There’s been a lot of discussion about unpaid internships, with strong opinions on either side. So are unpaid internships worth the effort? Well, I know quite a few people who used unpaid internships to get themselves into a field they really wanted. After they tried every other way they could think of to get a foot in the door.
So despite some very real negative arguments that can be made (and we will look at them next), there are indeed cases where internships can be a great way to get a career started. I’ll tell you later how Lara got to her dream job.
Why all the discussion about unpaid internships?
I know there are many reasons why they feel unfair. Even exploitative. To name just a few:
- Many don’t let you do anything that even comes close to what you feel is a direct or transferable skill.
- You aren’t getting to do what they promised.
- Internships are supposed to be educational, but you aren’t learning anything.
- They’re using you to get a free staff member — possibly illegally.
- You are being overworked and made to think you can’t say no to ungodly hours.
- You aren’t getting any mentoring or useful feedback of any kind.
- And, of course, you’re not getting paid.
So why should you even consider an unpaid internship?
Because there’s potentially a lot to be gained, if you play it smart. Sometimes your experience in that environment or culture clues you in to things you can use elsewhere. Or people you meet along the way can help open a door you may never have been able to open on your own. At least not as quickly.
And even if you’re just making copies, the transferable skill is keeping a positive attitude no matter what you are doing. That can serve you well for the rest of your career. As can learning how to keep your eyes open for opportunities whatever you may be doing.
How to help create unpaid internships worth the effort
Luckily, you can do some things to help lessen the risk of winding up miserable in a dead-end internship:
- First and foremost, you need to go into the internship with your eyes wide open.
- Ask good questions about what you’ll be doing and what kind of things you’ll be learning.
- Find out who will be overseeing your internship.
- Don’t just grab the first offer you get out of fear – no matter how charming the person offering you this great opportunity may seem.
- Let them know what you hope to get from the experience and ask what you need to do to make sure that the internship works for both you and the company.
- But also, remember to be realistic in your expectations.
- Ask if there is anything else you should know that might surprise you or help you succeed.
- And then, when you are there, do your best whatever you do. Also, keep your eyes open for opportunities and building relationships.
And now we get to Lara’s story. Lara graduated college with a degree in political science. But she had to pay her rent. So she got work doing temp reception jobs while looking for a paid position in politics.
She was open to anything. But despite all her volunteer work and networking as much as she could, that “anything” never came. Not with a paycheck.
After a year of doing work she cared almost nothing about, she made the decision to take an unpaid internship with a local politician. She found a cheaper living space and hoped that by doing a great job she could convert the unpaid gig into a paid one.
And despite getting lots of praise and slowly getting known in local politics, her employer couldn’t get approval for a paid position for her. I will tell you that she lost hope at times and had to take on some freelance work, but she stayed with it and kept doing her best. And she kept networking.
Good news at last
Although it took her a year and a half to find an actual paid position, all that time she was getting experience and meeting people. And she was absorbing a tremendous amount of knowledge that would help her later.
In fact, when she finally got the paid position, she wound up getting three promotions within 2 years. And she was doing what she loves. She still is. It took time and she wasn’t always doing dream work, but eventually it got her where she wanted to go.
So is an unpaid internship right for you?
Everyone is different. So you have to take an honest look at how you really would feel about something with no money and no guarantee. The real question is whether YOU would find unpaid internships worth the effort and risk no matter how it turns out.
And, just as in Lara’s case, you might have to keep going even when roadblocks seem to pop up at every turn. And you might have to use this move to get to the next step. That’s ok. It can pay off down the road.
It really is about determination, building relationships, and getting good at finding opportunities where others might not see anything but being taken for granted. And continuing to believe in yourself.
Just remember … no matter what menial task you do, you are still the same talented person. That’s how most of us start out. And with the right attitude and patience, someone that matters will eventually know that too!
UPDATE: New 2018 federal rules make it easier for employers to continue using unpaid interns. But the intern needs to be the primary beneficiary. Here’s an article on that point with useful links: It’s Easier Than Ever to Not Compensate Interns, But There’s a Catch
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