Dirt Cheap or Pay Dirt? The Scoop on Unpaid Internships
Posted by Jane Morley on May 3, 2011
Working for free may sound like a raw deal. The unfortunate reality is that many internships don’t come with a paycheck attached, which may leave you feeling a bit conflicted. Volunteering at a non-profit is one thing, but being taken advantage of by a money-making enterprise is quite another.
While there’s no denying the financial difficulty presented by a summer or semester of unpaid work, in some cases the value of obtaining experience at a certain firm or within a specific industry goes beyond dollars and cents. The ability to add an elite name to your resume or rub elbows with an industry power-player could be an invaluable asset to your career. So before you reject an offer or get suckered into working for nothing and getting nothing out of it, consider the following:
Take Heed: I’d be better off making money at a regular summer job.
Don’t Sweat It: Internships are a perfect way to “test-drive” a job or industry before graduation. Love writing for your university’s newspaper, but wonder whether a professional newsroom is the place for you? An internship provides a glimpse of what it’s like to work in a given industry, and whether you end up loving or hating it, what you learn from the experience will shape your post-college job search.
Take Heed: I’m going to end up stuffing envelopes and fetching lattes every day.
Don’t Sweat It: Ultimately, whom you’re doing these tasks for may matter more than the tasks themselves. When there’s no paycheck involved, connections are currency. Even gofer work can create a positive impression on people who will be in a position to hire you down the road. By answering calls or running errands for a VP, you’ll be meeting the people they meet. Make sure to take advantage of your insider status: Don’t be afraid to offer to buy a cup of coffee for senior employees.
Take Heed: I don’t want to work for someone who will take advantage of my hunger for experience.
Don’t Sweat It: Once you identify companies you’d like to intern for, do some research on each one. Does it have a good reputation within the community? Does its website explain the internship in any detail? Try to contact the person in charge of the internship program to ask about the structure of the program and the types of activities you’ll do. Visit your school’s career services office: they may be able to help you connect with students or alums who’ve interned at the same place. The more you know about the internship, the better you’ll be able to gauge the quality of the experience.
Take Heed: Without a paycheck, I won’t have anything to show for the time I spent there.
Don’t Sweat It: If you’re doing an internship for academic credit, your school will play a role in ensuring that your tasks will meet clear requirements for learning and enrichment. However, if you’re setting up an internship on your own, be sure to ask probing questions in your interview about the sorts of tasks you’ll be given, the projects you’ll be expected to complete, and who you’ll report to. Find out if you’ll walk away from the experience with a tangible product that represents your work or have the chance to spearhead an idea of your own.
Take Heed: I don’t want them to stick me in a broom closet and forget about me.
Don’t Sweat It: Lay the groundwork for a productive internship from the get-go. An educational plan is a must, because it will set the benchmark for the skills and enrichment you want to acquire. In addition to those goals, arrange for weekly feedback sessions with your manager—as little as 20 minutes a week will do. These sessions will help you gauge where you need to develop professionally, make sure you’re workload is appropriate, and allow you to seek out new, interesting projects.