With Unpaid Internships, Gainful Employment Favors the Prepared Mind

Editorial Board

Finally, the sun is out, and it looks as though it might stay for a while. But for many of us, the sunny season doesn’t correspond to a lull in work — quite the opposite, actually, as students disperse to pursue summer jobs and internships in a variety of fields. Since the 1990s, the internship has become a rite of passage embedded in the undergraduate experience, one that sees aspiring biologists, senators and filmmakers worming their way into the offices of their dream employers, often for no pay, with the hope of testing out a possible career path, gaining on-the-job skills or networking with valuable contacts. Landing one of these opportunities can seem like a dream come true. But as new research shows, writing your own check for a shot at the big time may not pay off in quite the way you had hoped.

According to data from a 2013 survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, only 37 percent of those who worked unpaid internships landed a job after college, compared to 35 percent for those with no internship experience. Average starting pay for those who have worked as unpaid interns is actually about $1,400 lower than those who do not complete an internship. In short, an unpaid internship isn’t likely to lead to a job with your company of choice — or any company, for that matter.

At the same time, disputes about the legality of unpaid internships have erupted nationwide, with many experts wondering whether the whole concept is on its way out. Students in highly competitive fields like journalism and fashion design often see free labor as the only way to break into the business and are therefore willing to take part. An element of strategic timing is always at play, too, since studies also show that pursuing unpaid positions after graduation leads to worse job prospects than forgoing that track altogether.

With that said, in certain fields, internships do provide an invaluable opportunity to make an impression and learn in a new environment, as long as they are pursued in a thoughtful way. Knowing how to make an internship work for you, rather than the other way around, can make it worth your while and help you move one step closer to paid employment.

Before you begin on your first day, it’s important to fully comprehend the merits and drawbacks of the path on which you’re embarking. There are often ways to receive the same networking benefits from, or even work for, a company without cycling through a formal internship program. If you are enrolled in such a program, however, know that the Career Center provides stipends to students for whom the financial burden of taking an internship would otherwise be prohibitive. This is a resource not publicized well enough at Oberlin, and one more students should utilize.

In an ideal internship scenario, you should be getting more out of the employer — in the form of knowledge, skills and an expanded network — than the employer is getting out of you to power their operation. Otherwise, it’s just free labor (and possibly illegal). One way to ensure this balance is to go into the position with set goals in mind. What do you want to get out of the experience? How would that best be accomplished? Make these thoughts known to your employer early, as that may help them to tailor the types of work you’re assigned to match the set of skills you want to attain. It’s also important to be honest with your immediate supervisor(s) if you’re not satisfied with the internship. It’s their job and legal obligation to ensure that the program is providing suitable vocational training, and it’s too often the case that interns are afraid to speak up about a less-thanstellar experience.

It’s possible that “permanent employment at an internship site” is on your list of goals. If that’s the case, it’s in your best interest to make yourself an indispensable presence in the office. Once you’ve mastered whatever work you’ve been assigned, see if you can ask around for more. You’ll learn more, and if your workplace counts on you to handle certain critical tasks, they have less of a reason to get rid of you once the program is complete.