The word intern may conjure up ideas of young, fresh faced kids making copies and fetching coffee but that doesn't mean your slightly more experienced face can't do those same tasks. Why? Because an internship is a great way to make a strong entrance into tough fields and can lead to a good job no matter what your age.
By Max Corey
It's the end of spring, which means college seniors don their cap and gown, shake the Dean's hand (or maybe not ), and receive a diploma that symbolizes years of hard work and thousands of dollars in student loans. Unfortunately for students, they graduated amidst an economic recession. Salaried positions are scarce (even Harvard MBA students are seeing tougher times).
Recent graduates find themselves in the unenviable position of working for free, otherwise known as the unpaid internship.
Unpaid internships during college were supposed to lead to paid gigs with that company, or with another company that would be amazed by your resume of resume-padding internships. This is no longer the case. A recent report notes that internships will be cut by 21% in 2009. Although there are long-term signs of hope — the economy will improve and aging baby boomers means more retirements and more openings for younger workers — the short-term situation is relatively bleak (perhaps a sign of this is that wealthy parents are now buying internships for their children).
In college I had political-based internships, but I graduated with a curiosity in a new field: entertainment and entertainment law. My switch in careers forced me to take an unpaid internship. My parents don't know Steven Spielberg (or his Mexican counterpart) and very few alums from my school are in entertainment (I couldn't network my way to a job, anyway). Even though I was qualified to be a phone slave, I started at the bottom.
I got an unpaid internship for a large entertainment company, through the help of a classmate who had the same internship and was leaving (so I guess I did network my way to a job). I learned about the work culture of entertainment, which is starkly different than academia or politics. I observed my superiors — assistants, coordinators, Vice Presidents, and Presidents — and studied their journey to success. Finally, for three months I read scripts and watched movies, while my fellow graduates were toiling away for investment banks or in grad school. Luckily, I had savings, help from my parents, and a part-time tutoring job. I was able to pay rent and eat food more nutritious than Pizza Lunchables.
After my internship ended, I had to find regular employment, as there were no openings at the company. I had another internship with another entertainment company, but I soon find work at an entertainment law firm. My internship experiences made me more comfortable at my current job and provided an extra boost on my resume. Overall, I've learned that nearly everyone has to intern for 3-6 months before an assistant position becomes available in the entertainment industry.
A friend of mine working in politics had a different route to regular employment. Because of confidentiality agreements, I cannot reveal her real name, but we'll call her Marilyn. She had previous internships, performed extracurricular activities, but did not have a job lined up after graduating.
She eventually found a paid internship with a Congressmember. After this internship she had an unpaid internship and then found a paid job with a congressional committee. Because many of the presidential campaign jobs ended by November 2008, there was an additional glut of twentysomethings looking for entry level Capitol Hill work. Thus, Marilyn noted that a slight majority of interns were college graduates.
As for the logistical problems of an internship, Marilyn notes the lack of benefits, such as health care, as well as no overtime for paid interns. But there were deeper problems as well. Often, Marilyn was more knowledgeable than a paid staff assistant. However, it was not appropriate to correct her superiors. In one situation, a superior was unable to multitask between answering to a local Chamber of Commerce group versus an angry tourist that wanted a capitol tour. Rather than assist the Chamber of Commerce first and then the tourist, the superior chose the wrong priorities by helping the tourist first. Marilyn wanted to help, but couldn't.
Overall, Marilyn benefited from her internship. She told me, “If I hadn't started out as an intern, I'd be a worse junior staffer,” due to her better knowledge of Capitol Hill office politics. Being an older intern even has its advantage. While working for a congress member, her superiors assumed she could handle more responsibilities, and thus her work was more interesting than younger interns (she wrote letters to CEOs and submitted press releases). “When they find out you're an intern with managerial and writing skills, they trust you. You will get to do cool shit, while entry level staffers have to do bitch work.” As for being old, there were interns as old as 25, so at 23, she was not a geriatric.
The internship also allowed her to network with other Capitol Hill staffers. She now knows at least one staffer in numerous Senate and House Offices. She has learned how to network in the right way. She says, “First, demonstrate competence. Second, people are eager to connect. If you can make someone look good, then it helps them, by making them look like a good identifier of talent.” She also stressed that twentysomethings should take internships very seriously. “When it's casual Friday, wear a suit. Come to work early and stay late.“ While she could make more money waiting tables, she needs to start at the bottom in order to work in Capitol Hill.
As for the practical aspects, Marilyn lived in a roach infested apartment above a bar, was a “vegetarian out of poverty” and a teetotaler, despite the fact that “if there was any time in my life that I should have been drinking, it was then.” She also waited tables, didn't see movies, and enjoyed DC's free entertainment options.
Overall the unpaid internship should not be dismissed. Says Marilyn, “You can complain about it, or you can just understand that it's part of the game. It can be really arbitrary who gets hired. There are a lot of qualified people without jobs.”
Today's economic realities are different than in years past. After talking to my peers, the consensus seems to be that many qualified graduates are being forced to juggle mundane jobs — think Starbucks barista — while interning in the field that one really wants to work in. The maxims of hard work paying off still ring true. Now, however, the payday is even farther away.
I will end with some tips on how to find and excel at an internship.
1. Resume and Cover Letter: Make sure your peers have looked over your application materials, especially if they work in the field you are trying to join.
2. Network with the younglings, not the oldies. Marilyn told me how some of her fellow staffers would suck up to Senators and Representatives in hopes of a future payday. This is incredibly foolish. Members of Congress have to deal with auto bailouts, wars, campaigns, and their own personal families. Do you think a Senator will remember to get you an assistant position? Instead, network with people your own age, who will pass your name along to the appropriate person.
3. Respect the internship. For a lot of interns, there is the 2-week period where you think, “this is awesome, the work is cool, my bosses are pretty nice, and a hot chick on the 3rd floor knows my name.” After that, you start to get into a routine, leaving at exactly 5:00 pm, surfing the web constantly, and never talking to that hot chick again. Even if your current company isn’t hiring after your internship ends, a stronger letter of recommendation is always valuable.
4. Read this. http://stuffwhitepeoplelike.com/2008/07/20/104-unpaid-internships/ It’s funny and will cheer you up as you are rejected from various jobs.
5. Finding a job is a full time job. Once you have an internship, you need to treat finding a job as if it was its own job, working many hours a week to find opportunities, polish resumes, etc. I'd compare it to college seniors who took their GREs and treated it as if they were another class, instead of a 1-2 hour a week activity.
6. Getting around the college credit requirement. A lot of internships require that you obtain college credit. There is a way around this. Junior Colleges and State schools often have “Internship Classes” where you pay the school money to be able to receive college credit. The Junior College option is the cheapest–as low as $20–but my experiences with junior colleges were frustrating (every college seemed to be staffed with incompetents). State schools are expensive–often as high as $400–but if it's a really good internship, then it might be worth it. This trick does not apply if the internship requires you to be in a specific year of college (sophomore or junior).
7. How do you find internships? There are places like MonsterTrak, Craigslist, and your college's career counseling center. First, your best bet is going to be through networking. Second, simply moving to your desired city will help. A friend of mine from Los Angeles wanted to work in the Bay Area. After moving to Oakland, she quickly found two internships and a Peet’s Coffee barista position (it is difficult finding work when you are doing phone interviews instead of in-person interviews). Third, if you run out of people to network with, try offering your services to a professor at a nearby university in a subject you are interested in (both myself and a friend of mine have done this). There are plenty of great professors who do not get funding for a grad student to be a research assistant. If you intern with a political science professor, for example, that professor will likely know various think tanks, local politicians, and local newspapers that s/he could help get you a paid job after you are his unpaid assistant.