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Work for Free? The Internship Dilemma

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I was recently at an event with many parents of college students. During the event there was a lot of discussion about internships and how important they are in securing a job after graduation. Parents and students expressed frustration that most internships are unpaid and that many universities now require students to enroll in a class if the internship is unpaid.

Hopefully, I can provide some answers to those of you who get frustrated or need more insight to internships.

What is the purpose of an internship?

An internship experience is designed to give students the opportunity to integrate classroom learning in a professional setting. Think of it as a new learning experience, not a job. This hands-on experience enables students to gain new skills, build confidence and expand professional competence. Through internships, students are given an opportunity to explore and experience career options and develop a professional network. An internship experience is vital to helping students make professional contacts and gain access to potential jobs.

What I have discovered is that may students and parents approach internships the other way around: as a job rather than a learning experience. This creates frustration when they hear that an internship is unpaid. But looking at an internship through the learning lens, one can see that it is really no different than a class where students do work to gain a skill. Internships offer one thing that classes don't: professional experience and contacts. These are priceless commodities for any student.

Why are internships important?

According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, 62 percent of employers recruit their new full-time employees from 'in-house' internship programs. With that in mind, it is important for all college students to do as many internships during their academic career as possible. These opportunities give students the ability to be proactive in building professional relationships.

When should students start doing internships?

This is a hard question to answer. Often, it depends on a student's chosen major and their skill set at any given time. Sometimes a major is set up to only allow students to do internships at a particular time in their program. Other majors have no restrictions.

What I often tell students is that they should enjoy their freshmen year and start thinking about internships during their second year of college. This is a good time to start taking elective classes and exploring career options. If they come across internship opportunities, they should go for it. The biggest mistake is to wait until senior year to get serious about post graduation employment. By then it may be hard too gain the kind of experience needed to open certain career doors.

I personally believe that students should be doing internships during their junior and senior years, and definitely during the summers between those years. If students can find an internship during their sophomore year, and their academic program allows it, then I applaud them. I don't think students can ever have too much professional exposure and experience.

How many hours a week should I intern?
This question depends on the students schedule. I have students who are interning 4-16 hours a week during the school term. Most internship sites are flexible with student schedules, but they like their interns to be able to commit at least four to eight hours a week to the internship. The fewer the hours, the less opportunity the student will have to take part in larger projects and assignments. Most upperclassmen can arrange their schedule so that they have one or two days a week to commit to their internship. During the summers, many students intern 20 or more hours a week. Much of the decision has to be based on the students academic workload and schedule.

Students need to keep in mind that their time in valuable. They need to pay attention to their return on investment. A two to four-hour a week internship may not yield the kind of experience that will prove beneficial to their professional growth.

Why should I intern for free?

Paid internships are not the norm anymore. Most are unpaid. Students and parents have to think of internships as a way to gain knowledge... just like a class. You don't get paid to go to class.

Most internship sites spend time and resources training students and giving them access to new skills and experience. It should be a learning experience for a student. However, student interns should not be filling the role of an employee. It is not a job. That doesn't mean the student won't do some work, but they shouldn't have to take on the responsibility or duties of a full-time staff member.

If students are going to do an unpaid internship, they should make sure they're going to get something out of it. They shouldn't be sitting around or killing time on the Internet. They should be gaining experience by working with others on projects, sitting in meetings, answering phones, etc. Students who find themselves unchallenged should speak up and let their supervisor know they'd like to do more. If things don't change, then it might be time to find a new internship. However, don't burn bridges on your way out. Make your exit in a professional manner. You don't want to become known as the intern who "just disappeared and never showed up again."

One caveat: Student's should not confuse unchallenging work with "pointless" work. Getting coffee, making copies, and running errands are common tasks for many interns. These tasks prove their dependability, perseverance; follow through and attention to detail. Each of these tasks provides an opportunity to interact with professionals, too.

What I've noticed is that many students feel menial tasks are beneath them and they will jump ship too early or they disengage from the opportunity. Don't do it. Students have to pay their dues. No one starts at the top or even the middle. Patience is required for anyone entering the work force. For those who have patience, the rewards will come.

Final thought:
I tell students that doing an internship is like being on a four or five month interview. Students need to understand that they are always being observed and their performance graded. They need to show up on time, perform their duties without texting friends every 10 minutes, and avoid office politics. It is also very important for them to go into an internship with their ego in check. An over-inflated sense of self-worth may hurt their professional reputation and career path. Remember, it's our attitude and behavior that forms our professional brand image. The interns who get hired after graduation are the ones that people remember for all the right reasons.

I wish you the best of luck in your career search and internship experiences.