Career Advice

3 Things to Consider When You’re Looking for an Internship

posted on August 19, 2019 | by Michele Lando

3 Things to Consider When You’re Looking for an Internship

When I was in college I had an internship that taught me a lot and was an amazing experience, however I was also working crazy long hours, commuting, and doing it all for free. They did give me a very small stipend, but when calculated it came far below minimum wage. I do still owe a great deal of knowledge to that internship, but looking back on it, I wish that I would have considered a lot of different factors besides the great experience that the opportunity offered. Here are three things to consider when you’re looking for an internship. (hint: they might be different than you expect!

We’re ingrained to focus on experience, not compensation

Years ago it would be considered absurd to hire someone without paying them, yet this has now become the norm because we place such heavy value on experience. This is a new phenomenon that has surfaced within our society and it can be seen everywhere from internships, to content writing, to academia. Experience can make a big difference in your resume and your ability to land a job in your dream industry, however it’s important to consider finances as well. Experience may pay off in the long run, however it won’t pay your current bills. Ultimately, there needs to be a balance between getting the experience you need to succeed and being mindful of your financial standing.

Internships are an unwritten requirement for those entering the workforce, many of which are unpaid and illegal. According to the Fair Labor Standards Act, one of the criteria for an intern to remain unpaid is that “The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded.”

If you’re reading this and thinking that a lot of companies should be in trouble, you’re right. Yet the only way for these companies to get caught is for someone to report them. At the end of the day many interns simply want to put their head down, gain experience to use on their resume and move on. It’s often an internal struggle between reporting the issue and potentially ruining your relationship with the company. Because we’re teaching young people that experience is more important than compensation, unpaid internships mostly go unreported.

If you’re considering an unpaid internship, it’s important to take a hard look at your finances and see if you can actually afford to take it. If you have the financial ability to continue to pay the bills for your baseline needs, (groceries, rent, medical, etc.) go for it! If it’s not in the cards or you would put yourself in debt, consider other options. It’s always worth a shot to try and talk to the company. Explain the situation and see if you can work something out. The worst that can happen is that they say no. Try phrasing it like this:

“I’m so excited about this opportunity, and understand the value that this experience holds, however since it’s unpaid, it will cause major financial strain for me. Is there any way we can work something out so I can get some sort of financial compensation? If financial compensation isn’t available, would it be possible to take on part time hours so I can get a side job as well? I don’t want to pass up this opportunity, but I’m also trying to be mindful of my finances.”

Talking to your potential employer and phrasing it in a way that shows your interest but acknowledges the difficulties of the situation can show a lot about your character. Employers are looking for employees who can adapt to situations and solve the problem at hand. By highlighting the problem and suggesting viable solutions, you’re showing your potential employer that you hold both of these skills!

We have unrealistic expectations

How many times have you seen a job posting for an entry level job that requires five or more years of experience? Totally unrealistic right? That’s where internships come in. We’ve been programmed to accept working for free in order to gain experience, but because of this, we often don’t learn to negotiate salary. Additionally, because we just accept working for free as the norm, this often translates into underpaid and complicit workers in many industries.

Science Magazine recently came out with an article highlighting the harsh realities of living as a PhD student, illuminating that nearly one-third of PhD students are at risk of having or developing a common psychiatric disorder like depression. Why? Because PhD students often work long hours and take on the role of employees, staff and teachers, all while trying to educate themselves and execute a thesis project amidst earning less than minimum wage per hour worked.

Your health should always be a priority regardless of how badly you want to land your dream job. If you’re not healthy (mentally and physically), you won’t be able to work to your fullest potential anyway.

A recent study examined 65 students and found a correlation between mental illness and financial problems. This suggests that the more we normalize unpaid or underpaid work, the more mental illness we may face within the population. Cost of living increases year over year, which makes it even harder to accept experience as the main form of compensation.

When you’re looking for an internship, be sure to set boundaries for what circumstances are acceptable for you. Note that these differ from person to person. Perhaps constraints are financial, or they could be related to your time. How much time are you willing to put in? Would you willingly take on an internship that requires you to work more than full time?

We capitalize on ambition

A couple of years ago, Stephen Hull of Huffington Post UK made a splash with his statement saying, “If I was paying someone to write something because I want it to get advertising, that’s not a real authentic way of presenting copy. When somebody writes something for us, we know it’s real, we know they want to write it. It’s not been forced or paid for. I think that’s something to be proud of.”

Writing an article because you want to write and get your thoughts out there is great. It’s why many writers (like me) create content for no financial compensation, however executives stating that they’re proud that the company doesn’t pay writers adds into that backwards notion that unpaid work is acceptable.

In a 2011 article, Kelly Fallis, chief executive of Remote Stylist said “People who work for free are far hungrier than anybody who has a salary, so they’re going to outperform, they’re going to try to please, they’re going to be creative.”

At the end of the day, just be mindful of this and how people view ambition. Being ambitious is a great quality to have, however it shouldn’t come at the cost of your financial stability or your health. It might take you longer to find the job of your dreams, but it’s likely that you won’t ever completely close yourself off to your dream career because you couldn’t settle for an opportunity that didn’t pay well.

The bottom line is that you need to know and be confident in the value you hold as an intern or employee. Consider your options, your resources, and your constraints in order to make a decision that is best for you. If you can afford to take an internship with no pay, great; if not, that’s okay too. It’s expensive to live in this day and age, and while internship experience is great to have on a resume, there are other ways you can highlight your value and articulate what you have to offer without going broke.