Whether you’re an aspiring programmer or software developer, a writer, or an accountant, an internship might be just the thing to get your career moving in the right direction. Like many, you may find the whole internship process confusing, even overwhelming. Anyone who’s even taken a cursory look on the internet is sure to find a plethora of internship positions for a wide range of sectors and industries. Lots of us have heard that an internship is essential for gaining valuable experience, and one of the best ways to get a competitive edge over other recent graduates. If you want to get your foot in the door for your dream career path, you need to hit the ground running with the crucial work experience and professional connections that an internship provides, or so you’ve heard.
While some of that advice is true, the devil is in the details. An internship can be a powerful step in your personal career management, but there are things you need to carefully consider before you jump into any commitment of your time and energy. Like any other investment, you have to weigh your options and probable outcomes. Whatever you do, don’t rush the decision. Some things to consider as you think about adding an internship to your workload:
Paid versus Unpaid
Unpaid internships are everywhere but the truth is that they can be less helpful than you would think. The promise companies make of valuable experience and maybe even a solid reference is the so-called payment they dangle in front of eager initiates to rope them into freely-given labor. All too often, the implication (which is seldom verbalized) is that if you work really, really hard you just might be offered a paid position. But this almost never happens. Internships that will allow you to transition into a job are nearly always paid. While there might be industries that only offer unpaid internships ― beware! It’s simple economics to conclude that these are industries with little growth potential and that you’re better off pursuing a career path in a higher-demand sector.
So, what’s wrong with an unpaid internship you might ask? The past few years have seen lots of legal cases brought against companies that have unfairly exploited unpaid interns as a working alternative to hiring paid employees. Numerous and successful class action lawsuits have even required many companies to pay back former interns for work performed. Over the past few years, many states have clamped down with stiffer regulations too. Now, in some states, an unpaid internship position in a for-profit firm can only be offered if it’s for post-secondary credit. This means that you have to pay tuition on top of working for free. You might be thinking that a potentially illegal unpaid internship (or even one that forces you to pay tuition on top of working for free) might still be worth it for the experience and the sweet resume you assume will help you advance your career.
You might think that, but you’d be dead wrong. A 2014 Forbes article by Rachel Burger cites a study by the National Association of Colleges and Employers which shows that hiring rates between those who finished an unpaid internship were virtually identical to those with no internship experience at all (35% vs. 37% respectively). Meanwhile, those with a paid internship under their belts were found to be hired at a whopping 65%!
The Forbes summary of this study also shows that:
What’s even more astonishing is the pay disparity between those with paid, unpaid, and no internships. Those with unpaid internships tended to take lower-paying jobs than those with no internship experience whatsoever ($35,721 and $37,087, respectively). Students with paid internships far outpaced their peers with an average $51,930 salary. This study shows that those who completed an unpaid internship stood to make less when they began to work than those with no internship experience at all!
The numbers say it all. An unpaid internship does no more for you than no internship at all, except demand numerous hours of work you don’t get paid for. It can even be a disadvantage, showing potential employers that you don’t value yourself and can be paid less. We need to call out unpaid internships for what they are. Rachel Burger is unwilling to call an unpaid internship “slavery” since at the end of the day it’s voluntary. Fine. Let’s go with “indentured servitude.” A rose by any other name would still be called exploitation. An internship where you get paid, on the other hand, can seriously boost your hireability and starting salary potential.
Established Companies or Startups?
This question comes up all the time. Is it better for your career to intern with a large and recognized firm, or is the fast-paced and dynamic atmosphere of a startup a better place to get your feet wet? Both these company environments have advantages and disadvantages which you’ll need to consider in order to make the decision that’s right for you.
The most obvious advantage of interning for an established, larger company is its recognizability. Hiring managers are understandably impressed by seeing respected companies that they’re familiar with on resumes. Additionally, interning with a larger company means you get to experience from the inside how a large company operates, structurally and socially. What’s important to keep in mind is that a large company is highly segmented. You’ll likely work with a specific team within a specific area. This means that you get a lot of technical skill and exposure in a highly-focused area.
The flip side is that what you gain in focus you lose in breadth. A startup or small firm is all hands on deck. Everyone working in a small team has to help out to complete project tasks and goals with flexibility and creativity. The nature of the work can and will change very quickly, so be prepared to find yourself exposed to a much, much wider range of operational functions, while gaining more technical skill and experience over a broader area of expertise.
The highly-focused skillset you get in a large company is often very specific to that company’s internal processes, but that depth may not be all that transferable. The broader, more general, and fast-on-your-feet experience of working in a startup will likely give you a richer experience, with more practical and highly-transferable job skills to add to your repertoire. You will also be more likely to receive more mentoring with fewer institutional boundaries compared to the intern-level status at a large company. All this means that you will be more of a team member as an intern at a startup than you ever could be in a large company.
At the end of the day, you have to choose an internship that works for you. It can be very tempting to nab the very first internship you’re offered. But this is playing a sort of Russian roulette with your career and your time. Do your homework, ask questions, and consider all of your options. Make sure you get a chance to tour the jobsite and meet some of your potential team members. When making your decision, some key factors you should consider include:
- Perks and compensation;
- Stated (and ideally actual) job requirements;
- Team-members you will work with;
- Exposure and experience opportunities (e.g. will you get to try your hand at important work or are you just expected to do data entry?)
- Social and professional ambience (i.e. the vibe)
- Potential professional networking opportunities;
- Realistic likelihood to benefit your career ambitions;
- Observations and opinions of past and present interns.
Make sure to ask questions and really listen to the answers. Think about how your impressions jive with your expectations and make sure to balance your options in favor of what will work best for you and your career path. It’s also great to talk your decision over with others, ideally professionals in your field, as well as those with recent experience. You may also want to consider profession career counseling from an expert familiar with your sector or industry. A well thought-out decision based on all the facts available (as well as your gut) is your best bet for getting meaningful and helpful experience out of your internship.
Best of luck!