This story is part of Fast Company’s editorial package “The Intern Economy.” In the spirit of back to school and new opportunities to learn beyond the classroom, we’ve collected the personal stories of interns and managers to reveal what this step on the first rung of the career ladder means for the future of work. Click here to read all the stories in the series.
On my first day at my internship at the public relations firm, I was stationed at the front desk. The other intern, Julie, was peppy as she showed me how to use the phones, slowly repeating the script I was to use. At one point, she mentioned that she was a college senior and wanted to know if I was also in college. For some reason, it had not registered that I was an entire decade older than she was. “Oh, Julie, I actually just completed my Ph.D.,” I responded.
Julie stared at me blankly, then went back to typing. I’m not sure she fully understood what a Ph.D. was, or why an intern would have one. That’s when I realized that the only way for me to survive this internship was to downplay my age and academic background. Instead, I would try to blend in, learn as much as I could, and move on as quickly as possible.
As I describe in my upcoming book, The Rocket Years, our twenties are littered with career challenges and roadblocks. I encountered a particularly enormous boulder on my path to professional bliss. My goal was to become a professor, so I spent six years at U.C. Berkeley pursuing a Ph.D. in classical Indian love poetry (niche, I know!) with a further specialization in gender studies (even more niche!). I knew that the academic job market was tough, but I figured that my sheer passion and determination would land me the job of my dreams teaching at a university.
I was wrong. My doggedness was no match for the terrible academic job market, which was even bleaker in the years after the Great Recession. After three years of applying to every job in my field, I gave up, utterly defeated. Just as I was about to turn the corner on 30, it looked like I would need to switch industries. I had been working single-mindedly toward this one career goal for so long, I couldn’t imagine being happy doing anything else. But perhaps what was more terrifying: Who would possibly hire me? I had an advanced degree but no work experience.
I felt very alone having to reinvent myself at the end of my twenties, but the data suggests that I wasn’t. There isn’t very good data about how frequently Americans change careers, but the Bureau of Labor Statistics has found that Americans will change jobs upwards of 11 times over the course of their lives. Surveys show that many people switch careers voluntarily, and other economic data shows that some have no choice but to change careers because their chosen industry is shrinking. This means acquiring new skills in the middle of your career or starting from the very bottom of another industry.
An internship seemed like a good path to switching careers. It would be a way for me to dip my toe into different industries, better assess my talents and interests, and eventually find a new job. And as an unconventional job candidate, a company might find it less risky to bring me on as an intern than as a full-time employee. So I started asking everybody I knew whether their company was looking for interns. This yielded several leads (more on that soon). I took one internship at a nonprofit (without pay) but quickly realized it wasn’t for me. Then I took the PR internship (which was paid), which turned into an entry-level job.
I’m not going to sugarcoat it. Being an intern at 30 was hard. I often felt like I was moving backward rather than forward in my career. But it was the best career decision I made. In the year I worked in PR, I got a crash course in many different industries. I learned about the tech sector from the clients I represented and the media industry from the reporters I met. That’s how I discovered that journalism was the right career for me: it aligned perfectly with both my skills and my passions. I began freelancing while I was in that PR position, which quickly led to a full-time staff writer job here at Fast Company. I’ve now been in this role for more than five years, and that internship is a tiny blip in my rearview mirror.
In many ways, journalism has been a far better fit for me than academia. I find my work exciting and meaningful, I’ve been able to work from home and travel the world. But I would never have found this career if I hadn’t left my comfort zone and taken that internship. If you’re thinking about taking a mid-career internship, here are some insights that might help you navigate the process.
Network your way in
On paper, you won’t look like traditional intern material, so you may have a hard time snagging an internship through the standard channels. Instead, try to meet with people one-on-one. Reach out to people you know through your network to see if their company is bringing on interns, or ask the internship manager at the firm you’re interested in for an informational interview. Don’t be surprised if you’re the same age as the person hiring you. In fact, use it to your advantage to demonstrate how your maturity and existing skills could be an asset to the company.
I got both of my internships by having conversations with the internship manager at each company. In the beginning, these people didn’t fully understand my career experience, but after a few minutes of chatting with me, I could explain my trajectory as well as what I bought to the table. I could also show that I was truly interested in learning about a different field and would fit into their company culture. Suddenly, instead of looking like a wild card, I began to look like a safe bet.
Beware of insecure managers
I quickly transitioned from being an intern to being a full-time, entry-level employee. But then I ran into a hurdle. My immediate manager, let’s call her Sarah, is five years younger than I am and extremely passive-aggressive. This was Sarah’s first time managing another person, and it showed. She had no interest in teaching me new skills but seemed to take pleasure in finding fault with my work. It took me a while to realize that the way she was treating me was, in fact, verbally abusive and dangerously close to harassment.
I carefully documented everything she had said–along with an email chain littered with toxic comments–then brought it to someone in senior management. They quickly reassigned Sarah to another team, and she left the company shortly thereafter. In a later meeting, that senior manager apologized to me on behalf of the company. He hypothesized that Sarah was intimidated by my age and experience and took it out on me. This may happen to you as well. Unfortunately, there are lots of insecure managers in the world who may feel threatened by an older subordinate and misuse their power. Never tolerate this kind of behavior. Document it, and tell someone who can help you. If nobody does, leave.
At the same time, you will come across many good managers who have a lot to teach you even though they are much younger than you are. Colleen, who replaced Sarah, is three years younger than I am, but she was confident in her management skills. She was eager to teach me what she knew and advocated for me within the company. We would have long, candid conversations about the industry, which helped me to figure out that I should become a journalist. We’re still friends today.
Remember this is temporary
During your internship, there will be times when you will wonder if this was really the right path. You’ll feel out of place, or like your life is in a holding pattern. At these moments, you need to remember that you’re invested in your long-term career. Most people work until they’re in their sixties or older, which means you’ll have 30 years or more left to progress in your career. You’re doing this internship to learn as much as you can about yourself and the kind of work you enjoy, so that the next three decades of your working life are more meaningful and satisfying. If you remain intellectually curious, you’ll find many people who will help you and support you on your journey.