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What I Learnt From Taking Multiple Internships

“Experience,” this term is too often thrown around in exchange for underpaid student labour. Don’t get me wrong, it is indeed an attractive word because as students with little exposure to the working world, it’s precisely what we need. 

But you see, sometimes it seems like employers are asking for A LOT in exchange for “experience”, and a measly $600-$800 — or worse still, remember those ridiculous “we pay by experience” job ads? There is also a deeply entrenched culture of neglecting the welfare of interns because of the little power that this position wields –– a culture that diminishes an intern’s voice and rights, and leaves them vulnerable to exploitation. 

During my years in NTU, I’ve taken on multiple internships because I strongly believe in the value of dipping my feet in various ponds and expanding my portfolio. For reference, I’ve worked mainly in media-related jobs that heavily involved content production for commercial, government, and NGO sectors. 

Of course, getting paid was one of my requirements because your girl has tuition loans to pay! While I’m grateful for these opportunities, a recent exhausting yet underpaying internship has pushed me to re-evaluate my internship experiences. This introspection highlighted a consistent trend: my tendency to accept the undervaluing of my skills as a student because well — I am a student.

In the eyes of many employers I’ve worked with, interns are hired to mainly perform “saikang” work. (Saikang is the equivalent of low-skilled, menial labour; also used as an excuse to overwork you and overlook your well-being.) 

There are two scenarios to this: 

1. You will be doing “intern work’

AKA you’re assigned heavy responsibilities with little compensation. At first glance you would think, “yay, this would look GREAT on my portfolio!” And it’s true, it would — as long as you don’t screw things up. This is also used as a tactic to gaslight interns into thinking that they should feel nothing but grateful for being tasked to take on massive projects that overwork them –– there’s no such thing as burn-out. Therefore, you perform the work of a full-timer for a fraction of the full-timer’s salary. On top of that, you experience massive anxiety taking on huge responsibilities that were not communicated to you in your vague job scope.

2. You are JUST an intern

This is the true embodiment of “saikang” work. As an intern, you’re boxed into a category of low-skilled work, your CV of relevant skills is completely tossed aside in place of doing the bare minimum to fill the hours and justify your place in the hierarchy of employees and your salary. (I mean… what’s the point of sending in my CV if you’re just going to ignore my potential?) 

All these experiences have taught me that I really need to understand what I want from an internship before jumping into it for the sake of “experience.” Understanding this would have helped me look at my internship contract with intention. That being said, PLEASE look through the terms of your contract to protect yourself. If the terms are vague, seek clarifications and request for them to be in writing. 

It took me multiple internships to realise that as an intern, I need to assert my rights as well instead of being seen as “free labour.” You can find some excellent tips by international business speaker Michael Kerr and workplace expert Lynn Taylor on ways to say “no, this is not my job,” here. One of the points that stood out to me was Kerr’s emphasis that: 

“… you’ll want to come from a solution mindset. Instead of simply refusing the assignment, come up with a way to solve it — like getting training.”

If you feel you’re not getting enough out of the internship and would like to be assigned more responsibilities, this piece by Boston University Campus Ambassador, Devin McGuire on how to navigate unfulfilling internships, is particularly helpful. His call to action may be a good reminder too:

“The most important thing to do is show initiative. I know it’s easy to hide at your desk and pretend to work, but you won’t learn anything if you browse Facebook all day-save that for home.“

 Most importantly, as students, we have to know the worth of our skills and be brave enough to ask for more –– whether it’s a reasonably higher salary, or an opportunity to demonstrate and further said skills. Imposter syndrome is so real, it’s made me feel like I deserved to be underpaid because I was not as experienced. However, if you can bring unique ideas and inputs to the table, take ownership of them and make them known! Remember, you want to make the most of your internship, so don’t  limit yourself to the unfulfilling expectations of saikang work.

If, despite taking these initiatives, your supervisor maintains the status quo, don’t let that define you. Know that you’ve done great, this just isn’t the healthiest place for you to thrive, and it’s time to bid this company adieu. Really, it’s their loss.

Lastly, don’t be afraid to venture out of internships. The skills I gained from school were valuable enough for me to use as a portfolio to speak of my ability to create media content. Having a clear idea of what I could offer, I communicated my interest in taking up freelance editing services (for example) to my friends and family who, in turn, would think of me when their friends were looking for services that aligned with my skills. Remember, you are very much capable of building your own network and business if you put yourself out there, so invest a little on the necessary tools and make your intentions known! 

All I’m saying is, fellow interns, don’t let those who diminish your value dim your spark!

Saraniyah Saravanan

Nanyang Tech '22

She loves herself a hot tea that scalds her tongue to life every morning. When she's not obsessively rewatching TV shows, she's probably watching some obscure arthouse film and sobbing her eyes out or falling asleep –– there's no in-between.
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