I’ve never had any internship, much less an unpaid one. In fact, the very concept is offensive to me. I worked in high school, waiting tables like most people I knew, and working construction in the summers. Once I was out of college, I took a year off after being accepted into graduate school. In that year, the only thing I did was learn how to make enough money to pay the rent, gas, and food. I’d never had to do that for myself and so I learned it, meager as my lifestyle may have been. When I got out of graduate school, it took me about a year to get a good job, mostly because I had no idea how to get a job and didn’t understand basic things like job hunting, following up, and I didn’t have good communication skills. I didn’t know that the world truly, truly did not give one single care for me — but, it was a more forgiving time and I was lucky.
It seems that lack of preparedness has not changed. That ignorance, combined with the buyer’s market of getting a job today, means that employers can screw you. The best way to do so is to promise “an experience” which many people, straight from school, equate with something positive. After all, wasn’t the learning experience in college itself sold as “an experience”? It seems familiar and there’s a reason for that. The same “experience” that many students get in college (not all mind you) that leaves them unprepared to compete for a job afterwards is the same “experience” that makes many believe that getting “an experience” is a good thing, even if it costs you money or puts you into debt. How can that be a good thing? It all seems a bit esoteric for the ultimate goal doesn’t it?
So, we went to school and we got an experience. We may have also gotten some hard skills, maybe lots, and we got some ability to think critically although that’s up for debate since even opinions seem to be far more by rote today than they should be. What we didn’t get was the ability to work as a team and fit in. We weren’t taught that companies mostly operate for their own success and we have to fit into that. This is why I see so many members of the military able to be successful quickly in careers (if you can get companies to hire them #warguilt and if they haven’t been driven insane #PTSD). They’ve been doing that for at least four years, maybe while getting shot at. If it’s one thing they know how to do it’s problem solve. You might say that the military was their internship.
But you need that experience, right? You’ve got to have it. You want to be able to present yourself as a full and lively product that an employer can immediately see value in. Keeping this in mind, you take an internship in your field that pays nothing aaaaand, if you’re like many people conned into these positions trying desperately to improve yourself you get stuck as an administrative assistant with a college degree. Then they work you eight all nighters over two weeks until you die. Hardly what you expected.
Look, work is like sex, if you’re willing to work for nothing in an internship with no concrete product or expectations at the end of it then don’t be surprised if your “employer” drops you off at the curve at the end of the night with a pat on the ass and a “take care, kid.” Not all unpaid internships will be like this but, also like sex, most will.
“Thanks for the work but this ain’t love.”
Don’t do it, even if you’re desperate. Think about it. If you’re so desperate to get paying work or experience that you’ll work for free then there is no work to be had in your field. Either find another field or another city to live in because you’ve worn that party out. Getting work isn’t about “an experience” it’s about “getting experience” and if you’re only getting experience changing copy paper and sending out company wide policy emails you didn’t write then you’re not getting any substantive experience whatsoever and no employer will take pity on you for this or hire you simply because it might be the right thing to do. There’s self respect at issue here. What employer wants to hire the guy or girl that settled for literally nothing? No one, that’s who.
Unpaid internships are for high school and college students. They’re not for graduates. If you’re currently being milked of your life with nothing in the future except for the memory of your employer’s wink and promise that “we like to hire internally” then get out now. Find something else to do. Be open to things and careers that can do something for you because your life is ultimately for you and what you demand for yourself is what people will come to deliver to you. It’s the ultimate bullshit filter.
Desperation stinks to everyone but there are greener pastures. Kick down the gate and find them.