Follow each week as we present step-by-step suggestions to achieve post-college success with less senior year stress.
“Great news!” I thought as I read an email telling me I had an interview for a part-time, unpaid internship for next semester. I just graduated this December, but I’m still looking for ways to gain experience and build my resume — and I thought taking an unpaid internship would be a great way to do that.
With fingers crossed, I texted my mom and my dad the same thing: “I got an interview for that internship I mentioned, I really hope I get it!” My mom immediately called me to tell me how happy she was for me and that she thought it would be fantastic if I did. I thanked her happily and hung up, only to get a phone call from my dad several minutes later. As usual, he used reality to take me down a notch. “You’ve got great grades at one of the best schools in the country, you need to be focusing on PAYING jobs not internships. I’m not going to support you forever.”
My excitement about the interview dissipated quickly. Thanks, dad. But he got me thinking about the conundrum that is the job application process. You need experience to get experience. Sometimes a recent grad’s best chance at getting a job takes the form of an unpaid-internship, but no broke parent or debt-ridden recent grad wants to bear the thought of the financial drain that comes along with working for free. It’s a huge risk. You get experience but chance finding yourself in the same position after the job is done: broke and unemployed. On the other hand, how are you supposed to build your resume or identify your career goals if you don’t take chances and shell out the extra dough when it counts the most?
I decided to turn to The Career Center’s Assistant Director for Experiential Learning and Employer Development, Geni Harclerode for advice on how to weigh the pros and cons of taking an unpaid internship.
Here’s what she had to say:
Research the industry
“It is important for students to understand what is common in the industry they’re hoping to work in,” says Geni, who added that some industries such as fashion, magazines, and entertainment simply offer unpaid internships because the positions are in-demand, and they know they can hire people to work for free. So, for some fields, working for free is expected — at least in the beginning.
Think outside the box
According to Geni, students often become fixated on securing the “cookie-cutter,” summer internships, when in reality, that’s not all there is out there! Some people simply can’t afford to not get paid — and that’s perfectly okay — you just need to think creatively and find other ways to gain valuable experience. Geni recommends seeking a different role in a current paying job. For example, if you waitress for a restaurant, offer to re-vamp the restaurant’s marketing campaign! If you want to work in graphic design, why not design a new menu or some eye-catching flyers. According to Geni, there are plenty of ways to gain work experience with out committing to an unpaid internship. Students can even try job shadowing, or volunteering. These options look great on a resume and require far less commitment than a traditional internship.
Assess potential risks and rewards
Once you’ve researched the industry your hoping to work in, and have decided whether or not unpaid internships are the norm, it’s time to weigh the pros and cons. You need to ask yourself questions like, “could this internship help me build a portfolio of work to show other employers?” “Is this internship likely to lead somewhere?” Geni also recommends asking the hiring manager if you can contact former interns to hear about their experiences with the company. It’s important to assess the costs and benefits before you take the risk.
Make it work
In a lot of situations, you just have to take a deep breath and assure yourself that where there’s a will, there’s a way. If you have weighed the potential risks and potential gains of accepting an unpaid internship and have decided to go for it, then it’s time to make the situation work. Perhaps you can negotiate with your employer to only work a few days a week, or perhaps you can agree to work half of the summer. That way, you can take another money-making job. Since they won’t be paying you, some employers are more willing to compromise with unpaid internships. Often you can receive academic credit for internships, and this can make the experience worthwhile in itself if you’re still enrolled in school.
So in conclusion…
- Don’t fixate on the “cookie-cutter” internship. There are plenty of ways to gain valuable work experience while making money.
- Research the field you’re hoping to go into before taking an unpaid internship — sometimes unpaid internships are the norm.
- Assess the risks and benefits. Talk to former interns and consider what you might have to show after the internship is over. Where might the job take you?
- Make it work any way you can. If you think the job is worth it, then plan your time carefully and pick up another job. Where there’s a will, there’s a way, even if you’re not getting paid!