For a college student, internships should be considered the greatest invention since sliced bread.
Usually only available to students (although there are the rare exceptions), internships are a great way to gain real-world experience in a corporate environment and lend credibility to a resume that might only consist of baby-sitting jobs and student clubs. It is also a common stepping-stone to a full-time position at a company upon graduation.
There are generally two types of internship programs: paid programs, which are really more like part-time jobs in which students are paid hourly for their work, and unpaid programs, which trade work for college credit.
The ultimate decision for a college student is whether to accept the internship of their dreams and eat Ramen noodles all summer or take a full-time job waiting tables to make ends meet.
While obviously a paid internship is ideal, unpaid internships offer experience and a valuable asset to add to a resume. Or do they?
A recent article in BusinessWeek tackles this very same question, except from the point of view of the employer:
“Some small employers, like Sanjay Sarathy, would rather not deal with the headache of having to sort out the legal complications associated with an unpaid internship. Sarathy, vice-president for marketing at Vindicia, a billing and fraud-management software company in San Mateo, Calif., says his 40-person company has a blanket policy of paying all interns who come to work in its office. The interns currently working for his company are MBA students who receive about $20 an hour for their work. Giving the students a wage also pays off for the company in the long run; Sarathy sometimes hires his interns as future employees and wants to ensure they have a positive experience during their internship, he says.”
“Indeed, students who are paid during their internship report having a more positive experience in general than those who aren’t paid, according to an Apr. 7 study released by NACE. Employers are offering undergraduate interns an average of $16.33 per hour and nearly $25 per hour for interns at the master’s degree level, according to the survey.”
“Students who express dissatisfaction with the internship program felt like they had been exploited because they hadn’t been paid, and not being paid frequently coincided with being given what they referred to as ‘not meaningful work,'” says Edwin Koc, NACE’s director of strategic and foundation research.”
As a student, I participated in several internship programs during my junior and senior years in college. Using my college’s career center postings, I landed what ended up being a lucrative and prestigious paid internship with AOL, Inc. Not really knowing what I wanted to do as a career at that time, I sort of fell into the job. But that internship ended up laying the foundation for my current career, allowed me to be self-supporting for my last two years of school and helped create a network of references that I called on later in my full-time job search. Overall, I had a very positive experience and look back fondly at the time I spent there.
On the flip side, I also took a dream internship with imdb.com that exchanged work for credit. While I didn’t end up getting hired on there, I was able to add a respected company to my resume, experience working in a different location and corporate culture, and take very few classes my senior year since I was earning credit just by showing up for work.
I am convinced that securing these two internships were a critical part of my career success. I was able to land a good job shortly after graduation, likely because I had more experience than most other entry-level candidates out there. Internships prove to employers that you are a good worker and provide valuable tactical skills as well as grooming for corporate life.
Bottom line: unpaid internships are worth it if, and only if, the internship is at an organization that will advance or lend credibility to a later job search. If you want to go into engineering, take that unpaid summer internship at Boeing. The name alone will open doors for you later. But you can forget about that unpaid internship at the tiny paper mill on the edge of town, your months of fetching coffee and making copies will go unnoticed and unappreciated—except by your wallet.