Making It In Media: The Importance of Internships

December 11, 2014

Young filmmaker, Alexis Smith, shares her journey from zoology to beginning a career in science documentary filmmaking. Doors open as she gains her first job in BBC Scotland Science and Factual department, after a BBC Work Experience placement and she shares valuable inside tips for anyone looking to begin a career in media.

Making it in media

A sarcastic chorus of ‘Good luck!’ usually follows the phrase, ‘I want to work in media’.  You would not believe the number of people who have advised me against striving for a career in documentary filmmaking; they would look at me as if I had said that I wanted to build ice rinks in the Sahara desert for a living.

I even received a hand-written letter from Sir David Attenborough suggesting that a career in academia would be a far better option for a zoologist, such as myself.

Being the stubborn person I am (or perhaps a little deluded), I went against the ‘better advice’ of my peers and gave it a bash. And now I am working for the BBC!

I have always been a bit of a science dweeb, but creativity is in my blood. It’s a dichotomy which I have had to structure my life around very carefully, because if it doesn’t make me, it will break me. Few career paths require such a vast and varied spectrum of qualities as science documentary filmmaking does. Where else would you need to talk quantum physics, whilst thinking about how pretty the lighting is; simultaneously entertaining your intrigued spectators, but all the while managing people, equipment and ideas to make your vision a reality. The sheer challenge and promise of variety lured me in and, from a very young age, I could not imagine anything more fulfilling to call my job.

So, when I left school I made a very calculated decision to study zoology at university, meanwhile exploring filmmaking in my spare time to help navigate myself onto the elusive media career path.

I followed all the advice out there, which, if you’re reading this blog post, I am sure you are well versed in yourself.

I made a fool of myself presenting numerous student television productions, which is a ‘must’!

I set up a photography exhibition following my biodiversity research expedition to the Amazon at university.

Upon graduating, I nabbed myself a dream job of Lead Scientist for a major humpback whale research project in Western Australia and, for them, I wrote a science research blog exhibiting my wildlife photography.

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After this, I became a surfer-dude and made surf/travel short-films for my new blog, Happy- Go-Lexi, which got me published in a surf magazine and broadcasted on an American surf TV show. Two years after graduating from university, and with a whole load of life experience under my belt, I felt qualified to approach BBC Scotland Talent for a place on their coveted Work Experience programme.

I was offered a one-month full-time work experience placement with the BBC Scotland Science and Factual production team, just two months after applying. All I had to do was complete a short application form online and have a quick chat on the phone with the Series Producer. And so it began…

The BBC staff are incredibly welcoming and supportive. They have all been through the pains of trying to make it in the industry themselves and as a result are happy to offer invaluable advice, experiences and useful contacts with you if you reach out to them. That is the key: work experience is what you make of it. It is all too easy to slip through, unnoticed, like Where’s Wally in a candy cane store. You really have to be proactive and take the initiative to advance your own career. Treat yourself as a freelancer from the moment you step through the door – sussing out any opportunities for work wherever possible. One of the best pieces of advice I received was, ‘Be bold and make yourself and your intentions known to the people who have the power to give you a job,’ and really, when it comes down to it, that person could be anyone.

Whatever preconceived expectations you have of BBC Work Experience, forget them. I can assure you, you will not be able to anticipate the variety of weird and wonderful jobs you will be allocated.

One day I was phoning around to acquire a sheep’s skull and an animal incinerator to cremate it (great job for a vegan).

The next day, I was chauffeuring our TV Presenter around Scotland, having deep chats about the meaning of life and death.

The day after that I was acting as a corpse from the Victorian times for a reconstruction shoot.

Then, I was on the phone to leading scientists around the UK, each sharing their expertise with me to help shed some light on difficult science subjects covered by the documentary.

Every day is truly different in BBC Science.

But the greatest part of the Work Experience programme is that you are given real responsibility and your work really does contribute to the overall efforts of the production team. As much as you are learning, you are also valued.

Following this, another piece of invaluable advice I read somewhere was to ‘make yourself indispensable’. I worked extremely hard and became an integral part of the production team and, much to my delight, was rewarded with a one-month full-time contract as a Runner for the documentary I had been working on during my work experience. And so begins the continuous string of short-term contracts that is the inevitable future of anybody in the media industry. If you want job security and comfort, this is not the field for you.

From my experience, I have learned that you need to really want to work in media more than anything else, if you are going to get anywhere. It is an all-consuming job with relatively little financial reward for the work you put in, so passion must be the driving force behind your pursuit, as it is the only thing that will remain through the hard graft.

Don’t lose sight of your goal as you set sail on the enormous peaks and troughs of the journey ahead and don’t listen to all those people who say a career in media is impossible. There is no one set route into the industry, which is often seen as the downfall to the trade, but I see it as the beauty; make it your own.

Do what you love and incorporate media into that passion and there lies the ticket to your success.

Good luck! And I really mean that.

For more information on work experience and internships at BBC Scotland, please visit the Careers section of their website.