Internships are Necessary, Even If They Are Unpaid

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)!

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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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