My Generation Doesn’t Do Internships

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The following is an excerpt from “My Generation Doesn’t Do Internships.” You can read the full essay in our Summer 2021 issue, which you can purchase here.

Throughout high school and college, I worked summer jobs, and I was proud to do so. I didn’t object to the fact that the work was hard and the pay was low: that was the point! I was building character. Of course, the feeling of independence and self-sufficiency my jobs gave me—my sense that, when I spent my money, I was supporting myself by the work of my hands and the sweat of my brow—was utter bullshit. My parents were paying for my actual needs; all I was responsible for was the fun stuff. The money I was capable of earning over the course of an entire summer would barely have covered the activity fees at my fancy private college, never mind my tuition or rent. If I’d tried to support myself solely through what I was able to earn at my summer jobs, the lesson I would have learned was that hard work, as performed by an untrained part-time laborer such as myself, was essentially useless, and that in the context of the cost of the lifestyle I took for granted, the money I was capable of earning had almost no value at all.

In other words: those weren’t “jobs”—they were “summer jobs,” a category as artificial as that of “internships,” which rapidly superseded them. By the time my sister graduated from high school, only two years after me, ambitious college students didn’t take summer jobs unless they actually needed jobs: they were matters of practicality, rather than pride, and had no place on a resume. But I came of age at the very tail end of the Summer Jobs generation, and as a result, I am forever uncomfortable with the concept of internships. I demand to be paid, even if only a pittance, and I hate the idea of just learning things in exchange for a small amount of money. What am I, some kind of parasite? No matter the reality, I cling fiercely to the illusion that I am receiving my money in exchange for labor performed.

This may be the point at which my faint pretension to sociological relevance cannot be remotely sustained; due to a series of increasingly bizarre and self-sabotaging life choices, I kept taking internships, and agonizing over the fact that they weren’t real jobs, well into my mid-thirties, which I have to admit is a Me Problem rather than a major generational concern. After college, the part previously played by “my parents” was taken on by “graduate school,” in the role of the institution that provided me with health insurance, enough money to cover my basic needs, and a totally unsupported but deeply held belief that there was no shame in earning very little money, because I was destined for greater things. It was at the very end of this journey that, during the first semester of my MFA program, I took an internship at MQR.

If I’d been born just a few years later, perhaps I would’ve treated it like an internship: that is, used it as an opportunity to learn more about a career, in literary magazine publishing, that I might someday want to pursue. I would have sought out mentors, asked questions, attempted to imagine myself performing various roles at the magazine. But instead, because I am doggedly literal-minded when it comes to work, I showed up prepared to perform tasks in exchange for money. To my shock, that was exactly what I found was required of me. The main task that accompanies the MQR internship involves reading unsolicited submissions: a giant stack of short stories that accumulate faster than anyone can possibly read them. This pile, which is sometimes derogatorily called the “slush,” is generally understood to be the bane of the interns—the grunt work you have to get through before you get a chance to do more exciting things. What, exactly, those more exciting things are, I never quite found out, because on the very first day, I went down to the basement office of MQR and began to read short stories with the sole goal of separating them into two piles: reject and give to the editor (who will probably reject them). Let me tell you, it was like the skies opened and I was bathed in golden light. I had found my calling. Not my actual calling—that was writing—but the gleaming bridge across the gulf between internship and job: a task that felt actually useful, that taught me something about my career, and that I would have happily done for small amounts of money for the rest of my life.