Building the “Personal Brand” — On Internships

There is a tension between the “personal brand” and the brand of the larger entity one works for.

It is especially true for interns. The intern has essentially agreed to work for free to “pad their resume” or, in other words, build their personal brand.

For people of certain skill-sets, the “personal brand” is less important. If you’re an engineer, or a student of another applied science, you can present lab work and other concrete examples of work you have done or participated in, and be judged on that (often you already have been, if a study is published and peer-reviewed).

But those who fall into a more “artisinal” category (designers, journalists, artists), people whose work is both becoming excessively commodified (“oh anyone can write/throw a webpage together/et. al.”), need a portfolio that clearly displays their skills to acquire work. With these areas becoming increasingly free-lance, it is even more critical.

But as an intern, you are agreeing to come on as a worker, and workers are expected to contribute to the well-being of the entity for which they work. In other words, you are expected to contribute to the brand of the firm/publication/site/corporation which has graciously accepted you as an intern.

And that makes perfect sense: if you’ve chosen properly, you want to contribute to their brand. You like the work you’re doing, you believe it is worthy of your time and effort, and you wish to support it with your labor. (Thankfully, I find all of these things to be true in my current position.)

But on the other hand, it can very easily feel as if you are simply handing over the fruits of your labor and maintaining little-to-no ownership of them, thus undermining your own brand by giving your work away.

The internship system is fundamentally at odds with what any professional in these areas will tell you. “Never give your work away for free!” Professors, professionals, alike hammer that concept in. If you take a photograph that someone wants to publish, make them pay you. If you have the interview that everyone wants to read, don’t get scooped, and make them pay you! If you have the skills that someone needs, design-know-how, solid writing skills, the ability to work a camera with delicacy and efficiency, make them pay you! Because, if you don’t, you are undermining your own value and the value of everyone else who does the same thing.

But then just as quickly everyone turns around and says, “Oh but an internship is such good experience, it’s important to do the work, you’ll learn so much…” As if a sanctioned structure of free labor was different from giving your work away for free and undermining the traditional market.

And yet, the sectors that have already suffered the most with regards to the undervaluing of their work, are the ones that are already only barely eking out a living, Without the occasional dose of free labor––how can we expect them to survive?

And so the question remains: how do you contribute to your own future wellbeing (at least with regards to employment), while continuing to give your all to the work you’re doing? Is there a way to restructure the internship system to either give people more direct ownership of their work, or alternately make them more formalized employees? And as always, how do you make money off the things that people expect for free?


 

Personally, this question comes from having been unbelievably fortunate in my work experiences, thus far. Through my work at WMUA I have always managed to attach my name to the work I’ve done, and lately, had the joy of being considered directly responsible for the work we produce.

And in my capacity as editor, I hope that I can create an environment where everyone can feel full ownership of the work they contribute to the operations I am in charge of, and can feel proud of the quality, structure, and purpose of the work we produce.

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