By Christina Jedra
During the winter of my junior year of college, I applied for the magazine internship of my dreams: the prestigious American Society of Magazine Editors (ASME) internship. The program places whippersnappers at top magazines in NYC and Washington, D.C., not to mention sets interns up with experienced magazine mentors, and administers events and lunches with editors at magazines including Glamour, Esquire, and The New Yorker.
ASME only selects about 25 students — which is around 10 percent of applicants. I figured it was a long shot, and started interviewing for a position I found on Ed2010. When I couldn’t wait any longer to hear back from ASME, I figured I probably wouldn’t get it anyway and accepted a great summer internship offer with an award-winning health magazine in Manhattan. That’s when I found out ASME selected me for their program. I was ecstatic — until I realized I had a difficult choice to make: turn down arguably the most competitive internship in the magazine industry, or risk burning a bridge with an editor I’d already made a commitment to, which could have serious consequences in such a tight-knit business.
This is a dilemma many whippersnappers find themselves in, but one that no one likes to talk about because backing out of an accepted offer can be considered taboo. Ed asked his friends for their awkward stories and the lessons learned along the way, just in case you ever find yourself in this position.
The dilemma: You’re working two jobs, but want to focus on one.
Late one summer, whippersnapper Sydney accepted an internship offer from an event planning and design company in Baltimore. She had never tried event planning before but was interested in the field and excited to learn something new. Soon after she started, she received an offer from Baltimore Magazine for a style internship.
“I would be writing, something I already knew I loved,” she says.
She took on both internships with the intention of fully committing to both. But when she began her internship at Baltimore Magazine, she knew she wanted to focus all her attention on that.
“I didn’t have an instant connection with the event planning agency, but I wanted to stick it out and see if that changed. Unfortunately, my feelings stayed the same,” she says. Sydney made the tough decision to tell her boss she was leaving.
“I let her know that this was a decision I put a lot of thought into and it was not made lightly, but that I had to do what was in my best interest,” she says. “My boss was incredibly fine with it. She said that interns leave earlier than the agreed upon end date more often than I would think and that I shouldn’t worry about it.”
Lesson learned: Sometimes taking the risk to follow your passion pays off.
The dilemma: You hear back from your top choice after you’ve started your second choice.
Whippersnapper Julia*, a student at the City College of New York, had been interning at MuseeMagazine.com for just a few days when she got an unexpected email from the art director of Dr. Oz The Good Life, who was following up on a recommendation from her professor.
“It had been weeks since the referral so I assumed nobody would respond,” she says. “I knew I’d probably get more experience and networking opportunities at Hearst, so I grabbed the opportunity. I felt super guilty for it because the people at Musee were great, but I knew that for an unpaid internship, Hearst was the better choice.”
When telling her editors she’d be leaving, Julia admits she stretched the truth by hiding the fact that she was leaving for another position. “I did tell them right away so they had enough time to find a replacement for me,” she says. “But my boss definitely seemed upset and disappointed.”
Lesson learned: This is not a situation you want to be in. Avoid it at all costs, but if it must happen, handle it grace and tact as soon as possible.
The dilemma: You’ve committed, but you’re miserable.
Mary* accepted a fashion internship at a Hearst publication despite her lack of passion for fashion because she was desperate for any experience she could get. On her third day in, she realized it just wasn’t the right fit for her.
“The work itself wasn’t validating because I had no interest in pursuing a career in fashion. What’s more, I felt a sense of competition amongst the eight other interns I was working with rather than a sense of collaboration,” she says.
A month and a half later, she was offered an internship at a health magazine that she was extremely interested in, leaving her to awkwardly shave over three months off her fashion internship.
“I said something along the lines of, ‘While I value this opportunity to learn from you and be a part of your team, this position isn’t the right fit for my future career goals,’” she says. Thankfully for Mary, having a lot of other interns around was a blessing because they could go on without her and could keep the workflow moving seamlessly.
“They acted slightly disappointed, but I don’t remember it being a big thing,” she says. “And it certainly has never come back to haunt me.”
Now an assistant editor who hires interns herself at a major parenting magazine, Mary cautions against accepting and backing out.
“I would remember that intern’s name and be wary of working with them again in the future,” she said. “But if the internship really was that poor of a fit, the odds that you two will cross paths again are unlikely.”
Lesson learned: Don’t feel trapped, but also take quitting seriously.
“If an internship ends up being vastly different than the career you ultimately want, I think it’s OK to acknowledge that and try to do something about it,” Mary says. Just remember that even your dream gig will have some downsides, but that doesn’t mean you need (or should) jump ship. “Doing more administrative work, like answering reader mail or researching stats for an article, may not feel like it’s helping you get to your dream job, but try to see it as part of a bigger picture. Do the people above you in your internship have jobs that you’d want? In my case with the fashion internship, they did not.”
Ultimately, backing out shouldn’t be taken lightly. Editors invested time interviewing you and when you offer your word that should mean something. In my situation, I did decide to accept the ASME internship and in doing so, sent a thoughtful email apologizing to the other magazine editor explaining my decision. That editor is no longer in the industry, but I’ve never looked back regarding my own decision.
* Names have been changed to respect privacy.