In recent years, controversy has surrounded unpaid internships for college students.
Many of us are told that an unpaid internship is the way to go, depending on chosen profession. You’re supposed to learn skills, make useful contacts, and generally prepare for the “real” world of work.
Unfortunately, not all internships are worth the trouble. Some of them end up being less of a stepping stone to your first job and more of a waste of valuable time and energy.
And to add insult to injury, many internships wind up costing you extra, since you still have to pay for the college credits you are earning for the internship.
This doesn’t mean that any internship is a bad idea. But it does mean you need to be careful about how you choose your internships.
Can you get a paid internship?
The best way to make sure your internship is worth it is to get paid.
Landing a paid internship can be tough, though. In many cases, a paid internship is dependent on your chosen major. If you major in humanities or social sciences, there is a good chance your internship will be gratis.
On the other hand, there are majors where it’s easier to find a paid internship. Budding accountants can usually find paid internships, as well as those going into STEM fields.
Consider you options. Sometimes, it makes sense to just get a summer job in a field somewhat related to your major. If it’s a choice between a job that you know will give you some experience and skills — plus pay you — and an internship that is dubious in its value and doesn’t pay you, the job might be the better choice.
Increase the value of an unpaid internships.
Sometimes you’re just stuck. It blows, but you might have to suck it up and take the unpaid internship. If this is your reality, here are a few things you can do to increase the value:
Focus on universal skills: Look for ways to learn from your internship and develop skills that can be universally useful. No one is going to hire you for your sick photocopying ability, but you can learn how to communicate with others and be a team player.
Also, look for other ways to learn skills while at your crappy unpaid internship. You can focus on leadership and problem solving while you are at your internship.
Ask for more responsibility: It doesn’t hurt to ask for more responsibility. If you feel like you can handle more, ask for more. And remember: the Deparment of Labor has actual criteria for whether or not your internship actually qualifies. This includes providing training that is educational, the benefit is for the intern, and the intern works under staff (not displacing workers). There are other requirements as well.
If you don’t feel like you are getting educational training and work trading for your benefit, ask for more responsibility and duties so that you can learn something.
Develop contacts: When I completed my unpaid internship, the most valuable thing I got were great contacts. My supervisors provided great letters of recommendation to me. I was also introduced to some great people who helped me with my career later on. That networking was very valuable to me. Even though I was able to work in my field and get some solid experience, it was building my career network that really helped me move to the next level.
Don’t get hung up on the internship.
You don’t have to get hung up on an internship, though. There are plenty of other good ways to develop skills and contacts and gain useful experience.
From working a summer job to focusing on your own business, there are other options. Carefully consider whether or not your internship will really be worth it. Don’t force it if you don’t see that there will be value.