Today’s job market is not what it once was. There was a time when “entry level” implied that no experience was necessary, and a solid academic record was the only prerequisite for a quality job. The value of a bachelor’s degree is today diluted, and employers now commonly demand an experiential background where they once might not have.
Enter the internship, a rite of passage for students and graduates alike. A resume without any is one that an employer is likely to pass over, so job seekers are well-advised to participate. Internships range from competitive, high-paying posts to the commonly maligned unpaid position. Critics of the latter condemn them as exploitative and insubstantial, but in many cases such judgment is unduly harsh. Let’s take a moment to evaluate the tradeoffs between paid and unpaid internships.
As you begin your search for a meaningful position, you should rid yourself of a couple common misconceptions. The first is that paid internships are by definition higher quality, and the second is that unpaid positions are only offered by employers who are cheap. Here is the simple reality: the likelihood of securing a paid position depends on the field in which you are seeking one. The more lucrative the industry, the more money companies will have at their disposal, and thus the more likely you are to find paid work in that field. Areas like education and social services will have fewer paid positions than industries like financial services or advertising, but this speaks little to the inherent quality of the work. As you search, manage your expectations with this in mind. If you’re seeking a position in a lucrative field, be skeptical of unpaid posts. Conversely, if you’re after work in a public service field, be aware that many meaningful positions will probably be unpaid.
While nothing about unpaid positions makes them inferior by definition, they hold one key disadvantage aside from the obvious. With a paid position, there is a consistent incentive for your employer to saddle you with substantive work—the company needs to ensure they are seeing a return on the money they invest in employing you. This incentive does not exist with an unpaid position. With these, it’s more likely that you’ll act as a reinforcement rather than occupy a more structured niche. This is not a rule however, and again, much depends on the field. You are much more likely to be making copies and coffee runs as an unpaid intern at an advertising agency than you would at a school that truly needs you but simply doesn’t have funds to pay.
At the end of the day, the quality of the work you will do should be your foremost priority when seeking an internship—it is a stepping stone, and future employers will look at how substantive your contributions were above how well you were paid for them. Whether you are looking at paid or unpaid positions, be sure to ask probing questions and do your best to establish what your role will be before you formally accept anything. As always, we will be happy to help you navigate this process during any point.
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