As a Career Girl, you’ve probably had a summer internship or might have a summer intern in your office right now. Internships can be great for everyone involved — more work gets done, job experience is gained, networks are formed. But I’ve found that it is also very easy for an internship not to reach it’s full potential, and become — unfortunately — a disappointment.
There’s been a lot of debate recently about the legality of unpaid internships. After nearly six years in school, I’ve had a total of seven internships: of my seven internships, five of them were unpaid, two were for class credit, and one of those led to a freelance opportunity later. Of these experiences, the most valuable ones were unpaid.
If money isn’t a factor, then what exactly makes an internship truly valuable? I believe it is a combination of a few factors, and whether you are thinking about doing an internship or taking on a new intern, here’s what you might want to consider:
- Do you have the time to invest in an internship? This question is most often asked of the incoming intern, and it is an important one. If you’re taking classes, realistically assess how many days a week you can commit. I’ve heard internship coordinators complain that students bail the second they have a final or paper due. The best way to keep this in check is to really be on top of your schedule from the beginning of the semester or quarter, and to make sure everyone is aware of what weeks might be an issue. Suggest that you alter your schedule during those weeks. If you are an internship supervisor, the question of time is equally important. Do you have room in your schedule to answer questions and check in? A weekly lunch goes a long way. I’ve also seen many offices that pass out tasks to interns in order to alleviate their burdens, which is a great opportunity for an intern to step up. But also ask what might happen if the product the intern provides does not work out — is there a backup plan? If your office door is closed 90 percent of the day, it can be difficult for an intern to complete a task he or she might have a question about. Remember that they also want to learn from you, and in order for them to do that, you also need to be present.
- What can you teach and learn? Again, an internship is a two-way street. While an intern can learn more about a particular job field, he or she can also provide a fresh outlook. As an intern, I often explained a new program to a boss or showed employees how to use a particular website. I could teach my boss something new, while he or she provided me with career guidance and advice in other areas. We each had our strengths, but beware — the danger of this is when an intern is relied on to complete tasks no one else in the office seems to know how to do. Make sure someone else is trained on how to follow through once that intern returns to school.
- What are the incentives and benefits? We usually answer this question with “experience,” but is experience simply the chance to sit in the office around other professionals, or is it the chance to actually contribute to a project and create something? This is where some of my unpaid internships fell short. While I was able to contribute, I had no physical product to take away to show future employers. Now that I’m on my seventh internship, having some sort of recognition for work done is a major factor. If I’m writing an article or editing a video, I now ask ahead of time if I will receive credit or a byline for that work. As an undergraduate student just starting out, this was less important, but I did appreciate those companies that gave me the chance to build on my portfolio. In some cases, I would have just been happy if the employer put me on the website as an intern, and most companies did.
It can be easy for an intern and company to pair up for the sake of filling a spot, but it’s important for both sides to look at what they want and can get out of the internship. Whether an internship is paid or unpaid, it should adequately use the talents of the intern — otherwise, both sides lose out. Interns and companies must work together as partners to make the “experience” the best it can be.