By: Shannon from You, Me & DC
You did it! You’re a college graduate. You finished your illustrious degree and you’re about to enter the real world. The only problem? The one place that wanted to hire you couldn’t bring you on as an employee and you’re stuck with an unpaid internship.
I get it. I’ve been there. I graduated with honors, was overly involved in college, had great work experience and yet nobody wanted me. I spent months applying and interviewing for jobs but would never hear back about full time paid work, instead I was offered an unpaid internship before I even finished the interview. I was flattered but that feeling didn’t last long. I felt snubbed, frustrated and frankly…really offended. I would struggle to fall asleep at night because I would constantly ask myself ‘What did someone else have that I didn’t?’ or ‘How could everyone else I know get a job, but I couldn’t?’ The world was against me but I had no other options. And maybe you don’t either. But that isn’t a bad thing.
An unpaid internship might put a bad taste in your mouth but grab a glass of water, rinse and spit because I am going to change your mind. An unpaid internship could be one of the best things you do with your post-graduate freedom.
A paying job that excites you and challenges you would be the goal but when that seems just out of reach, pivot and find what will help you get there the fastest. I’ve held salaried positions that left me bored and unsatisfied. Out of college, I took a job as an executive assistant at my dream organization thinking it would help me get my foot in the door. Instead, I was filing paperwork and running errands for higher ups while I watched unpaid interns doing real, substantial work. When I started graduate school, quit my full time job and entered the ~intern~ world once more, I found myself working on interesting projects almost immediately. It must be some unwritten rule but if you’re unpaid, the work you are assigned will likely be more meaningful.
Save for the internships that have you grabbing coffee exclusively (don’t do these), you will also be around the movers and shakers. You don’t need to be a salaried employee to become friendly with your coworkers. Unpaid internships are the best place to network. You are well placed to grab coffee with your director, chat up the technical advisors and pick the brains of the people who are in the job you day dream about. An unpaid internship is no one’s first choice but most people will understand if you’re using it as a stepping stone. You might not leave that internship with any money in your bank account, but you will be rich in connections. Connections can lead to job opportunities in the future and those opportunities come with a full salary and benefits.
If you’re trying to decide if an unpaid internship is worth it, ask yourself these two questions: Do I want to work here in the future? Does this organization align with my interests and values? If you answered yes to either of these questions, do it. When you take an internship at a company or organization that you identify with, you set yourself up for success. Maybe they are the foremost researcher in their field or you really connect with the company’s mission and values. These things matter and they are the things that will get you through the days when you’re working on something incredibly dull. It will also really help you keep a smile on your face when you have to head into Starbucks to work a second job to pay the bills.
The most important thing to remember is that it is temporary. If you hate it and it was a waste of time (been there), you can write it off as a learning experience and move on. If you loved it, maybe you find a way to stay until something paid opens up. In my experience, most organizations have more work than they have people. If you’re offering to stay as an unpaid intern, you’re not only going to earn brownie points, but also a strong network that will advocate for you when a salaried job opens up.
I am one of the most impatient people I know and when something isn’t working in my favor, I get frustrated. You probably do too. But put a smile on your face, volunteer for projects and keep looking forward because before you know it, you’ll have landed a really amazing job.