Career Management: Should You Accept An Unpaid Internship?

Interning has become key in career management and to being considered by a full-time jobs. Indeed, a 2008 study by Gardner, Chao, & Hurst at Michigan State University confirmed the importance of internships or co-ops as a determinant in hiring decisions. For organizations, internships are a cost effective and low risk way to assess the competencies and fit of specific candidates. Interns are also a very affordable way for organizations to bring valuable fresh ideas and perspectives, as well as enable their current employees to learn more about new frameworks and tools taught at universities. So it seems that interning is a win-win for interns and organizations.

Well, it’s not that simple. Indeed if you are interested in non-profit or government work, unpaid internships are common and are considered volunteering or community service. Furthermore, the 1947 law on unpaid internships is difficult to interpret when it comes to unpaid internships in for profit entities. For more on this, see recent posts on our sustainable finance editorial blog. Overall, the law allows unpaid internships for for-profit companies when they can demonstrate that the value added by the intern to a for-profit company is smaller than the value the company provides by training the intern. But how do you measure what you put in versus get out of your internship?

These questions have generated a great conversation started by Becky Benishek on unpaid internships. These comments provide valuable insights that I will distill into two principles that you can use to make an informed decision about when to accept or decline a low-paid or unpaid internship:

Experience and Skills - Before accepting an unpaid or a low-paid internship, learn as much as you can about the projects you will be working on and the skills you will develop. Talk to the recruiter about the classes you liked, the skills you bring to the table, and some of the projects from the organization that you are most interested in. The more you can articulate how you can contribute and add value to the organization, the more they are likely to let you try. The less they seem structured, the more you will have to bring structure to your internship and advocate to create your own experience. This works well for some people but not for others. I personally learned as much (if not more) through my unpaid internships as in my paid internships. This has been the point made through many of the comments on unpaid internships.  A way to make an unpaid internship work is to intern for free during the day, and work an evening shift to generate income. As a college student, I paid my way through college by working throughout the school year and over the summer. As I needed the income, I took a paid internship that was not my top choice to get the money that enabled me to complete an unpaid internship that aligned with my career goals. Find a way to make it happen.

Contacts and Mentoring – As an intern, you will be in the same office as professionals who are working in your career or industry of interest.   Being able to experience and observe how people collaborate, work together and what policies and politics govern their workplace is an incredible opportunity to learn more about yourself and your workplace preferences.  In addition to observing how others work together in a particular organization, ask a lot of questions!  Ask your colleagues whether they got started through an internship, what they learned along the way, and how they got to where they are today. Also ask them for advice, about what they wish they had known when they were in their first job, or about how the field is changing. By learning more about the office politics that are present in any workplace, and by building a good rapport with a wide range of professionals across departments, you will be able to learn more about yourself, and build mentoring relationships that can be instrumental in helping you in your career development.  See also the excellent point made today by Lavinia Weissman about learning more about professional workplaces.

Overall, internships are about more than the monetary rewards. When offered an unpaid internship, consider how the internship fits your career goals in terms of the skills you want to develop, what you can learn about how to navigate workplace politics, as well as the contacts you will make along the way. Remember that throughout the internship, you have to keep your eyes and ears open for projects that you can add value to. Career management is about articulating your goals and setting goals to reach these goals – If the unpaid internship offers experience that meet your career goals or can provide you with valuable contacts, make it happen!

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