OPINION18 January 2012

Internships in research: Who really benefits?

Opinion

The growing number of unpaid or underpaid interns working in research agencies is a worrying trend, says Discovery MD Trish Parker.

Recently we decided to interview some graduates for a couple of new positions at Discovery. What a revealing experience it was.

Grad after grad provided a snapshot of their experiences, and it became clear that, desperate for a job, they had all undertaken at least one internship since finishing university.

What part is the market research industry playing in this situation, I wondered. We have strict rules that apply to how we deal with respondents, clients and employees but there seems to be no guidance applying to interns.

“I’m a northerner from a working-class background. If today’s internship system had prevailed when I left university I wouldn’t be in research now”

In reality the range of activities that interns undertake varies enormously. Many agencies are offering genuine work experience opportunities with highly supervised activities. Based on what we’ve heard from graduates (and bearing in mind that they’re bound to be playing up the experience they got as much as possible), other organisations seem to be looking harder for value for money from these arrangements, allowing them to undertake video editing, voxpops, fieldwork, data checking, analysis and assisting in development of client presentations with little training or input. Exciting and valuable for the interns, but perhaps more than a little worrying for clients and the industry.

The subject of internships can be a sensitive one, partly because the term is not well defined. The key area of confusion is that some interns are paid, while others are not. Those who are paid may get the minimum wage or more, but many just get expenses. The placements that are not paid are, by definition, only open to those who can afford (or more to the point whose parents can afford) the privilege. They are also restricted to those who live in the right area. What happens to the poor, bright northerner with no contacts in the capital?

Of course, market research is not alone in this regard and other industries are also under heavy pressure to take interns. There are cases in highly sought-after industries, such as PR, where organisations keep young grads working for weeks, paying expenses only. This is tantamount to the provision of cheap – or free – labour while the eager young things hope and pray for a permanent role. As for the organisations, why should they worry? There is a queue of these willing and bright young things waiting to take the place of anyone who moves on.

Is it really fair in 2012 to expect someone to work for three months without pay? This scenario is reminiscent of the 1950s and 60s, with the breaks going to those who can afford it, resulting in the perpetuation of the class system. I’m a northerner from a working-class background and if this system had prevailed when I left university I wouldn’t be in research now.

It’s not the fault of the grads. For many, internships are a way in. They hope against hope that, if the company likes them, they might employ them. And from the company’s point of view, they can try before they buy.

I applaud the MRS for taking some action to increase transparency regarding internships. From March companies will be able to flag that they have graduate placements on the MRS website. But the MRS has not given guidance regarding payment.

At Discovery we have decided to take the moral high ground: we never employ individuals without paying them a reasonable rate – significantly more than minimum wage. Part of the work experience process is not only being proud of what you’ve achieved but also getting a return for your endeavours. It does leave a bit of a question though: is this a process that research providers are using to reduce overheads and win projects without the client knowing the true cost in terms of quality?

5 Comments

9 years ago

The agency I work for has a whole team of people who undertake all of the tasks on your list and a great deal more as a full time job. We have little or no training and do this for just £7per hour. I stay because it's so difficult to get an RE position (especially where I live) and this is good experience for my CV. I apply for every RE job I see advertised within a 60mile radius and as you say, I'm hoping against hope that someone, somewhere will eventually see my potential and give me that all important step on the ladder.

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9 years ago

Nice article, and I agree... I am a RD in a niche research agency up North, and we have a nightmare recruiting anyone of calibre. I would have serious concerns with employing an unpaid Intern, however working alongside Universities to improve how they teach 'market research' and to generate excitement about the work we do - as an industry and within our firm. We then use those who are interested in live projects - on a paid basis, but let them work their way up from data collection, input, tabs etc etc - the client is aware of this process and encourage it. I think it is just a matter, not of morality, but less in a way just 'doing the right thing'.

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9 years ago

I started as an unpaid intern (made possible by my parents), but was soon moved to being a paid intern. I worked under people who always took the time to explain my task for that day (various tasks including vox pops and data checking). The people I worked with encouraged my involvement in the industry and now I will soon start a full time permanent role with the company. My internship was invaluable to me and I hope that it will prove to be invaluable to my company.

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9 years ago

After doing a few internships before I got my full time job, I know how hard it is to do your best during the period of the trial. It is important to stay positive and keen, but working for free can bring you down and can make you feel unappreciated even if there is nothing personal. But no matter what my last internship was followed by my current role, which means there is always a point in getting some work experience.

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9 years ago

Thought-provoking. We get lots of CV's from people wanting internships (well, in reality, they want a job) and as a result we nearly always have someone with us for between 1 and 3 months (always paid I might add). At this moment in time we're not in a position to take on any fulltime grads but as a bunch of people who started because someone 'gave us a chance' we think it's important to offer some experience where we can. I agree that the T&C's for interns is critical. We make it very clear that it's not an extended job interview and that no internship will result in a job...I hate the thought of people working doubly hard to impress if we never had the intention of hiring in the first place. An internship should not be a carrot to get 'cheap labour' instead of a job. Nearly all of our interns who have genuinely wanted a job in research have gone on to get one - often with our help. My hope is that your article may have pricked the conscience of anyone who is simply 'using' interns as cheap labour...

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