Unpaid Internships: Criteria to Consider

Last week, I touched upon your rights (of sorts) when it comes to unpaid internships. That post naturally started to drift into the criteria you might use to evaluate a “good” unpaid internship. So in keeping with that direction, here are some qualities of an acceptable unpaid internship.

No thumbs up

  • The internship involves real work. Most internship horror stories involve unpaid internships in which interns do nothing more than fetch coffee and make copies. Every “real” job involves some amount of grunt work, so you should expect some in an internship, too. However, it should never make up the bulk of your work tasks. If an unpaid internship consists almost entirely of menial work, I would pass.
  • Your work tasks are at an intern-appropriate level. While you should be doing real work as an intern, that work should be at a para-professional level. For example, you shouldn’t be the solo in-house PR person (i.e. professional level), but you should be working with a full-time PR professional in the organization. As an intern, you are still learning and should be working under the supervision of an experienced professional in the given area. While an internship that looks advanced might be appealing, you would be making a substantial contribution that goes well beyond the purview of an internship, especially one that’s not paid. Proceed at your own risk.
  • The internship posting provides a complete description of the position. When I’m coaching employers on creating an internship, I encourage them to think about what specifically they want an intern to do and to craft a thorough job description for the opportunity. While a good internship will allow for some flexibility for your goals and for new, unanticipated projects, much of the role should be in place well before you start work. If you find an internship posting that isn’t very clear about the work you will be doing, it could potentially lead you into an abusive internship situation.
  • You will have a specific supervisor. Sometimes you might not have this information at the time you apply. If you get to the point of interviewing, make sure to ask about the supervision you will receive as part of the internship. Who will your supervisor be? What is his/her background in the field? How will supervision be structured? How will feedback be delivered? An internship is a learning experience, so you want to know who your “teacher” will be.
  • The internship is with a non-profit organization. As I stated in last week’s post, non-profit organizations don’t fall under the same “rules” and guidelines when it comes to unpaid internships. It doesn’t mean that all unpaid internships with non-profits are legit – an unpaid internship with a non-profit should still entail real work that is clearly outlined from the outset, is appropriate for a student intern, and is supervised by an experienced professional. But if you see an unpaid internship with a lucrative for-profit organization, I would question it. While some unpaid internships with up-and-coming for-profits might not be a problem (ex. with a start-up company), a large organization that makes a huge profit should have no reason to bring on unpaid interns. Despite the issues with the lawsuit, I agree that a major  studio making millions of dollars off a movie can afford to pay their interns minimum wage. There is likely no good reason for a for-profit company to offer unpaid internships. I would tread cautiously…or maybe even run away very fast in the opposite direction.

My final piece of advice when it comes to evaluating an unpaid internship – Consult. Email me or schedule an appointment with me to discuss the internship you are considering.

Photo by Adventures of Pam & Frank


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