Turn the unpaid hell which is work experience to your own advantage with Matthew Branton's tips on getting to the top
Work Can Be just like sex. This is something the careers officer at school never told you, but when you're slaving your way through your twenties in the big city, disturbing parallels begin to emerge. You expend in each, for example, a terrifying amount of anxiety and effort to achieve something you knew all along was going to be empty and unsatisfying; you have to be insincere and evasive over lousy coffee first thing in the morning; and your performance in both is frequently sabotaged by all the booze you have to swallow to convince yourself that it's worth persisting with in the first place.

There remains, however, one crucial difference - the old maxim that if you have to pay for it you shouldn't be doing it may apply to sex, but never to employment. Who pays to work? Well, we do. If you were untalented enough to be born anytime between the Moon landings and the death of Elvis then you probably did Media Studies at college, and you're probably one of us. We were the first generation weaned on home VCR, on satellite dishes, on the style press and narrowcasting, and we've loved the media since we knew how to love. But this is the kind of affair that can wreck your life, and with the most fickle and cruel kind of lover; the kind who ignores your calls, leaves your flowers to rot and stands you up for chancers with bad hair and no dress sense.

But treat'em mean, keep 'em keen. The only way to their heart is to figure out what makes that ticker tick; but this is where you find that you're not the only one smitten. Media Studies is to the Nineties what Sociology was to the Eighties, with courses oversubscribed a billion times cubed, disgorging ten thousand graduates a year into an industry that only employs seventy thousand people overall. Competition for entry-level jobs is worse than it was for Buzz Lightyears and Ticklish Elmo dolls last Christmas. So we pay to work.

It works like this. For every lower-echelon position advertised in the hallowed media pages ("Drudge wanted" - "Wretch required") there are hundreds upon hundreds of applicants. This means not only that it's risibly tough to get the job, but also that, should you luck in, you're uniquely dispensable to your employer. Knowing full well that there are five hundred barely distinguishable candidates keener than mustard to fill your place at the photocopier, they have carte blanche to bully, exploit and underpay you in the name of foot-on-the-ladder opportunity. Salaries are so lousy that the euphemism of a "bursary" is often used instead; hearing the word "bursary" at a job interview is the same as hearing "We must do this again sometime" on a first date; it means "You will never see me naked" in the latter, and something worse in the former. You shan't be paid enough to live, you'll need to live in order to work, so (don'tcha love this century?) you'll be paying for the privilege of working.

An infinitely preferable option is work experience; though slightly lacking the CV-clout, at least you won't be stuck at any one place long enough for your frustration and penury-induced desperation to start showing through. Competition remains as stiff - Planet 24 gets a dozen applications a day, L!VE TV is inundated with eager young things simply dying to don News Bunny's floppy ears, and almost every media organisation has standard rejection slips run off by the gross. It is, however, worth it. You can land work experience at much swankier places than you're ever likely to work permanently and because the triumph of experience over hope tells you it isn't going to lead to anything on salary, you don't have to worry about making a fool of yourself by over-reaching meanwhile.

Unfortunately, well-meaning do-gooders are trying to spoil our fun. A code of conduct governing the use of work-experience placements in the TV industry was launched last year, by a bunch of bleeding-hearted ex- yuppies concerned at what they see as exploitation in a deregulated industry. Since production companies compete for contracts primarily on budget, they're very partial to using work-experience kids rather than proper researchers: using four unpaid interns for a twelve-week contract can shave as much as pounds 10k off a bid. Often, TV companies simply pocket the money they're paid by networks for researchers, and use work-experience kids instead. This is, of course, theft, but that isn't what's really bothering the clean-up campaigners. They're actually very shrewd: they've finally cottoned on to the fact that a lifetime's exposure to the media wasn't lost on us; we're not doing this to "get on"; we're doing this to get back at the Groucho morons who've made such a mess of running the thing we love. We're getting revenge from the chilled cabinet. Here's how:

CHOOSE - a month on Take A Break is worth a week on Vogue. The more prestigious the place is, the better staffed it will be; all you'll get to do is tidy up the art cupboard, and there's not much opportunity for creating havoc there. On a lowlier title, things are much less organised. Highly piratable copies of original software disks will be lying around the office, as will Rolodexes full of contracts, files of unused ideas that you can use elsewhere, and archives of the trade press.

LIE - the culture of exploitation means that all the really tasty places have so many unpaid wretches through their doors that no-one really keeps records anymore. Even if anyone had time to check the claims on your CV, they wouldn't be able to.

VALUE DRUDGERY - filing rules OK. It's like stealing the school bully's embarassing secret diary: that confidential tax-fiddle memo from accounts, that top secret corporate memo with the skinny on who's for the chop, and, best of all, the CVs of everyone who orders you around all day.

STEAL - Scotch tape and Post-it notes are all very well, but if you work in the media it's so much more satisfying to be light-fingered around the office. Magazine and newspaper offices are full of unwanted review copies of suave consumer goods sent in by desperate PRs; publishers yield stacks of trash with a 20% resale value at the second-hand booksho; TV companies double as video-pirating factories after hours. Maximise the value of your remunerative packages, my children.

SCHMOOZE - go to the parties, however grim the prospect of spending two hours listening to a bunch of thirtysomethings whining about sprogs and house prices. These bashes are like air miles - work the room at enough of them and you get a free ticket out of your twenties. Don't drink, don't talk to anyone your own age, and most of all, do your research. Flatter the pants off every dork on salary by boning up on their questionable achievements.

DON'T DO IT FOREVER - cool your boots, cowboy. Reflect that people who're paid by the hour don't get the option of buying those hours back at the end of their lives. If we're not allowed to work, then it's playtime forever. All the cool stuff evolves from people like us dissolving the distinction between work and play - this is where the future is. Work is like sex: it won't be good if you're doing it the way you think you ought to, rather than the way you feel. Ditch the rule-book. Remember how to play.

Matthew Branton is the author of 'The Love Parade' (Hamish Hamilton, pounds 9.99)

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