What is an internship?
An internship is a period of work experience offered by an organization for a limited period of time (usually three months). Interns may be high school students, college and university students, or post-graduate adults. These positions may be paid or unpaid and are temporary.
“Associates don’t do the shitty, tedious parts. They have eager underlings for that. So, look up some local university, find some marketing majors, and launch them at the PR problem. Call it an internship with a billion-dollar corporation - a leader in the rehabilitation sector. Pay them nothing, promise them school credit, and take advantage of their genetic ability to manipulate the internet.” - Natalie Figueroa, Orange is the New Black
Oh, the unpaid internship. In my case, paying the cost of rent in Los Angeles and working for free because apparently, that’s the best way into the job market..? Sounds like the job market loves rich kids and is trying to push out the rest of us less privileged.
However, I’d been applying to entry-level jobs in my field for months without any response after receiving the highest academic honors with my bachelor’s degree. Hadn’t I done everything right? I had a ton of extracurriculars on my resume including national parliamentary debate and I had stellar recommendations from my professors.
The one thing missing? An internship.
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I’d been serving in restaurants all throughout college to pay my bills and never felt I had any spare time to take on an unpaid internship. Fast forward a year, and here I am, using my savings to work for free in Los Angeles. I took this opportunity after looking into graduate school applications for a masters in journalism; most required at least a few published articles and without any job offers to get me to that point, an unpaid internship became my most feasible option.
So…how important is an unpaid internship?
There has been an overall drastic increase in the number of people taking internships. For example, one study found that over half of the students they surveyed in their final year of college had already held at least one internship (ProPublica).
In my experience, the importance of an internship can vary by career path; for example, I know many graduates with bachelor’s degrees in engineering who go right on to working full time since often their studies were very hands-on, providing them with the necessary experience.
However, many other fields are oversaturated. Entry-level job openings often receive a plethora of applicants with bachelor’s degrees. So for many employers, the candidates with practical field experience become the standouts.
Here are a few tips on how to approach saving for and successfully applying to unpaid internships.
1. Start while you’re still in college.
Surveys suggest that starting your internship search around two years before your proposed graduation date is the most effective time since many companies begin hiring summer interns up to a year before the internship actually starts (CareerUp).
It is also best to start your search early since many companies offering internships either want current college students or very recent graduates.
After working almost full time as a restaurant server for a year after I graduated in order to save enough money to afford an unpaid internship abroad, I found out that the major international human rights organizations such as the United Nations and Amnesty International only look for interns that can start the internship within a year of graduating. Apparently, this rule can be quite common.
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2. Start saving your money.
Many internships last around 3-6 months and the majority are unpaid, so begin to plan how much extra money you’ll need to pay all of your living expenses during this time. Start by averaging the cost of all of your bills, plus your average monthly food expense, loan payments, rent, gas, and any other monthly costs you may have.
Although I get it. Saving can be hard…even impossible, especially while going to school. Was I sharing a very small living space, solely eating rice and beans, and torrenting old versions of my college textbooks off of Russian sites while attending my university? I’ll admit to at least two of the three. So don’t be ashamed to postpone an internship after graduation.
3. Don’t settle for an internship that’s not in the field you hope to go into.
As an International Human Rights major, I understand that sometimes you’re just not in the right city for an internship in your field.
However, I’ve seen many friends work for free in an internship that isn’t at all in the field they hope to pursue…just because they felt they needed a resume booster. Internships are important specifically because they provide you with the necessary training employers are looking for and some can even lead to an attractive job offers at their conclusion.
If an internship doesn’t provide you with either of these, then all you’ll get out of it is a manager to vouch for your work ethic…something literally any paid job can also give you.
So my unfortunate conclusion is yes. Internships can be integral to our career success. Do I think they’re exploitative, often discriminatory in how they often exclude low-income individuals and are overall a huge detriment to ensuring industries increase worker diversity?
YUP! But for now, I am considering my unpaid internship as an investment in my future. No, I don’t have that job at the United Nations yet. But hey, I managed to score an (unpaid) position working on a project with them in Nairobi, Kenya. So job prospects to come!