Saturday, March 13, 2010...11:10 am

Interns and the plummeting value of a university degree

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The BBC has caught up on the whole unpaid internship debate. The Your Money segment on BBC News 24 on Saturday March 13 featured a new web site set up by disgruntled former intern Alex Try.

Interns Anonymous is quite well done, actually – with video documentary material, surveys and resources for interns. It’s also a WordPress.com blog, which means it was absolutely free to set up, and is part of the reason why it’s so much more difficult to find paid work in the media now. You used to have to pay people to produce that kind of site. Now you don’t.

But the heart of the site is its forums, where other disgruntled interns bewail the state of the graduate jobs market. Here’s a typical example from “Matt H”:

I graduated last year, and I cannot believe that it is expected, demanded even, that I work unpaid before getting a ‘proper’ job. I’m not a naive graduate who expected to walk into any job, but I equally did not expect my degree to appear so worthless to employers.

Well, duh. No – in fairness, he really does understand why:

Unfortunately all this is the result of too many graduates chasing too few jobs. A badly managed education policy of successive governments. Keen to push kids off to university with no long term plan for us afterwards.

That’s spot on. Then, of course, he shifts the blame onto those nasty employers: “Employers know this and exploit the situation.”

Yeah, I guess.

But here’s the thing. As I’ve said before, be more valuable. This means really researching the employment prospects of your degree before you actually do it.

I understand why students don’t really do this research beforehand. When you’re 18, you aren’t really focused on your long-term career. And rightly so, in some ways. I mean, you’ve got to be young and carefree at some point.

But the rest of the adult world should come clean and spell out the dropping value of the degree as a career ticket. It just doesn’t mean as much as it used to, and young people going into higher education need to know that.

They also need to know that it’s now more-or-less an entry-level requirement to be considered for the non-manual job market. But it’s not a guarantee for success in that market.

And that means thinking beyond just doing your degree. It took Matt H to actually graduate before he realised employers don’t really value many degrees anymore. Know this before you start at college means you can do the extra-curricular work you need to stand out against the sea of nondescript graduates our university system churns out every year.

3 Comments

  • I completely agree with the idea that a journalism degree is losing value. I’m coming to the end of my degree now and last September I realised that it would be hard to get a journalism job with my degree alone. I started going helping out one day a week at a newspaper – completely unpaid. Wore myself out doing it because I was holding down two paid jobs and studying for a degree at the same time!
    I’ve since been offered a job at the newspaper and am starting next month – and I believe the reason I was offered the job isn’t because of my degree but because I showed enthusiasm. The fact that I did tons of work experience while studying for my degree paid off – it would be a completely different story if I waited until I finished uni before offering to work for free.

  • Freelance UnboundNo Gravatar
    March 14th, 2010 at 4:25 pm

    Hi Rachel

    Congratulations on your success. Yes – you’ve hit the nail right on the head. That’s the connection – do the work experience before you graduate, not afterwards.

    I’ve got a lot of sympathy with people who are faced with months of unpaid work on top of their student debt, but there are ways around it. Crucially it needs work and planning while you’re studying for your degree. Which sometimes comes as a bit of a shock…

  • As someone who has hired dozens of young journalists over the years, I’ve noticed a distinct shift.

    Once, it was common for applicants to have an academic degree, then it was an academic degree with some journalism training, now it is journalism-training only.

    The last category come packaged with all the necessary skills and journalism theory, but rarely enough knowledge.

    They can write, but can rarely write anything interesting. This is particularly true when they are fresh graduates.

    I always found it easy to train or top-up the skills of a talented young journalist with a broader education. It’s much harder to give someone with a journalism degree enough knowledge to make them useful from day one.

    While it’s hard to justify NOT paying a journalism graduate, it would be hard to justify paying them the same as someone who can deliver the goods from day one.

    On the other hand, I’d be really keen to hire a graduate like Rachel who managed to pick up some experience AND demonstrate initiative.

    People like her are gold.

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