’s how to deal with this person who might be a little require some extra. It was wild, I got in and I was like, I’m getting this trove of information from all these generations of interns. And I was like, Man, I wish. I mean, of course there’s potential for that to go wrong, but like, it was really cool to be like, Oh, I have this institutional knowledge of all these people who came before me. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah, I would be like, okay, how can how can you make this document so that no one can tell who actually wrote right? Like that you can’t look at the revision history to see. [laughs]


Alice Wilder: Yeah. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Because otherwise what it is doing is it’s again making accessible information that was often spread through like whisper networks. 


Alice Wilder: Yeah. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Right things in person. And especially now that so many work scenarios are hybrid or are totally remote, that sort of thing takes the place of like, oh, I went to coffee with this person and they told me how things work. 


Alice Wilder: Yeah, totally. 


Anne Helen Petersen: So tell me about your experience as an intern and or your experience working with interns. 


Alice Wilder: My first internship was extremely unique. I started working for a podcast that’s based in Durham called Criminal. At the time, it was just the host, Phoebe Judge and the producer Lauren Spohrer. And so—


Anne Helen Petersen: Wow. 


Alice Wilder: I was like [laughs] This is not a typical internship experience. It was amazing. I think they really set like an amazing standard for me because I at the time was like, I’m so grateful to do this. I would do it for free. And they were like, No, girl, we’re paying you. We’re paying you $15 an hour. And they were like, interested in my ideas or like questions that I had about. I was transcribing interviews like by hand, pre AI transcription, and they would say, like highlight stuff that you thought was interesting. And I was like, Oh, they care about what I think. Or like, I remember Phoebe telling me like, I have done every single part of this job, like I’ve done like she’s, she’s done this shit work, she’s done the, like high level stuff. And so it was a tone of like, I will never ask you to do something that I wouldn’t do and or haven’t done myself and like, understand, you know what that means. So it really like set a amazing baseline for me if like, Oh, this is how, this is how you treat other people, this is how like what it means to be mentored in this way. 


Anne Helen Petersen: It’s so fascinating because I think sometimes you have people in charge of interns who have never been an intern themselves or who had a horrible experience as an intern and think my job is to reproduce that experience for my intern as a sort of like hazing experience instead of how can I make this internship experience like the best possible scenario? How can I not give the intern the sort of work that I personally resented with, like, a fiery passion, Right? Like, just such, like, grunt, boring work, Or if they’re doing that sort of work, like, say, transcription, which is really difficult and tedious work. How could I make it more interesting by saying, Tell us what you find really interesting about it. 


Alice Wilder: When I started working for them, I didn’t even think I wanted to be. I thought I was going to be a social worker. But like when I transcribing those interviews, it was like listening to how Phoebe interviewed that made me interested in this world and this job, because I was like, Oh, like, I see she asked that question three different ways until the person kind of would answer it. Or like, I wonder why she took the thing in this direction. Right? It’s interesting how she approached this sensitive question. I was like, I had this idea like, Oh, this. I want to, you know, debrief and ask like, why did you put this thing in? And they were like, slow down for that. So it was a good lesson that like, definitely there’s work that’s not glamorous. But yeah, you can like I think if you understand the reason behind it and are really excited about the work, which I was, it’s fun. Of course I’ve had intern tasks that I just like truly do not want to do and I just had to do them and like, whatever. [laughs]


Anne Helen Petersen: Well and that’s like every job, right? 


Alice Wilder: Yes, that’s life. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Every job there’s aspects of it that you really do not want to do. But if you can make it [laughs] into a mix of things, which is what like an ideal job should be, because being an intern is being a worker, it is a different introductory level of work, but it is still like being a worker. And the more that we can try to make that experience into something that is not exploitative, something that is a learning process, you know, all those different things. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Alice Wilder: So, okay, we have really great questions from people either who are seeking internships, try to figure out how to make their internship better, all sorts of things. The first one comes from someone who is also named, Anne. 


Anne: My manager asked me to handle the intern program at our large nonprofit where I work in a small research department. Previously to this role, I’ve supervised many an intern in several different jobs I’ve had, so I was very excited to take it on. However, it soon became clear to me that she didn’t want to give them meaningful work or invest even in a weekly group meeting where we discussed journal articles, what I call journal club. I didn’t ask her to join us. I offered that she could, but she made it clear that she thought it was a waste of my time and her time. There seems to be nothing substantial beyond small, menial tasks for the interns, and we don’t even need that much help with those things if we’re not going to have a robust experience for them. What is the point of having interns? I should mention it’s a 100% remote workplace and we don’t pay them. Yet we still get many inquiries about interning for our organization. Am I wrong to assume we don’t have a need for interns and can’t appropriately support them? And how can I convince my boss that interns need more? 


Anne Helen Petersen: All right, so before we get into answering this question, I want to ask you, what are your criteria for a good internship? 


Alice Wilder: Oh, that’s a great question. It does need to be paid. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yep. 


Alice Wilder: Absolutely. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yep. 


Alice Wilder: The point of having an intern is not having someone to do the work that you don’t want to do. I don’t want this to sound condescending because I don’t mean it that way. But I think that, like, interns are your future coworkers, and so you should think of it as an opportunity to be like, How can I, like, support and teach people who like may one day be my coworkers or my bosses or something like that? They should be getting something out of the experience concretely, that isn’t just like a line on a resume. They should be able to like, actually gain something from that experience. 


Anne Helen Petersen: You know, I think. A lot about the fact that the internship has gradually replaced what was at least in like fields like ours, like journalism and other quote unquote, “knowledge type jobs.” It has replaced the apprenticeship, right? Like, you still have apprenticeships in so many other fields. And also you have companies that understand if we want people to come work for us, we have to invest in their education and we’re going to like pay them while they’re learning and all that sort of thing. But companies, especially like nonprofits, anything that’s like a passion job, they’re like, Oh, well, we don’t have to pay these people to come work here. We have an abundance of people who will come work here. So what if we call it an internship? Pay them less or nothing at all? And then in that process, I think oftentimes these positions have shed that identity of like, these are your future coworkers. 


Alice Wilder: Yeah. 


Anne Helen Petersen: And like the fact that there are often times, not always, but oftentimes attached to college credit and that sort of thing. Right. Like that makes it so sometimes people are taking them without the intention of aspirationally becoming someone’s future coworker. 


Alice Wilder: Yeah. 


Anne Helen Petersen: So it’s on both sides. We have this like alienation from the original purpose. And I can just see the scenario that this question asker is in where like probably this nonprofit that they work for is prominent in some way nationally or locally. Like people know it. And so when they think of, oh, I should like ask around to see if there are internships. That’s one of the places where they send an inquiry. And then this organization doesn’t have any of the infrastructure to support or pay these people. And they say yes, like, so why is this organization saying yes? Like, why are they taking on these interns? 


Alice Wilder: I don’t know. This is okay. I like I wrote up notes when I was looking at these questions. And one of the questions I had is like, what is the origin of this internship program? 


Anne Helen Petersen: Right. 


Alice Wilder: Did someone just like was there a meeting with execs where one of them said we should have interns? And then, like, they just did that? Or like, what is their goal behind this? Or are they trying to foster new talent or do they just want to have interns? 


Anne Helen Petersen: I have a totally unsubstantiated theory [laughter] but I think oftentimes these programs get started because someone’s relative wants an internship and then so a high up, right? And then they’re like, Oh, we should have interns so that this person can have an internship. And then especially if this person’s in a place of power, then maybe they also have this sort of privileges that make it possible so that they do not need to be paid for that internship. 


Alice Wilder: Yeah. 


Anne Helen Petersen: And then you get this legacy internship program that has no purpose, no intention, no structure and no pay. [laughter]


Alice Wilder: Yeah, not something I would recommend applying for. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Right. And so, yeah. And then you have someone else who’s handling it too, who may like this person. Seems like they’re really trying to make this into something that’s meaningful. 


Alice Wilder: I have, like, concrete ideas for this person, which is like—


Anne Helen Petersen: Great. 


Alice Wilder: Could you have it be a monthly meeting? Like if the person above you thinks weekly is their problem, that it’s too frequent or is the problem that you’re discussing journal articles like could you do a monthly meeting where maybe the thing that’s being discussed is more like closely linked to the mission of the organization? Like I know that where Marketplace, where I work, interns do like a regular brown bag, where they get to meet people from different parts of the organization, learn how different parts of organization work. And there’s like a concrete mission related thing that’s happening where like someone will come away understanding like how we do a membership drive, for example. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah, yeah. 


Alice Wilder: Like, could, could they propose something like that? And this isn’t solving the core problem of like, I don’t think you should have interns probably if you can’t pay them but like. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Mm hmm. 


Alice Wilder: As a stopgap, like maybe that is something that that person could implement to like add a little bit of value for the interns. 


Anne Helen Petersen: I think my advice for this person who seems like if she’s previously supervised many an intern  and several different jobs, she’s probably middle maybe like slightly senior. Right. Like she’s been there for a while. 


Alice Wilder: Mm hmm. 


Anne Helen Petersen: She has a modicum of power. I think it might merit a conversation as to whether or not this is a program that we want to sustain. And you can really say, manager, I’m not saying you need to take this on, but if we want to keep having these interns, it seems like we should, for the benefit of our organization and potential future coworkers or potential future workers in the field at large, if we’re not paying them, we should at least pay them in knowledge. 


Alice Wilder: Yeah. 


Anne Helen Petersen: We should at least pay them in some sort of experience. And if we can’t do that, then I think that it is a disservice to both the people who apply for these internships and to this person who’s the supervisor. 


Alice Wilder: Yeah. 


Anne Helen Petersen: To have this program at all. And I know that’s a much harder conversation then how do I convince my boss that this is serious? I think like having the actual do we need to have this conversation is a higher level thing, but also seems necessary in this scenario. 


Alice Wilder: Yeah. 100%. If you can’t afford to pay interns, you can’t afford to have interns, is my opinion. [laughter]


Anne Helen Petersen: Yes. This is like I wrote a piece a while ago that’s like, if you can’t pay your workers a living wage, then maybe your business model is broken. 


Alice Wilder: My house is kind of a mess right now, and I would love to, like, hire a cleaning service to come do a deep clean. I can’t afford that right now. So my house is a little messy and I’m dealing with that. It’s all labor. Like what makes this really different on a concrete level? 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. Since we’re talking about a nonprofit too, there’s this understanding that if you work at a nonprofit, then, like you have a partner who’s making the quote unquote “real money.” And if you have an unpaid internship, you’re also setting up that expectation that, like, this person [laughs] has to come from privilege in some capacity. 


Alice Wilder: Yeah. 


Anne Helen Petersen: To get to work in this nonprofit. And so, like, if that’s what your organization stands for, like it’s worth taking a stand against that in some capacity. So [laughs] our concrete advice is, I think, have the hard conversation. What do you have any other concrete advice here? 


Alice Wilder: If for whatever reason, they want to continue to have interns and that hard conversation doesn’t work out, then like figure out a way that you can whatever is in your power to give something of benefit to the interns. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Alice Wilder: Whether that is like networking opportunities, exposure to other parts of the program, like the idea of discussing journal articles isn’t bad. But I think that connecting it to something that will like, actively help them get their next job is. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Alice Wilder: The most helpful thing. 


Anne Helen Petersen: If the manager is like, this is a waste of your time, but you’ve decided that it isn’t a waste of your time, like you’ve decided this is a way to mentor people who are not getting paid anyway. Then screw the manager. Like, who cares what she thinks about this? Like she gave you the job. She delegated you the job. Now do what you want with it. So those are the two options. I think. 




Anne Helen Petersen: All right. Our next question comes from an actual intern who wants to make the most of her experience. This is from Erin, and our producer Melody is going to read it. 


Erin: I’m an intern and wanting my boss, to take me more seriously. What’s a good way to have this conversation? I want them to see me more as a prospective employee and not a recent college graduate. 


Anne Helen Petersen: All right, so practically, how common is the intern to employee pipeline? 


Alice Wilder: I can only speak to my industry, and I. It definitely happens, but I don’t think it’s a guarantee anywhere. Like, I’ve met plenty of people who are currently working at a place where they had an internship. But, like, I never take it as a given that you’re going to get hired. 


Anne Helen Petersen: And I know people who work for like, you know, they get an incredibly prestigious fellowship because that’s what you call it when it’s prestigious. It’s not an internship, it’s a fellowship. 


Alice Wilder: Don’t get me started. [laughter] 


Anne Helen Petersen: Anyway. At like publications that I won’t name here. But there’s not a guarantee, right, that they maybe one or two people get hired out of a class of like 30 or 40 interns. And so I think instead of like, trying to turn this into like Lord of the Flies, like, you have to think of it as in a slightly different way. Okay. But that’s just big picture talking. I think it’s worthwhile to think about how an intern can shift that thinking. 


Alice Wilder: Totally. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Or work to influence that thinking with people who are senior to them. So do you have some advice here? 


Alice Wilder: Yes, I have two pieces of advice. One of them is to just talk to your manager and tell them what you want. I think that this is a super underrated tool in the workplace [laughter] which is just direct communication. And I learned this when I was when I was an associate producer and a contractor, because I was like, oh, how do I get how do you how do I stay in the building? Is the term that people use for like getting hired. And it turns out the answer is just tell people I want to stay here. [laughter] Do you have any friends at work who are who are hiring? I really like I really love working here. I’d like to stay here. Like say that they might not know. They might think that you have a bunch of other stuff lined up or you’re going to grad school or anything else, so just tell them what you want. And then the other piece of advice I got from Tobin Low is an incredible like podcast host, editor, producer, everything. And his advice is just to like on the small tasks that you get the like work that you don’t relish doing. Do a really good job at it, turn it in on time. And like if you can consistently show that you are doing like an excellent job at your work, you will be given more responsibility over time. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Alice Wilder: I understand the frustration of like, I don’t want to do this thing on WordPress. I want to be like reporting and investigating and or doing organizing this big event in X, Y, Z. But the reality is the way that you build trust with your manager is by just being consistent, which doesn’t mean like not asking for help or that you can’t make a mistake, but like being reliable and consistent. I think goes a really, really long way. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Also as an intern, maybe have a little bit of empathy for your supervisor who has had a lot of other interns. Right. And maybe who has had an experience in the past where they have delegated a responsibility and it has not gone well, maybe because the person just wasn’t in the place to do that work, didn’t have enough experience like all sorts of things. Right? So maybe their understanding of like the way I get to this place of trust where I will give this person more work, like this sort of work that is more like a coworker is gradually. 


Alice Wilder: Yeah. 


Anne Helen Petersen: And so long as it’s not like insulting, I think that your point is such an excellent one that if you can do the work that you are given in a really excellent manner, that is the way that you gradually expand the amount of trust. It’s almost like. I don’t mean this to sound like infantilizing, but I think about when my mom would let me stay home alone and it was like, Oh, you didn’t burn down the house for a half an hour? [laughter] You didn’t burn down the house for 2 hours, right? Or like, you didn’t get in a massive fight with your brother and, like, throw food at each other for 3 hours. And that expands the amount of trust and responsibility that you’re given. 


Alice Wilder: Yeah. Totally. It’s really frustrating when you’re, like, super hungry and you just want to be doing more stuff. And I think saying like, Here are my goals for this internship. I’d really like to do X, Y, Z, letting people know this is what I’m working towards and like, what are tasks that I can take on that will get me towards this goal, whether it’s getting hired or like anything else in your job. 


Anne Helen Petersen: And I also think that we can empathize with that feeling of being out of college and like maybe in college, like you were such an over achiever and you killed it and you were given so many opportunities to excel and then you graduate and you’re just at the bottom, right? [laughter] And everyone is treating you—


Alice Wilder: You’re just describing me right now, this is rude. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Every— [laughs]


Alice Wilder: Me at 22.


Anne Helen Petersen: —like you have. You have the skills of a middle schooler and you’re like, but I was magna cum laude. Like, how dare you? [laughs]


Alice Wilder: Yeah. 


Anne Helen Petersen: And and that’s hard. It is really hard. But also, I like, it’s hard to hear this this advice, but I think it’s a useful experience to remember how to go back to basics and do things with skill and precision and confidence. 


Alice Wilder: It’s so humbling. I really I had a tough time with that. And I think that another key to that is having friends who are also interns or who are in a similar place in their career, because in the workplace, obviously you have to be “professional,” quote unquote, and all this other stuff. But it’s also important to have a group chat or community where you can be like, I feel like I messed every single thing up today. A place to like, allow that disappointment or insecurity and the space where you can discuss that that feels safe is like life changing. 


Anne Helen Petersen: So sometimes people there have a lot of other interns at their organization, but like, do you have any advice for if you’re one of just a handful of interns or maybe the only intern? How people can find that larger intern community? 


Alice Wilder: Yeah, if you know one person, think of it like, I guess this is a little bit journalism specific, but I would think about it like you’re reporting something out. So like, every time I interview someone, I end the call with like, Is there anyone else who I should talk to about this? And you can like, kind of do that socially too, be like, do you have any other like, who else should I meet? Who else should I connect with? Or ask your manager? Like, are there any former interns you think I should talk to? Think about it. Like, you know, you’re, like, building a little web, and each person could kind of connect you to something else. 


Anne Helen Petersen: That is so smart. Former interns that I should talk to that is so smart. And you give you get the name of one person, and then that opens up. 


Alice Wilder: Yeah. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Like a whole window too. Also search on LinkedIn to see if you can find someone who’s in—


Alice Wilder: Yes. That’s a great tip.


Anne Helen Petersen: —before. Okay. Our next question is about who can afford to take an unpaid internship. This is from Lisa. 


Lisa: I work in a large behavioral health nonprofit, and I’m interested in the ethics of paying interns. Generally, we invest a lot of time into their training and supervision, and they are producing much work that benefits the organization until maybe the last few months of their tenure. But I’m also aware that many folks can’t afford to engage in 15 or 20 hours per week of unpaid work, so it limits who even applies. This certainly has some systemic components in terms of what school programs, some of whom are for profit passed on to the community sector. How can we support a diverse intern program while being responsible stewards of limited resources. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Oofta. [laughs] All right. So one of the things you do in your newsletter is do post internship opportunities, but only paid ones. 


Alice Wilder: Yes. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Why do you have that policy? 


Alice Wilder: I don’t think anyone should work for free. And I also think that, like when you have a system where people work for free, like this question asker asked, it either limits it to people who can afford to do that or it makes people do additional jobs on top of maybe school and the internship that they’re doing, which is like burnout. It’s exhausting. It is not a way that people should really have to live in order to afford to work for free. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. What do you think about programs that essentially pay you in terms of like you get college credit for it so you can take out student loans to take the class and then the classes in internship? I just I had a lot of students who had these sorts of scenarios when I was at University of Texas, and it always struck me as like an ad hoc solution to this problem. It was like, Oh, well, how do we get these organizations to participate in the program? We make it so that they don’t have to pay their interns, and how do we make it so that our students can work there? We set it up as a class so that they can take out student loans to be able to do it. So yeah. What do you think of that scenario? 


Alice Wilder: It makes me queasy. I mean, I did one of those when I was in college. I did like social media for our rape crisis center. I will say I went to a big state public school and was lucky enough, such privileged enough to not have student loans. But the way that that was set up was it was pretty sure the class was like once a week and then the rest of the class hours were like the internship. So. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yep. 


Alice Wilder: It had the benefit of not being like on top of however many hours a week of class. But I think I approached it at the time as like, Well, this is just what I have to do to get my degree. I’m not a fan, but I also understand that if you need to graduate and get a degree, like you don’t really have much of a choice than to. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Right. 


Alice Wilder: Take an internship like that. 


Anne Helen Petersen: So she mentions in the question that she works for a large behavioral health nonprofit. What do you think about if they can’t afford to pay the number of interns that they have, that maybe they have fewer interns and they pay those interns? I think sometimes there’s like this question of, well, we want more people to have access to our internship program, but we can’t pay all of them, so we’re just going to make it unpaid. But then you’re reproducing those same inequalities. 


Alice Wilder: Yeah. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Because you probably get a lot of applicants. But it’s like all white and or privileged applicants. 


Alice Wilder: Maybe they could get creative and say like, okay, we can we can put aside this much money towards paying interns. Is there another source for funding? Like, I know some universities will have a fund that people can apply for if they want to do an unpaid internship. They can’t afford to. They can get funding from like some type of endowment or a donor or something like that. They can say, I want to support this program. I want to train more people to do this work. And so let’s build a pot of money that can go towards supporting these interns. The thing that was really jumped out at me in this question is the idea of like, are the interns producing something of value to the organization? 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah, right. 


Alice Wilder: And I just feel like the purpose of an internship isn’t for the intern to, like, produce labor for the organization. Like, I think that it should be like a mutual exchange this comes back to the thing of, like, you’re training your future coworkers. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Right. 


Alice Wilder: It should be a two way street. And I also think it’s worth examining, like, how do you define producing something of value? Because I think like there’s a lot of like quote unquote “soft skills” that someone could get from an internship that are actually like extremely valuable. And so I wouldn’t I wouldn’t devalue that, you know, saying that like. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Alice Wilder: Maybe the report that they’re writing up doesn’t come until two thirds of the way through. But like, I don’t think that that’s the end of the story in terms of like, is it worth having interns? 


Anne Helen Petersen: Right. And also, she does mention that they are producing work that benefits the organization in the last few months of their tenure. So they are actually producing work that benefits their organization and not getting paid for that work. You know, when you start a new job for the first few months of your new job, you are also not producing work that is necessarily benefiting. 


Alice Wilder: Yeah. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Your organization for some time. So it makes sense that this isn’t the case for these interns. You know, I think that this person is really thinking is contemplating what are the ethics of all of this. This is something that sticks in the back of my head, and I think about it from time to time. But I also feel like some ambivalence about it. And I think what we’re here to say is that if it’s unpaid, it’s reproducing inequalities. Full stop. 


Alice Wilder: Yes. Yes. Absolutely.


Anne Helen Petersen: Right. And so either you want to address that or that’s something that like you decide as an organization, like we are okay with producing those inequalities, we are okay with being party to that. And that that sounds bleak or like harsh, but it’s the reality. 


Alice Wilder: It’s true. 


Anne Helen Petersen: And so either you figure out a solution to that, regardless of what the interns produce and how it contributes to the bottom line, or you live with the reality. 




Anne Helen Petersen: Our last question is from Tabitha and our colleague Ashley is going to read it. 


Tabitha: I work in an art museum, an industry that has had a long history of unpaid internships and requires a lot of experience, connections and often expensive graduate degrees. Even for entry level positions. Lately, I have been asked to meet with interns to discuss my own career trajectory and share advice. How do I support current unpaid interns and advocate for changes in my workplace that will move away from unpaid internships while also acknowledging the ways my own career has benefited from being in the privileged position to accept unpaid and underpaid internship and fellowship positions as a college and graduate student. It feels hypocritical to tell student interns not to accept these positions, but at the same time, I firmly believe everyone should be fairly compensated for their work. 


Anne Helen Petersen: All right. So part of me wants to say, like, tell these people how conflicted you feel. 


Alice Wilder: Yep. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Tell them how weird and horrible it is to, like, understand that the way that you got there was by taking a path that you think is inequitable. 


Alice Wilder: This person is not being a hypocrite. I think that this person is like reflecting on what they’ve learned over the past however many years, which is good. It’s another endorsement of like direct communication in the workplace. That’s what I’m endorsing [laughs] that like tell those interns what you just told us. Here’s what my experience was. Here are the issues I see with it now. At the end of the day, I got to where I am and I would really like to see things change and like be honest with them and then do as much as you can to advocate for them. That’s like all you can really do. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Well, and this is the second part of the situation, right? Is like you can say, I would really like things to change. Now what is she doing to make this change happen? Which is really hard because the entire business model [laughs] in this world is predicated on this unpaid labor. 


Alice Wilder: There’s a couple of things that I would do. One, just like have a conversation with your manager. But also, like if your workplace has expressed some interest in diversity efforts, you can leverage that and say, like, I’m so excited that we have this new DEI initiative. I thought of an amazing thing that we could do that will contribute to that. And I, you know, looked at the data and it looks like most of our past interns were white and went to these Ivy League schools, etc.. If you have the resources to like survey past interns, you could do that. But like pitching it as like, here’s, here’s this amazing opportunity that we have versus like we’re doing some fucked up things here in this workplace and we need to change them because I feel like people respond better to the first, even if the second is how you actually feel. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah, and it actually it makes me think about even like the publishing industry, which like post 2020 and post the murder of George Floyd, like we’re very much invested in like, oh, like publishing’s so white, how do we remedy this? Some of that involved hiring people in higher positions to acquire and publish books, but also so many people have pointed directly at the unpaid internship funnel as like the source of the lack of diversity in publishing. And that’s a straightforward fix. 


Alice Wilder: Yeah. 


Anne Helen Petersen: If they want to actually address the problem. Now, the problem in a workplace might be that the people in leadership do not authentically want to address the problem. 


Alice Wilder: Right. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Which is more difficult when this is where the question asker, if they’re serious about wanting to change the industry. I think this is where and specifically it’s your own industry, like in your own institution, you can do what you suggested earlier, which is look for grants, foundations that are interested in changing some of the dynamics around the art world. But maybe it’s around like there’s just so many different places you can look for this money and maybe you do the hard work of applying for this grant that funds an internship. 


Alice Wilder: Yeah. 


Anne Helen Petersen: And, and take that as part of, like, the work that you’re trying to do to change. If you have some of that privilege that resulted from being able to take these unpaid internships, you have institutional power that maybe can be used to access this money, apply for this money, advocate for this money so that other people won’t have to do it as well. 


Alice Wilder: Yeah. 


Anne Helen Petersen: That’s the harder part, right? Like that is a big ask, but it’s a worthy ask. 


Alice Wilder: And like another thing that they could do in the interim is just figure out like, how can I be as generous with my network as possible with these current interns. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yep. 


Alice Wilder: Like today or tomorrow, you’re probably not going to able to get them paid. But what you can do is say like, what are you interested in? What are your goals? What’s your dream job? What kind of stuff are you interested in? And then like use the network that you’ve been able to build and say, send an email introduction, set people up for coffee, like really share your network so that those people can at least like have a better chance of getting a job after that internship and like, figure out like, what are that? I think it’s a good idea to think of, like what are the short term things? What are the long term things. And one of the short term things you can do is just like if you have a network in the industry, be very, very generous with that. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah, you have social capital, right? 


Alice Wilder: Yes. 


Anne Helen Petersen: This question asker has social capital. They should spend it like crazy. 


Alice Wilder: Yes. 


Anne Helen Petersen: In order to benefit other people. And that can manifest in so many different ways. And one of them is sharing the network. And then another one is it’s trying to figure out how other people don’t have to take that same path. 


Alice Wilder: Yeah. 


Anne Helen Petersen: That’s how change happens. This has been an incredible episode. Where can people find you if they want to hear more from you? 


Alice Wilder: The newsletter is and I also produce one of the producers for a podcast at Marketplace called This is Uncomfortable. So if you want to listen to some podcast work, that’s where you can find it. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Thank you so much. This has been a pleasure. 


Alice Wilder: Thank you. [music plays]


Anne Helen Petersen: Got to tell you about some fun merch at the Crooked store. Health care is a human right and that means the only pills that anyone should be paying for are the kind with little happy faces on them. Only fun drugs should cost money tees and stickers are available now at the Crooked store to help you spread the word. Personally, I think getting a life saving medication should not be more expensive than a fun night where you mistake the rug for a giant cat. Head to to get your favorite new tee and a sticker to cover the health insurance logo on your free water bottle. Thanks for listening to Work Appropriate. If you need advice about a sticky situation at work, we’re here for you. Submit your questions at or send a voice memo with your question to Work Appropriate at We love building episodes around your questions and you can stay as anonymous as you like. Don’t forget to follow us @CrookedMedia on Instagram and Twitter for more original content hosts takeovers and other community events. You can also follow me on Instagram @AnneHelenPetersen or you can sign up for my newsletter Culture Study And if you like the show, leave us a review on your podcast app of choice it really helps. Work Appropriate is a Crooked Media production. I’m Anne Helen Petersen, your host. Our executive producer is Kendra James. Melody Rowell is our producer and editor. Alison Falzetta is our development producer. Music is composed by Chanell Crichlow. Additional production support from Ari Schwartz and a special thanks to Katie Long and Sarah Geismer. [music plays]