Internships are Necessary, Even If They Are Unpaid

2009 June 15

Unpaid interns are usually lazy and perform mindless tasks.

I beg to differ.

I think I’ve become the self-proclaimed spokeswoman for internships. Starting my freshman year of college, right up until I graduated I completed 5 different internships (call me crazy, it’s okay I did too). Three of those internships were unpaid and although I cringed a bit, I took the “pay” in terms of experience and how that would pay off towards my career path. [Note: I worked my entire way through college internships and paid employment].

Through this internship journey I worked at a non-profit (unpaid, turned to promotion and employment) as an event coordinator, two public relations and marketing agencies (both unpaid), a social media consulting project for a travel company, and Seventh Generation (paid and lasted for 1.5 years) focused on environmentally friendly consumer products under their Director of Corporate Consciousness (see photo below, cheesiness)!

grace_boyle1

I worked with a multitude of managers each with their own style. I learned real-life experience pertaining to my major and industry, learned what I didn’t want to do, felt both challenged and sometimes demeaned and even given way more responsibility than I thought I could handle.

While in college, even though you’re learning and growing, it doesn’t mean you’re qualified or should demand to be paid at your internship. You can ask for pay but if it’s not in their budget or part of their internship program and the experience looks like it will be worth it, then go for it. Understand you don’t know everything.

In my mind, my boss or the president of the company once went through unpaid internship(s) where he/she sat at the bottom. Why wouldn’t I work my way from bottom to the top? You will get more working for free than not working at all.

Here are some of the most valuable lessons I learned while interning:

-Ask questions. There really are no stupid questions. If you don’t get it, ask until you do. Take your boss to coffee and rack their brain about their career journey, tips and then ask how you can do better.

-Ask, “Is there anything else I can do?” Although it may not be in your “job description” if there’s something that really needs to be done, do it. I never once said no. Everyone is busy, sometimes employers may overlook an intern because of a pertinent project-still don’t be shy, be understanding and ask how you can help.

-Involve yourself. A few of the companies I interned with were large, so there were many departments. I branched out and introduced myself to co-workers. If my work was done in my department, I would venture over and offer my help or try to learn about what they were doing (in a non-bothersome way). This impressed co-workers and helped me establish a relationship and connection to them.

-Take it seriously. Show up on time. Have a positive outlook. Don’t be sloppy. Show up on time (I suggest early). Even if you’re not getting paid and just working 10 hours a week, make it count.

-Employers love to see a plethora of internships. Many of my friends only did their one required internship, while some friends at large state colleges didn’t even complete one! Experience-wise this set me ahead of my peers. Big picture, experience goes far and employers recognize it.

Always ask for a recommendation letter and exit interview, then gather portfolio fillers. Depending on the formality of your internship, some don’t offer to sit down and reflect, so take this opportunity. Thank them, offer your insight, ask them where you could have improved, then ask for a recommendation or connection for networking (if you’re planning on a new job or moving). Although you don’t always need the rec. letter, they’re nice to have on file. I have a file folder with 8 different recommendation letters and projects I worked on for my portfolio.

-It’s what you make of it. This last piece of advice can be applied to life, in general. But I found with internships that if I stayed quiet or didn’t ask for a lot of work, I didn’t learn as much. You are largely responsible for your own internship success.

What other tips do you find helped you in your past or current internships?

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  • http://ryanstephensmarketing.com/blog/ ryanstephens

    I'll just say that potential internship suitors should determine a way to quantify the value of the experience with respect to their long-term goals.

    Most of my internships were paid, but I knew that the value and things I learned from Seth (Godin) would far exceed any amount of money another company could pay me, and that's why I did that internship for free (after my full-time internship ended in the evenings.)

    I think students immediately discrediting an internship b/c it's not paid are making a big mistake.

    I also think that companies have to understand they get what they pay for as well. If they're insisting you work hard, crazy inconvenient hours they better be providing great resume fodder and experience. When you're not getting paid it's a lot easier to say, I'm going to go out for my friend's 21st birthday. I can send that over tomorrow – it won't be the end of the world.

    Good tangible thoughts Grace!

  • http://www.smallhandsbigideas.blogspot.com Grace Boyle

    @Ryan You bring up a really good point. I definitely went through each (unpaid) internship in my mind through weighing out the options, how I felt while I was there, what they were offering me in terms of experience and how they treated me.

    I hear so many people say its unpaid so they won't complete it. I was definitely referring to in college internships, but even now people are taking internships in hopes of full-time employment after. Students shouldn't discredit the internships that are unpaid, but in turn, companies should definitely give back in more than one way for experience and resume fodder. Thanks for sharing!

  • http://politicoholic.com/ Nisha

    I'd have to agree, unpaid internships can be worth it if you make something out of them. Unfortunately, a lot of the interns that inspired Rob's post kind of are dumb. I agree wit your post though — I did 4 unpaid internships in college and held paid employment at the same time as well, so I know where you're coming from; and I really do feel the experience helped me but it wasn't easy juggling all that stuff all the time!

  • http://www.smallhandsbigideas.blogspot.com Grace Boyle

    @Nisha Yeah, well that's what really sparked this blog post because although I agree with some of what Rob had to say internships are now pretty competitive because of the economy and people vying for experience. It doesn't mean they're lazy. I think it really has to do with the individual and the company/internship.

    I definitely don't think it's easy to juggle each of them, but we can work hard in college and we don't get paid to do it. Kind of the same with internships, often times that are for college credit, right? Thanks for sharing!

  • http://www.lifewithoutpants.com Matthew

    Internships are an interesting breed in that it's difficult to weed through the 'Office Admin/BS' style internships in order to find the good ones that you'll really learn something from. I never had an internship myself – but I had several internship-like part-time positions (that paid). Money was a must for me, being out on my own at all. But for current or up-and-coming college students who may be reading this. If you can find an internship that will provide real value, go for it – don't let the lack of pay scare you off. And, as you said Grace, it's better to be working for free and getting experience than to not be working at all!

  • http://www.smallhandsbigideas.blogspot.com Grace Boyle

    @Matt The difference here is that you provided yourself with real-world experience, while in college. Experience is knowledge and often, internships are the way there. My college required one but usually pushed for at least two internships. Especially in New England my college was known for bringing students with internships and employers vocally loved that. I think that's so important, regardless of where you went to school or what you studied. A textbook doesn't amount to much when you're actually sitting at a desk or dealing with a client, live.

    I say if you land a paid internship or employment opportunity that is relevant to your career path or journey, then awesome because it's definitely not easy to stomach a non-paid internship and pay your way through college.

  • http://www.lifeschocolates.com sameve

    I agree, internships are totally necessary. There's a big difference between reading about something for class or hearing your professor lecture about it, and actually trying it yourself. Like Ryan said, students immediately discrediting an internship because it's unpaid are making a big mistake. Also, some schools require that you do an internship for credit, and often the ones that offer credit don't offer monetary compensation.

    Another important thing to remember is to look into internships that may not be exactly what you want. In other words, take the opportunity to try new things. Internships are a great way to figure out what you want to do with your life. For example, I was a print journalism major, but I never interned at a newspaper. Instead, I worked at a non-profit advocacy organization, a non-profit media related organization (in the digital media dept), and for the marketing arm of a professional sports players union. All of these experiences were totally different from one another, and I learned a lot.

    Great advice!

  • http://www.owlsparks.com/ Carlos Miceli

    I'm definitely bookmarking this one.
    When I go back to college next year, I may get into the internships again. This is weird since I already landed a big time job, but I'm looking forward to the whole learning from the bottom eexperience once again. I'll keep your advice in mind when I'm there Grace!
    Thank you for this post!

  • http://grantgrigorian.com/ Grant

    Thanks. Great post.

    I completely agree and try to evangelize as many of my friends into taking an experience rich, but unpaid internship over a paid mind-numbing job. Of course sometimes it's impossible if you are trying to pay rent, and the trade off is not always necessary: some paid interships are just as great as the unpaid ones.

  • http://www.smallhandsbigideas.blogspot.com Grace Boyle

    @Carlos I'm glad I could provide some insight here. Each situation is different, just like Matt mentioned that he was able to find employment opportunities that paid him but were relevant to his major. There is something to be said from working your way from the bottom up. It's humbling and there is NO way you can't learn at least one thing. When I was in college, I was very much in the education and learning mindset, so when I was interning the same went hand-in-hand. Thanks for sharing and best of luck next year :)

  • http://www.smallhandsbigideas.blogspot.com Grace Boyle

    @Sam Awesome advice. “Look into internships that may not be exactly what you want.” I mentioned that I definitely learned what I didn't WANT to be doing, which is just as valuable as finding out what you want to do. With your diverse background, I think it also set you apart from other graduates. Good points, Sam!

  • http://www.smallhandsbigideas.blogspot.com Grace Boyle

    @Grant The quality of internship usually doesn't have to do with pay or lack thereof. My point was that often, internships are unpaid (especially while in college) but the tradeoff for experience is pertinent. I never just interned, I always had to work alongside because it is just too much. If I were out of college and doing an unpaid internship, I know I would have to work even harder…it definitely isn't a easy situation like you said with bills and responsibility.

    Thanks for your thoughts and stopping by, Grant!

  • http://www.opheliaswebb.com opheliaswebb

    I am a HUGE fan of internships because they involve one of my greatest passions, mentoring. Any person signing on for an internship (whether paid or not) needs to realize two very important things. 1.) You will get out of an internship exactly what you want. 2.) You need to know what it is you want to get out of a relationship and include that as part of your interview.

    Meaning this. As someone who hires now, I realize how very important it is in interviews to hire someone willing to engage in conversation ACROSS the table. I love folks who have very clear expectations of what they want in the job as well as what we want from the job applicant. It quickly weeds out folks who might “look great on paper” but will drive you up a wall or be complete non-achievers within the field.

    If you want a great internship, I'd recommend putting it right out there in the interview and conversations. “I'm looking for a job that will provide me with more expertise on X skillset and Y job duties” (Important, plan this beforehand or you'll look and sound like a tool!) Secondly, you'd be AMAZED how far a simple “I'm also looking for someone to really teach me the ropes of *field of business* that I can build a relationship with for years to come.” Who wouldn't want an intern like that?

  • http://bloodbanker.com/ Ashley

    If your looking for an extra money be a blood donor and get paid $50/hour to donate blood!. As We all know, Blood bank shortages kill tons of people all the time. Let's spread the blood donation and give blood, you will never know when You might need blood.

  • http://www.smallhandsbigideas.blogspot.com Grace Boyle

    @Elisa It's good to see another advocate and fan of internships, especially on your end as you're frequently hiring. I have some fantastic mentors from college that I still keep in touch with and wrote me amazing recommendations on LinkedIn and paper. This feels good as an intern because I know they support me and will help me in the future, even!

    You're very right that an intern who knows what they want and are able to explicitly put it right out there is a boon. It's very refreshing! Thanks for the thoughts here, really interesting!

  • http://bloodbanker.com/ Ashley

    There are many students who got experience of unpaid internship but if your looking for an extra money be a blood donor and Make up to $50/hour for plasma blood donation!. As we all know, Blood bank shortages kill tons of people all the time. Let's spread the blood donation and give blood, you will never know when You might need blood.

  • http://thelifeoflisa.wordpress.com/ Lisa

    I agree– internships are ESSENTIAL. Unfortunately, I learned this too late. I did my one and only internship during my last semester as an undergrad…unpaid (which didn't bother me at all). It was the most valuable experience I have ever endured, but it also made me realize that I didn't want in a career in the legal field…a little too late! Had I interned much earlier I could have dipped into other fields.

    So, I encourage internships to any and all of you who are still in college..it is never too early!

  • http://www.smallhandsbigideas.blogspot.com Grace Boyle

    @Ashley Not only is donating blood a way to make money, but it also is very important because your donation could save someone's life. There are many alternative streams of income.

    @Lisa Your story is exactly why I wrote this post. Learning what you don't want to do is often very important, but you only had one experience with your internship to tell you that. Mistakes early on are easier to correct and learn from–so why not start early in your formal educational years in college? Great thoughts and thanks!

  • http://blog.robpitingolo.org/ Rob

    I understand why you respectfully disagree, but I would like to throw out that I have done 6 internships at 5 companies so far as an undergrad. I may do one more before I graduate, or I may not. My internships have spanned the spectrum of the pay scale, from completely unpaid to the legal minimum wage to fairly generous hourly compensation.

    I agree that internships are what you make of them. Unfortunately, I personally found it very difficult to make something of unpaid internships for two reasons. First, I could only work a very limited number of hours. The chance to work a full 40 would have been nice, but I also had to work a second job to afford my basic costs of living. The other thing I gathered from my experience is that paid interns seem to be treated as more valuable members of the corporate team; whereas unpaid interns often seem to be treated as typical college kids who will be gone in a few weeks. Surely this isn’t true everywhere, but it was noticeable to me. Take the congress internships that I wrote about as another example. It seems obvious that congressional staffers think very poorly of their interns. Maybe it’s deserved, maybe it’s not. But it would certainly frustrate me if I were working my hardest in a position like that.

    Don’t get me wrong, if I didn’t think internships were absolutely worth it, I wouldn’t have participated in them myself. But I see opportunities to make them better for all involved.

  • http://www.smallhandsbigideas.blogspot.com Grace Boyle

    @Rob You bring up some very good points. It depends on your employer but some co-workers don't even realize that you're being paid (except your immediate boss) so you're treated as an intern, nonetheless. It's important to be included into the fold, but still as an intern you're not always there full-time and you can't hide from the title of intern (especially as you're in college). What you can control is your performance.

    I can venture out to say that the internships where I was paid, I probably was involved more. I may have even put more effort in. However, one of the agencies I interned at and wasn't paid included me in everything. I was part of their team meetings, company outings/parties, and had some great projects. It was just their policy to not pay through monetary value, but the trade off was to offer educational values, projects, recommendations and networking in turn.

    My main point still lies, that you shouldn't turn down an internships if it's unpaid. Experience is experience and it's up to you to access the people and company. If you can find a paid internship, of course do it but don't overlook unpaid internships. My work ethic has been fine tuned, knowing that I had to do my best even if I wasn't receiving a pay check at the end of the week…

    Thanks for sharing, Rob I love what you've said!

  • kaylafrench

    I love this. You are a writing inspiration. I'm currently doing an internship type thing and have just started my own blog; reading this helped a lot.

  • http://www.smallhandsbigideas.blogspot.com Grace Boyle

    @Kayla Thanks for your kind words. I could only hope that I can be of inspiration to readers and those in similar situations. I'm glad I could help and if you have any other questions about internships, feel free to email me. I'm gracekboyle at gmail dot com :)

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  • AC

    Sorry, but this is a very stupid career move…unpaid internships. According to the Department of Labor's Federal Labor Standards Act (FLSA), an organization can only offer an unpaid internship to someone as long as the work the unpaid intern performs is of no value to the organization. The value in this type of arrangement is more of a social nature…such as making new friends, contacts, having fun in a new city or town…but, not necessarily for the purpose of obtaining “experience” in the form of stretching one's skills or getting an accomplishment to put on the resume. People should understand that distinction before they get into this type of arrangement.

  • http://twitter.com/GrantG9 Grant Grigorian

    An unpaid internship is not only “social in nature.”

    Even under the FLSA, an intern must receive training similar to that offered in a vocational school. The training must be for the benefit of the intern and the the law regards an internship as a training program.

    It may not be the correct move for your career, but for a lot of people, unpaid internships have provided valuable opportunities they couldn't have had otherwise.

  • http://www.smallhandsbigideas.blogspot.com Grace Boyle

    @AC I disagree. I don't think unpaid internships are stupid career moves, however, I understand your point in that sometimes internships don't offer as much value if they know they don't have to pay you. As you will see in various reader comments here, many had very informative and worthy unpaid internships which help lead to their current career success.

    I can attest, because I had unpaid internships and in college, they were FOR credit. I was given responsibility and I was sure to be careful about the kind of internship I was getting myself into so that it would be worth my time.

  • Jon

    More mindless drivel. My classmate had some internships. Yet, he was still a pothead, and still made mistakes in senior classes despite having “experienced” the same material in his internships.

    I'm sure somebody like you would hire him over an intelligent person, purely based on his “internship” experience.

    Oh, it makes me all warm and fuzzy to know people like you keep flooding the workplace.

    You probably belong in the same class of people who, when hiring somebody for a dish washing job, askes “what makes you think you could do this job”. Fail much?

  • http://www.smallhandsbigideas.blogspot.com Grace Boyle

    @Jon That's too bad about your classmate. Of course you're going to make mistakes in senior classes regardless of your experience. Point blank, if you have internship experience it shows you have motivation and drive versus someone who didn't do one internship in college.

    When companies are smart, they obviously hire someone beyond their internships. They hire for personality, skill set, intelligence, etc.

    And no, I've never worked as a dishwasher, so I've never needed to hire for that kind of position. I'm far from failure. Maybe you should take the time to know someone before making assumptions.

  • Jon

    More mindless drivel. My classmate had some internships. Yet, he was still a pothead, and still made mistakes in senior classes despite having “experienced” the same material in his internships.

    I'm sure somebody like you would hire him over an intelligent person, purely based on his “internship” experience.

    Oh, it makes me all warm and fuzzy to know people like you keep flooding the workplace.

    You probably belong in the same class of people who, when hiring somebody for a dish washing job, askes “what makes you think you could do this job”. Fail much?

  • http://www.smallhandsbigideas.blogspot.com Grace Boyle

    @Jon That's too bad about your classmate. Of course you're going to make mistakes in senior classes regardless of your experience. Point blank, if you have internship experience it shows you have motivation and drive versus someone who didn't do one internship in college.

    When companies are smart, they obviously hire someone beyond their internships. They hire for personality, skill set, intelligence, etc.

    And no, I've never worked as a dishwasher, so I've never needed to hire for that kind of position. I'm far from failure. Maybe you should take the time to know someone before making assumptions.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jheckers John Heckers

    Great article and good advice for young people coming out of an educational experience. I would add one more. Hang out with your bosses as MUCH as they will let you. Don’t watch the clock, and don’t rush off at the end of a business day to be with friends. If you’re serious about your career, spending the time to actually learn the business (much of which does NOT take place during the business day!) is essential. I’ve seen too many interns see their time as theirs and the company time as a sacrifice that they’re making of their social time. Get over it! The company supervisors, managers and owners are putting out a great deal of time and energy that they could be putting out on something other than you. It is a gift to you. Your work is not necessarily a gift to them, although your fresh ideas and familiarity with various forms of technology certainly DO help. But understand that the management is spending a great deal of valuable (and often expensive) time mentoring you and training you. Most of us feel we need to give something back to the community and to help the younger generation.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jheckers John Heckers

    Oh, and just one more. Don’t over-schedule yourself with things that will keep you from working hard at your internship or learning at your internship. Many Millennial Generation folks like to have every second of every day packed and busy. This is a mistake because it keeps you from hanging around and seeing interesting, and often vital, stuff. Make your internship the top thing on your schedule and keep your social calendar and other personal activities light.

  • http://www.smallhandsbigideas.com Grace Boyle

    Great points, John! I love the piece about spending time with your boss. My current boss (full-time, not an internship) is still very much a mentor of mine. I respect his knowledge and love the learning process.

    Thanks for stopping by – your comments were so insightful!

  • James Wasser

    unpaid internships are slave labor. don’t do it.