Career Key

Author: Career Key's President and CEO, Juliet Wehr Jones, GCDF, J.D.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

5 Tips for Handling Internships in Career Exploration & Career Development

Along with suggesting specific career exploration activities, we advise people who want to learn more about a particular career to do volunteer work or take an internship.  Recent controversy about the legality of unpaid internships gives me a timely opportunity to offer some personal perspective and advice to would-be interns.

5 Tips for Handling Internships  
(to read more about my personal experience and for more elaboration on these tips, scroll below)
  1. Talk with previous interns before accepting the internship.
  2. Be distrustful of industries or employers with a cutthroat reputation.
  3. Have reasonable expectations of the internship.
  4. Get out early if it is not working out.
  5. Try very, very hard to find a paid internship. People do not value what they do not pay for.
My own desperate offer to work for free
In a desperate moment, in a different recession, at the beginning of my legal career, I offered to work for free for an employment discrimination law firm. I offered to “follow your paralegal around and do whatever she tells me to do...”

As a recent law school graduate, still waiting to hear whether I passed the bar, I had little valuable, practical experience practicing law - just the usual required research, writing, and some administrative hearing pro bono work. I was truthfully worth less than a good paralegal at that point.  Getting hired straight out of law school for a plaintiff’s (employee-side) firm is pretty difficult - they do not want to put a lot of time or money into training someone, especially one without a bar card. And after knocking on a lot of doors, I was a little stressed out and discouraged. So I can understand would-be interns’ desperation in the current economic situation.

Fortunately for me, my future mentor declined and offered a full-time time, “at will” job with a modest but liveable wage for a thrifty, single gal like me. Not only was he being nice, but smart (and legal) to do so. And in paying for my services, they expected me to do something meaningful in return - so I was given meaningful work that trained me for my profession. I will be forever grateful for that first job opportunity.

But before that offer, I had dozens of dead ends and unreturned phone calls, letters, and emails. I got my future boss’s name from another lawyer with whom I conducted an informational interview - I had no special favors or connections other than my school alumni organizations. Just persistence in the face of rejection.

5 Tips for Handling Internships
I suggest that students approach internships (paid or unpaid) from a cost/benefit standpoint. What skills would you be gaining? See "Identify Your Skills" for ideas. If there is no practical or educational benefit to you other than having a certain company appear on your resume and uncertain networking contacts, just say no.  The government’s definition of a legal unpaid internship (see their PDF with the 6 criteria) basically says that you, the intern, should be the main beneficiary.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that just by being an intern you will have the keys to the Magic Networking & Hiring Kingdom. You’ll need an an opportunity, through meaningful work, to demonstrate your value and potential to make people want to help you in the future.
  1. Ask to talk with previous interns before accepting the internship. You should be able to find out whether photocopying and sweeping out bathrooms as part of the unspoken job description. In addition to asking whether they learned something valuable, ask whether they made useful networking contacts - if not, what’s the point? And if past interns don’t call you back or are reluctant to speak to you, maybe there’s a reason.
  2. Be distrustful of industries or employers with a cutthroat reputation. I know this sounds a little obvious but some places like law firms, financial institutions and some IT companies have a well-developed reputation for “eating their young.” Chances are that if workers are themselves “eaten,” you will be too - for free. You should be networking and doing informational interviews in your field anyway - ask around about a company or department’s reputation.
  3. Have reasonable expectations of the internship.  Just because it’s educational doesn’t mean you shouldn’t expect to make coffee on rare occasion. That’s real life for most people (unless you’re Donald Trump)- we pitch in and make coffee.  But if you’re making coffee every morning and you’re spending more time on menial tasks than educational ones, that’s a problem.
  4. Get out early if it is not working out. If you see that you’re being taken advantage of, talk nicely with your supervisor about doing more educational work. If that doesn’t work, leave. Your “free” time is better spent elsewhere. And unless there was illegality involved, you may want to keep your negative experience to yourself (unless a future prospective intern calls you - in that case, talk to them in a factual way on the phone - not email).  Blogging/tweeting/complaining in some permanent, "written" form will not benefit you in any way.
  5. Try very, very hard to find a paid internship. People don’t value what they don’t pay for, which is why I think this unpaid internship abuse issue is coming up. Old-fashioned networking through your school’s alumni association or community organizations (think Lion’s Club, Toastmasters, etc.) takes a lot of time and effort, but it does pay off. No well-connected daddy or mommy needed.
Desperation in a poor job market or enthusiasm for a particular company or career field are just part of career development.  Just don’t sell yourself short in pursuit of your career goals.

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