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Was your unpaid internship worth it?

Jenna Johnson

At the end of an internship, there is usually an end-of-an-internship essay to write: What did you do? What did you learn? How did it change your future plans?

But there's another question that probably doesn't surface in many of these essays: Was it worth it?

On Twitter, @JoeGinese sent me a link to a satirical article about college students trying to defend their internship experiences as being educational. The fake article quotes a fake academic adviser, "Jackie Shippee," who is charged with reviewing end-of-the-summer internship portfolios.

"Honestly, I'm not even going to read it," said Shippee. "Internships are a test of resilience more than a test of academic fortitude. If I read it at all, it will be to see how well she's able to exaggerate her experiences."

"Internship" is the buzzword on college campuses these days -- and the message students are hearing is that if they ever want to get a job in this market, they better have some experience.

When I wrote a story earlier this summer about 2010 grads trying to find work, I heard from several career center directors that they are getting slammed with new demand -- not with soon-to-graduate students trying to find a job, but with undergraduates trying to find internships.

This morning I had an article about how the popularity of internships has pushed a growing number of students to pay upwards of $9,000 for a guaranteed spot (plus, housing, mentoring, college credits and night classes).

At the same time, more and more internships are unpaid, a phenomenon that has sparked a debate over the legality of some internship programs. This spring, the Department of Labor clarified its guidelines for unpaid internships at for-profit companies.

Now, don't get me wrong -- internships done right can be the most valuable learning experiences of a student's life. When I was in college, I did four, life-changing internships at newspapers of varying sizes. All of them were paid. And yet, making it through the summer was almost always a financial struggle. There are just so many expenses associated with moving to a new city, getting a short-term lease and paying for gas, food, professional work attire and the occasional happy hour.

Students who do unpaid internships have to pick up all of those expenses on their own, often with the help of credit cards or student loans. Students who pay to get their internships through companies such as the Washington Center, the Fund for American Studies, the National Internship Program or the Washington Internship Institute often have to take on even more debt.

Is it worth going into debt to get unpaid work experience?

If the internship turns into a full-time job, a résumé line that leads to a job or a network of quality contacts, students would probably say it was definitely worth the investment. But what if that intern is just getting coffee, making copies or entering data -- is that an equally good investment? Is it worth the risk?

Critics of unpaid internships (and, probably, pay-to-get-an-unpaid-internship programs) say this system benefits wealthy students whose parents can afford to bankroll them for a summer.

Anya Kamenetz, author of "Generation Debt," wrote an op-ed about unpaid internships, "Take this internship and shove it," for The New York Times in 2006:

In an information economy, productivity is based on the best people finding the jobs best suited for their talents, and interns interfere with this cultural capitalism. They fly in the face of meritocracy -- you must be rich enough to work without pay to get your foot in the door. And they enhance the power of social connections over ability to match people with desirable careers.

What do you think? Was your internship worth it? What did it cost you and what did you get out of it? I would love to read your end-of-the-summer analysis.

Campus Overload is a daily must-read for all college students. Make sure to bookmark http://washingtonpost.com/campus-overload. You can also follow me on Twitter and fan Campus Overload on Facebook.

By Jenna Johnson  |  August 30, 2010; 10:59 AM ET
Categories:  D.C. Interns  | Tags: Internships  
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Comments

My internship was totally worth it - 100%. I went through the Washington Internship Institute (WII) program in Fall 2007 at the cost of about $8,000. I had to take out a private loan in order to do the program. 50% of the cost ($4,000) went to furnished housing near a metro stop, which per month over 4 months is not surprising given renting costs in the area. WII was mostly a facilitator. There is an application process ($400) and there are usually 2 courses offered. One of the courses was your standard internship course - meet weekly and discuss your internship with the class. The other course taught us about Washington and how it worked. Every week we were required to go out in the city and do an informational interview - 12 interviews over the course of the semester. Every week was a different topic - labor organization, party, state government, lobby firm, consultant, nonprofit, congressional office, etc. For the class portion, we talked about what we learned in the interview. For the internship, WII acted like a career office in a university. They talked to us to get a sense of what we were interested in and then sent us applications and links on those interests. Then, we used them as a resource to do final edits on resumes, cover letters, writing samples, etc. I submitted the applications my self. I applied to DoEd, DOL, NSF, CRS, and another organization. I got my internship on MY MERITS - paying WII for their program did not get me the internship I got. What they did offer, was potential placement in organizations they have connections to in case you hate your internship or if it falls apart at the last minute. It's a security to fall back on. The last thing you want to happen is to move to DC, be here for a few weeks, and then have your internship not work out. My internship was unpaid, but they did provide SmartBenefits and an amazing line item on my resume. That internship helped me get into AU for an MPA and then to get my SCEP position with the federal government. I have my MPA and the government converted me to a full-time permanent employee. It was all totally worth it. I just paid off the private loan - with interest, it topped out at $9,900. This is not for everyone, especially if you are not willing to take out a private loan. And the reason why I took out a private loan? I had to pay tuition at my undergraduate institution, and that took up the full amount of my federal loan. My undergraduate institution gave me 12 credits for the experience. All in all, the opportunity removed me from my comfort zone in the Midwest and made it just a little easier to get through 4 months in this city. It made me want to come back - which is why I am now a resident of the District.

Posted by: a_fed_at_home | August 30, 2010 5:25 PM | Report abuse

Jenna:

The business model seems dodgy from the way you wrote your article, but at the same time I think your article missed a critical piece. I would have liked to see interviews with people who now have careers five to ten years after obtaining internships through one of these companies. That would have enabled me to get a better sense of whether these companies really provide a value for students or if the companies are simply fleecing naive undergraduates.

Posted by: jwhiii | August 30, 2010 7:08 PM | Report abuse

We have a similar situation in the UK with graduates taking internships to help them build their CV even if the position is unpaid with no promise of work after it. Unfortuantely, employers have been taking advantage of this and graduates are at risk of being exploited. We have been advising employers of best practice with regard to this and covered this in my blog here>
http://danhawes.blogspot.com/2008/02/unpaid-internships-bad-practice-or.html

Dan Hawes
GRB

Posted by: thegrbteam | August 31, 2010 5:25 AM | Report abuse

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