4 Things to Remember about Unpaid Internships

In this post I’ll discuss some of the things I’ve learned while completing unpaid internships.

27455547_5c35667c19_mWhere I went to school, Bennington College, internships weren’t just encouraged; they were required. We got off for winter break in December and didn’t go back until late February, and that wasn’t because we were on vacation. Quite the contrary, the bulk of January and February were devoted to completing a Field Work Term, a time when students were required to go out and get some real world experience.

I interned at a variety of different places, all unpaid. While earning money is great (and probably the main reason you’re even here, using 2:25AM), unpaid internships can be amazing experiences. Just be sure to keep a few things in mind:

1. Go where you want to go: Do you dream of working at a cool, boutique-y ad firm or a tiny little nonprofit? Then find one, reach out to them, and see if they’re interested in taking on someone without pay. Don’t take an unpaid internship in an industry you’re not interested in just to say you have internship experience; plenty of places would be willing to take on some free labor even places without established internship programs, so there’s no need to settle.

2. Set your schedule, then reset your schedule: In school, we were required to complete a 20-30 hours per week at an internship for those two months in the winter. At some places, this was perfect, but not always. And worse than the places that wanted you there for 1- hours a day were the places that could barely cobble enough work together to fill 15 hours a month. Be flexible. Build your schedule around the work the company has for you. If you’re just standing around for 5 hours a day, you’re not helping anyone.

3. Remember who you are: You’re an intern. You’re a college student or college graduate. You might be a hotshot on campus, but here, you’re pretty low on the totem pole. Be confident, competent, but respectful. They brought you in so you can learn, not so you could teach them. At the same time, you’re providing free labor, and don’t forget that. If you’re not getting a valuable educational experience in return for your time and energy, that’s a problem. An internship on your resume is useless if you can’t demonstrate that you’ve learned anything.

4. Don’t go in with an agenda: You know what would be cool? If, at the end of your internship, the boss offered you a job with tons of money and benefits and friendship and everything! You know what else? If that’s why you’re doing an internship, you’re doing it wrong. Your only agenda should be to learn and experience a professional environment in action. Maybe you’ll love it, maybe you’ll hate it. Both experiences are valuable. I have friends from school that got jobs at their internships upon graduating. I also have a friend who came to school to study political science, got an internship at a senator’s office, and hated it so much that he decided to study modern dance instead. The only way an internship can be a failure is if you don’t let yourself experience it for what it is.

Have you ever interned anywhere? How was it? Great? Terrible? Share your stories in the comments!

(photo by Flickr user Pedro Vera used under a Creative Commons License.)

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