What it’s really like to work for international organisations – the interns speaking (Part I) LGBT Intergroup
flags in front of European Parliament building

In the Western world internships have become a magic CV spell and virtually the first step to a white-collar career. The “inflation” of university education has produced hundreds of graduates and it is nearly impossible to get a job without completing at least one internship. In 2014 alone nearly 1 million Americans completed such placements. Google for instance recruited 3,000 summer interns promising them the chance to “do cool things that matter”, while The “Big Four” audit companies—Deloitte, Ernst & Young, KPMG and PwC employed more than 30,000 interns worldwide.

But more often than not, “internship” is a euphemism for “affordable, lower-paid workforce” and employers do not have any intentions to offer full-time positions to former interns. In the extremely competitive world of international affairs, the link between internship and a job is even weaker. Thousands of young people dream about working in the international organisations and many believe that an internship there would set them apart and give them a greater chance of getting the dreamed position within the UN or the European parliament. This is the reason why despite the fierce competition and the low/inexistent pay, the number of internship applicants is growing every year to a hair-raising extends.

In order to give you a better idea of the real experience behind the dream façade of those internships, we spoke to several bright young people who passed through the Hunger-games-style selection process and were successfully hired as interns in various international organisations.

The competition and how to get there

Karolina Zubel, Bluebook intern with the European External Action Service in Brussels HQ: Global issues and counter terrorism division

From 15-25 000 applicants approximately 2 500 candidates get into the Blue Book for every traineeship period, of whom around 600 are recruited as trainees. However, only 20-30 of them are selected to the European External Action Service (EEAS). Taking in consideration the size of the institution and a growing interest in the EU foreign policy, the competition is extremely high.

The application process consists of few phases: application, eligibility, pre-selection and selection. Applicants who advance into the selection phase are listed in a database called Blue Book from which European Commission officers entitled to having a trainee are free to choose their candidates. They call their preferred candidates for 1-2 rounds of interviews and choose the best candidate who will be working for a specific unit/division. “

Gerda Morkevičiūtė , intern at the United Nations in Geneva

My case was a bit different: my internship was at the Permanent Mission of a particular country to the UN. So technically it is not the actual UN I was interning for. The application was solely national stuff, with Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Due to unpaid position, nobody is interested in going there for free, so they actually are more than happy if anyone volunteers to come. So I was accepted very easily just by asking if I could accept the internship offer.

An intern with the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and then for the Council of Europe who decided to remain anonymous:

The applications were done online for both, but for the UN OHCHR internship I had a Skype interview. The application processes are quite rigorous and time-consuming. The most important part is the ‘personal statement’-style sections where you say why you want to work for the organisations. We were told that there is a lot of competition for the internships. For the UN internship you had to be at a certain stage of education or have graduated within a certain time so you had to make sure you met all the requirements and show evidence for this. You were also asked whether or not you would be able to finance your living expenses in Geneva.

Rada Gankova (https://twitter.com/radagankova), intern at the GD Interpretation of the European Parliament in Brussels:

My traineeship was held in 2006, just one year before my country joined the EU. The institutions were looking for interpreters with the knowledge of Bulgarian. The traineeship was meant for young graduates in Conference Interpretation who could become acquainted with the work of a conference interpreter end eventually join the team of interpreters working for the institutions.

Ana Sousa, Blue Book trainee at the European Economic and Social Committee:

The process takes about 5-6 months and, as with all EU institutions, there is a huge number of applications. During my time, we were about 8000 applications for the Winter Traineeship for only 26 traineeship vacancies.

The selection process for the EU traineeships is similar for all EU institutions but then it differs after the first selection phase. In the EESC case, you have to fill out an online application form - a sort of a mix between a CV and a motivation letter. Your application then goes through a pre-selection process where they check and certify that you meet all the application requirements. After that, if you are pre-selected, they hide your personal details for a “blind selection” process, in which the heads of department can select you for a traineeship based on your qualifications and motivation only. There is no interview phase for EU traineeships.

Payment and finances

Oliver Krumme-Garcia, Intern at the European Commission representation in Vienna:

Not only the internship was entirely unpaid, but the Commission representation also obliged all interns to pay for a liability insurance (50 euros per year), otherwise they wouldn’t get an internet access in the office or even an internal email address. I understand that this might seem like a small sum for some people, but as a student every expense is a challenge. Of course, in order to cover my living costs I had to rely on my own savings.

Stela Gineva, intern at the Council of International schools in The Hague:

My internship supposed a small stipend and covered my transportation costs. However, especially since it was only part time and modestly paid, it would have been impossible to get by with these finances alone. I recently received a raise, where I got pretty good money for my internship - still, the nature of the internship is that it is part time and I do it during semester time, only when I can fit in between my classes. This means that I need to supplement my income with outside money as well.

Rada Gankova (https://twitter.com/radagankova), intern at the GD Interpretation of the European Parliament in Brussels:

Both sufficient remuneration and transport allowance were provided, but I would mention that this was in the times of plenty, before the beginning of the economic and financial crisis.

I would add that the EU institution, unlike other international organization or the private sector, are exemplary in terms of paid internship. Probably their modus operandi should be widely shared and made obligatory.

Karolina Zubel, Bluebook intern with the European External Action Service in Brussels HQ: Global issues and counter terrorism division:

The EEAS provide a stipend of ca.1100EUR/month, which is just enough to survive in Brussels. You need to take care of accommodation etc. upon arrival though. There is a possibility of getting additional insurance provided by the European Commission, which costs around 14EUR/month what is surely useful in case of any emergencies.

Assi Honkanen, trainee at the European Parliament

The EP provided me some remuneration (the interns on the graduate program received more money though) which is approximately 300 euros/month, depending on which member state you are doing your placement. I also received remuneration for the travels from the UK to Helsinki, and from Helsinki to the UK once my traineeship was over. I had to find and pay for my own accommodation. To be honest, 300+ euros in Helsinki is definitely not enough to cover the living costs. However, since the placement was only for three months, I was able to use my savings to cover the costs.

The list with organisations paying their interns includes:

European Parliament

European commission

NATO

International monetary fund

The World Bank

Organization for Security and Cooperation (OSCE)

Whereas those who do not pay their interns include among others:

The Council of Europe

United Nations and all of its sub-agencies except ILO (International Labour organisation)

Most foreign embassies and representations 

Here is the link to the author's blog: Pandora's box stories