Graduate+: So you want to work in the media. First put on a very thick skin

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You may think the media is glamorous but how does the media see you? Probably as the perfect slave. By Helen Jones.

"I worked unpaid for six months for a small TV production company. There were six of us doing the same thing and we were basically being exploited," says Sarah Winter, a graduate who is still seeking a permanent post in the media industry.

It is a familiar tale of woe. Journalism and PR are among the top career choices for graduates according to a poll by MORI last year and media studies courses are continuing to churn out thousands of graduates with no hope of finding a job in the industry.

Potential employers want experience and to get it many graduates are prepared to work for nothing but there is a fine line between providing experience and exploiting the desperate.

Graduate trainee schemes in television offering salaries, training and career development are hugely over-subscribed. While some like Granada, which last year took on 75 graduates on 12-month contracts, are recruiting, small production companies on limited budgets use unpaid graduates to help plug the gaps in their resources.

It is a situation that the independent programme producers association Pact is trying to address in an attempt to raise standards across the industry.

Last year it introduced a voluntary code on practice, training and work experience which states that it is unfair to hire staff without appropriate pay and that a training post or work experience placement should never be a substitute for experienced staff. It also recommends that unpaid placements should last no more than four weeks and after that it should become a paid training post. Companies using placement schemes should acknowledge their responsibility to provide training and assessment.

But it is not just television companies that are accused of exploiting young hopefuls. Advertising has had the same reputation. "I had a really bad time when I was trying to get into advertising," says one copywriter at a big London ad agency. "It wasn't just the fact that we didn't get any money, it was that they used our ideas for which we got little or no credit. However, things are getting better and many agencies now pay placement people something plus travelling expenses."

Those who seeking to get into advertising will find it highly competitive. The Institute of Practitioners in Advertising estimates member agencies took on 250 graduate trainees last year.

Saatchi & Saatchi is recruiting around six graduates this year and expects to receive in the order of 5,000 applications.

"Advertising is seen as sexy and Saatchi is viewed as particularly sexy so competition for a place as a graduate trainee is very tough," a spokeswoman said. "We have devised a fiendishly difficult application that requires a lot of effort and is designed to encourage only the most committed to apply."

As well as submitting a CV, candidates will be given a roll of film and asked to take a series of photographs on given topics; they must produce a critique of an ad of their choice together with other written exercises.

The Designers' and Art Directors' Association has produced a book of advice for advertising wannabees which is full of tips from those already in the business. Adrian Holmes of the advertising agency Lowe & Partners Europe says: "Never mind how to get into advertising; the question to ask is, should you get a job in advertising? If you are simply tickled by the notion, attracted by the tales of huge loot, you need to find another career chum."

Tiger Savage of the award-winning agency Leagas Delaney says: "You need a thick skin, gut instinct and balls, and that goes for the girls too."

A media studies degree is no guarantee of success. "I would rather take on someone with a broader outlook who has studied maybe history or chemistry which has fully tested their intellectual capacity than someone with a media studies or PR degree," a director of a big PR company says.