Should You Take an Unpaid Internship?

April 3, 2013

Source: US News – Money Careers

our time as an undergraduate has passed. And like the flocks of other Millennials who have been out of college for a year or more, you find slim pickings when it comes to securing a full-time job related to your career aspirations.

Rather than whittle away at home or work 40 hours at a dead-end job, you contemplate an unpaid internship.

“Increasingly, it’s become common practice for recent college graduates to take on internships, paid and unpaid. It’s a reflection of a tight job market,” says Ross Perlin, author of “Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy.”

But before accepting any offers to labor away for free, here’s what you should ask.

What are the expectations? On paper, the internship seems like a real get, even if it’s unpaid. Still, it’s wise to have a solid grasp of what you’ll do and the amount of work. “It’s important to know exactly what you’re going to be graded on,” says Rich DeMatteo, founder of the career blog Corn on the Job, adding, “If you go into it and you’re not sure what’s going on, then you could be given a ton more than you signed on for.”

DeMatteo suggests researching the company, reaching out to its previous or current interns through sites like LinkedIn, and asking pointed questions about the position during the interview process.

Will you be overextended? Whether you’re unemployed or have a part-time job, it’s important not to let your unpaid internship consume all your time. “Set limits and within those limits, perform as capably as you can,” Perlin recommends.

Balance your time with other employment pursuits by setting a cap on your weekly availability, detailing what tasks you’re willing to perform, and restricting weekends. “You can’t forget the fact that you’re not getting paid. Nobody should be losing sight of that,” he adds.

Does the internship have more promise than previous ones? This isn’t your first go at the intern rodeo. Rather, it may be your fourth or fifth.

Perlin refers to this as the “internship trap,” where one low- or no-paying position after another fails to produce permanent employment.

If the latest variation doesn’t bare employment fruit or add skills that increase the likelihood of landing a job at the organization or elsewhere, it may not be worth it. “A certain kind of burnout can set in under those circumstances,” Perlin says.

Could it settle a career path? Maybe you have a series of internships under your belt, but none left you clamoring to enter a particular field. Going through with another may give you some clarity. “If you’re not sure if a career is right for you, completing an internship is one of the best ways to find out,” writes Yair Riemer in an email. Riemer is the vice president of global marketing at CareerArc Group, the parent company of Internships.com.

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