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Are Unpaid Internships Worth the Price?

Questions every candidate should ask

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Most students have heard success stories of interns later hired for lucrative jobs, as well as horror stories of interns relegated to dead-end gigs making photocopies. Photo by Amy Laskowski

When Micah Steiger began an internship with the Charles River Watershed Association, he was well aware that he wouldn’t be paid. And while the work isn’t exactly what Steiger (CAS’10) hopes to do after graduation, he thinks it might offer him valuable insight into his chosen field: the environmental analysis and policy industry.

“You do an unpaid internship for the experience,” Steiger says. “Some people have this unrealistic idea that they’re going to get their dream job right out of college, and that’s not true. It’s not perfect, but it’s also up to the intern to work there for a little while and start taking on more tasks.”

With the economy stuck in neutral, unpaid internships can seem the best way to get a foot in the door. Most students have heard success stories of interns later hired for lucrative jobs, as well as horror stories of interns relegated to dead-end gigs shredding paper and fetching coffee. Unfortunately, it’s hard to know before the experience if an internship will pay off with a paying job, but it probably won’t hurt your chances. The National Association of Colleges and Employers 2009 Student Survey reports that 23 percent of grads who had interned received a job, while only 14 percent of students who didn’t intern found work. The survey also reveals that less than 20 percent of the class of 2009 who applied for jobs had one by the end of last April.

Rachel Sprung (COM’11, SMG’11) says that her unpaid internship helped her gain experience that jump-started her career and led to future opportunities. “They told me at the end of the internship that they considered my role to be equal to an assistant account executive,” she says,“and I was only a freshman.”

So what are jobless graduates to do? One thing they should do, according to a recent article in the New York Times, is make sure their internship is legal. The paper reports that some states, including New York and California, are cracking down on overly exploitive unpaid internships.

There are, in fact, several federal legal criteria that must be met if an internship is unpaid. They include requirements that training should be similar to “academic educational instruction,” should be for the benefit of the trainee, and should not displace regular employees. Also, both the employer and the trainee should understand the agreement.

Scott Timmins, the assistant dean of the Feld Career Center at the School of Management, says that mutual understanding is key to a rewarding experience. At BU, says Timmins, unpaid internships made up only 17 percent of all internships offered through the MBA program last summer. (The Times reports that some experts estimate that a quarter to half of all internships nationwide are unpaid.)

In Timmins’ experience some unpaid internships, as is true with paid internships, are more exploitive than others. In fields such as fashion, sports, journalism, and other types of media, he says, jobs are in such high demand that employers don’t have to pay. “They have a long line of people who will do it just to get their foot in the door,” he says.

And that line may be getting longer. The New York Times cites numbers from the Stanford University Career Development Center showing that 643 unpaid internships were posted this academic year, more than triple the 174 posted two years ago.

Timmins advises students considering unpaid internships to ask themselves some basic questions. “They should ask if this is a dream role and company for you, meaning is it résumé-worthy,” he says. “If it is, then factor in the benefits. It could be that it’s a huge background-builder, experience-demonstrator, and comes with results and accomplishments. If it is, then you might want to consider it.”

Timmins says that while the company may not be able to pay wages, students should ask about the possibility of a travel stipend or other noncash compensation, such as housing. He also suggests that students talk to a career counselor about their internship decision.

Kimberly DelGizzo, the director of Career Services, recommends that students find out up front what their role and responsibilities will be. “Sit down with the person to clarify your expectations, share your learning goals, and tell them what you’re hoping to gain from the experience,” she says.

When there’s an offer on the table, students should ask for it in writing, she says, which can help clarify their role. If that isn’t possible, DelGizzo urges students to create their own document, detailing their understanding of the internship and its responsibilities. They can then send the document to the employer to see if they’re on the same page.

If they are on the same page, says Timmins, and if the internship is a mutual opportunity, “it can be a beautiful thing.”

“They’re looking at what a student can do, and the student is looking at the company,” he says. “Think of it as a two- to three-month job interview.”

Amy Laskowski can be reached at amlaskow@bu.edu; follow her on Twitter at @amlaskow.

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