Was your unpaid internship worth it?
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.
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