Why creative internships aren’t all that useful

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Today I spent some time thinking about work integrated learning (WIL) for students of creative disciplines (creative and performing arts, media and communications, and design). I started thinking about creative WIL in terms of the desired employment outcomes of students, their career configurations, and then how WIL works currently in most creative courses at universities.

Below are the beginnings of something that I think will become a position paper, once I have done some more research and reading and thinking about it.

Here’s a definition to start off with: WIL is any element of the university curriculum where learning is situated within the act of ‘working’, broadly defined, such as internships and placements with employers, service learning, project learning, and clinical education. The principal purpose of WIL is the nexus of work and learning – each informs and critiques the other (Cooper, Orell & Bowden, 2010). WIL is most often, although not always, located as a ‘capstone experience’ in degree programs; that is, it is designed to provide a bridge between classroom and the world of work that supports students to translate their skills into employment and other real world contexts, and also to learn more skills while on the job. The general idea of WIL is to make students as employment-ready as possible.

Creative internship programs tend to place students into ‘specialist’ work roles – that is, placements in firms or organisations for whom the core business aligns directly with the student’s major discipline of study. Architecture students tend to go into architecture firms, journalism students intern with newspapers and TV stations, and performing artists tend to intern at festivals or arts venues. In some ways this practice seems quite logical. Where better to apply skills one has learned at uni, add something relevant to the CV, and hopefully perform well enough to land a paid job at the end? However, the more I think about it, the less useful this ‘specialist role WIL’ actually is.

The reasons that your typical specialist WIL isn’t always the best approach are to do with the jobs creative graduates are likely to find, and the skills they’ll need in the workforce.

Creative careers

We know that students of creative courses tend to pursue portfolio careers. A portfolio career happens when a person maintains a ‘portfolio’ of concurrent and overlapping employment arrangements, such as their own business plus part-time employment in a related field, plus a casual ‘day job’. Actually, the portfolio career is increasingly common no matter what discipline you’re in. Recently there has been a lot of discussion about the ‘uberisation’ of the economy, but commentators (including me) have been talking about the decline of the organisational career and the rise of self-managed careers and contingent employment for a couple of decades now (see for instance Arthur, 1994).

Assorted creative workforce mapping and graduate tracking studies have shown that there is quite a bit of difference between different creative disciplines when it comes to the configurations of portfolio careers that they pursue. However, people in creative occupations are more likely than not to be ‘embedded’ into large non-creative organisations (think about a graphic designer in a government department). In these roles they will need to be intrapreneurial – that is, they will need to be enterprising to add creative value and innovate within the organisation. They will also need to be skilled at working with people who are not in creative roles and with business aims that are not creative-cultural.

Also, the real creative job opportunities are in creative services rather than cultural production. That is, the job growth in creative fields is in providing businesses with creative services – such as design, communications, and various kinds of digital services. Unfortunately, there is very little job growth in making and producing cultural artefacts such as art, music and film, apart from those cultural producers who work in or for digital services businesses (such as the videographer who makes corporate videos for a marketing firm). Often cultural producers will supplement their creative practices with other types of creative employment to pay the bills.

Finally, whatever types of jobs they do, most creative practitioners will also be self-employed to some extent. This means that they will need to be entrepreneurial, and identify / make the most of opportunities to add creative value and innovate outside organisations – typically in micro-businesses. Micro-business entrepreneurs need to be adept at multiple business and creative roles, and they need to be well networked and highly enterprising for survival.

So, going back to the typical model of internships – the specialist creative role in the creative organization – and thinking about the dominant modes of creative employment out there – we can see there is a mismatch. This mismatch is particularly concerning for students of cultural production degrees such as art, music or drama, where there are very few paid graduate roles with specialist firms and there is graduate oversaturation of the labour market, and particularly if it’s the only type of internship that they complete. The student will be focussing their skill development on one type of creative employment scenario and may well miss out on important entrepreneurial/intrapreneurial experiences. Also, we know that internships can have a profound impact on students’ professional identities (e.g., Trede, 2012). The specialist role internship by itself is also likely to narrow the student’s professional identity to exclude other sustainable and meaningful employment types that could form an important part of their portfolio career.

In my next post, I’ll talk about some other models of creative WIL that may be more fruitful than the traditional approach in isolation.


Arthur, M. B. (1994). The boundaryless career: A new perspective for organizational inquiry. Journal of organizational behavior.

Cooper, L., Orrell, J., & Bowden, M. (2010). Work integrated learning: A guide to effective practice. Routledge.

Patrick, C. J., Peach, D., Pocknee, C., Webb, F., Fletcher, M., & Pretto, G. (2008). The WIL (Work Integrated Learning) report: a national scoping study [Final Report]. Australian Learning and Teaching Council.

Ross, J. E., & Unwalla, D. (1986). Who is an Intrapreneur? Personnel, 63(12), 45-49.

Trede, F. (2012). Role of work-integrated learning in developing professionalism and professional identity. Asia-Pacific Journal of Cooperative Education, 13(3), 159-167.


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