I don’t think Diane Sawyer would’ve worried or complained about being an unpaid journalism intern. I can’t see her waiting around for her college’s career services center to place her in an internship. I envision her beating down doors to get the best opportunities she needed to perfect her writing, research and her on-camera presence, build her professional network – and, not to mention, craft her non-regional dialect of course. Her focus? Her opportunities. Not her limitations.

This recent NY Times article about unpaid internships compelled me to share my thoughts my internships two years after graduation from college, where I did four unpaid internships.

I have an admittedly odd take on unpaid internships.  Students work for free but have to pay for college credit. The companies they work for can say they are paying they student with credit. (The student paid for the credit…so the student is basically paying to work for free…so…um…get it?)

All that said, if I was a college student all over again looking for PR, marketing or journalism internships…here’s my take: I would not turn down learning opportunities at great companies just because they weren’t paid.

I know that’s controversial, but it’s true.

I took issue with several things in this article. I disagree with this:

“Colleges shouldn’t publicize unpaid internships at for-profit companies. They should discourage internship requirements for graduation — common practice in communications, psychology, social work and criminology. They should stop charging students to work without pay — and ensure that the currency of academic credit, already cheapened by internships, doesn’t lose all its value.”

Like I said, at face-value making students pay for academic credit for unpaid internships seems shady. But those were honestly the best college credits I paid for. And as far as the “cheapening of college credit”… Seriously? I’ve benefitted much more from internships than from a lot of the theory they teach in classes. I was delighted to skip out on that stuff that wasn’t going teach me to deliver value for a business, get into an office environment and learn skills that’d make me marketable upon graduation.

Discouraging internship requirements for graduation isn’t going to solve the problem of huge companies not paying their interns. It’s just going to lessen the likelihood that college students are going to take these vital professional opportunities for their careers. That makes them less likely to get jobs upon graduation. Quick! Name all the under or unemployed ’09 or ’10 graduates you can think of… without taking a breath. We’ll be here all night… The last thing we need to do is discourage students whatsoever from gaining this valuable experience.

Like the intensely career-driven 24-year-old I am today, I was a die-hard 19, 20 and 21-year-old as well. I aggressively pursued internships. I did five in college in various areas of marketing, PR and journalism. Then I graduated in the economic shitshow known as May 2009 and moved to Boston two weeks later for a paid internship at a PR agency in Boston. A paycheck?! For the first time?! I was thrilled.

I did a ton of free work throughout college other than internships. I ran my college’s newspaper for free. I did PR campaigns for local businesses through this student-run integrated marketing agency, PRIMA Connections for free. This free work helped me build a portfolio that I could bring with me to those internship interviews – where I would work… for free.

If I were a college student today, I wouldn’t wait around for a minute for my career center to place me in an internship. Why? Because the job market doesn’t work that way. Life doesn’t work that way, either. Your college career center isn’t going to be there for you after college to pick your apartments, find you a dentist in a new city, find you a boyfriend who calls you back – none of that. Remember: good things come to those who wait, but only what is left behind by those who hustle. Some would argue that things like a career center is what you are paying a college for. I would argue that if you are a communications student like I was, you are paying a college to support opportunities like a school newspaper etc for you to hone your skills in addition to internships. I didn’t pay St. John Fisher for daycare, thanks.

Again, I would not turn down an opportunity I really wanted because it didn’t pay. You might have to work weekends or do the internship part-time to make time during the week for a part-time job. Most importantly, remember: You are not above Starbucks!

(Side note: If we’re going to take up real estate in the NY Times to talk about issues of unpaid internships, let’s really focus on the people for whom this isn’t an option. Perhaps single parents maybe who don’t have time for school + unpaid internship + jobs?)

When I was an unpaid intern, I complained a lot to my unpaid intern friends about the unfairness of the fact that I wasn’t being paid. It was really exhausting to wake up, work out, go to an internship all day, go straight to the restaurant, work all night, then come home…and do that all week and/or weekend.

So was this always fun? No, it was stressful a lot of times. But it was my time to pay my dues. A little hard work never hurt anyone, in fact – all that hard work helped prepare me for what I’m doing now. And that’s exactly what internships are supposed to do – prepare you for your career. I am glad I did what I did and I would do it again in a heartbeat.

The NY Times article recalls the “plight” of unpaid WNBC intern Will Batson who “scrambled for shelter” during his summer internship in NYC. To Mr. Batson and other unpaid interns I say this:

One day, gentrified and successful, you will be married and live in a house on a cul-de-saq with things like “sofas” and “duvet covers.” You will have non coin-op washers and dryers from legitimate stores like Jordans and not Craigslist or the side of the road. Your fridge will be stocked with essentials other than Bud Light and hot sauce and when the hand soap runs out you’ll buy new handsoap instead of passive-aggressively re-filling it with water until your roommate buys new handsoap. You may have a salary, 401k and savings. Most of all you, will have security. You will have certainty. You will have a career. You may attend block parties or BBQ’s with other former unpaid interns. After a few too many you might talk about college or that crazy summer you spent in NYC couch-hopping and how much fun it was. You’ll laugh until your stomach hurts.

If we really focus on our opportunities and not our limitations things work out in the end. I hope so. I’ll let you know.

In your late teens and early twenties (your unpaid internship and entry-level years) I think there’s this balance of being really comfortable, but yet at the same time being really uncomfortable, with the uncertainty that defines those years. How so? What do I mean? My discomfort at ages 19 through 22ish with not knowing exactly what kind of PR/marketing/journalism (or maybe law school? I considered a lot of things…) job I wanted after graduation or not having a job lined up drove me to internships. Action comforted me because it gave me direction. Being “just” someone’s unpaid intern wasn’t the most glamorous role. But I was comforted by the certainty that I was definitely gaining great experience at that moment, yet simultaneously discomforted by the fact that I so badly wanted to do more than that and earn more than that one day.

So that’s where I am today: content yet restless. Happy but unsatisfied, I’m constantly driven to do better and learn more. Oh and I get paid now, not in tips, and I don’t wear a name-tag, apron or tuxedo to work. That still feels really cool.

18 Comments on The Unpaid Intern: All Grown Up

  1. Mike Champion
    April 13, 2011 at 3:23 am (7 years ago)

    Well articulated. This prompted me to look up that Diane Sawyer got her foot in the door by working for Richard Nixon!

    Also, we’re totally doing Tuxedo Day now.

    • Janet Aronica
      April 13, 2011 at 11:23 am (7 years ago)

      Lol I got served! I think I should be able to find a picture of me in a tuxedo somewhere might have to share that.

  2. Anonymous
    April 13, 2011 at 5:09 am (7 years ago)

    I digg this so much that I have things to say. But you’ve said most of them. I’ve had four internships to date (graduating in may) and I’m not freelancing.

    Other students at my school are too bougie for unpaid, they can’t “afford” or don’t have “time” for them. I agree with you about the whole, why pay your school for working at another company thing. But to that extent, I just didn’t do my internships for school credit, ever. Instead I took classes that were valuable. Some students, regardless of major should consider that, I think. If you wanna do digital media, go take a programming course instead of an unpaid internship or something useful.

    I personally think that traditional college students have it the best. While we are often broken and call Top Ramen cuisine we still have some sense of security and flexibility. I bet most parents would love to go to their boss and say, “Yea, I can’t work M,W,F until after 12pm and I have to leave T, TR by 4pm.”

    Even though we all gripe about our unpaid internships we are moving in a positive direction while possibly going in the hole. It’s comparable to student loans. They are loans, yes but they are “good” loans, to benefit your future.

    I’m done adding on to your awesome rant.

    • Janet Aronica
      April 13, 2011 at 11:22 am (7 years ago)

      Thanks, I agree with so many of your points! Yep there are tons of kids out there who legit can’t afford unpaid internships. There are also tons of kids who “can’t afford” unpaid internships – they say that as an excuse.

      Anyway yea I did some internships for credit and others not for credit, I kind of had to juggle that around. Some places require it for insurance purposes or something, but it was nice those semesters to have one less class to take and do just do the internship + 15 other things I was doing 🙂

      Thanks for reading!

  3. Zach Cole
    April 13, 2011 at 7:24 am (7 years ago)

    Interesting take. You definitely make some amazing points here, and I couldn’t agree more that I, much like you, have benefitted extraordinarily from the unpaid internship system. That said, I still find some extreme flaws with the system as a whole (paid and unpaid). I’m waiting until I graduate to fully unleash my thoughts, but they are on their way. Great food for thought here, Janet!

    • Janet Aronica
      April 13, 2011 at 11:14 am (7 years ago)

      I want a Zach Cole internship rant post! 🙂

      • Zach Cole
        April 13, 2011 at 5:26 pm (7 years ago)

        Coming soon to a blog near you… Summer 2011.

  4. Fabrice Louis-Broyld
    April 13, 2011 at 10:20 am (7 years ago)

    This has seriously made my day. I work one full-time job, one part-time job and go to school full-time (finishing TWO degrees). So, for obvious reasons, I have always (in the proper manner) rejected unpaid internships. But it’s those same internships that would allow me to demonstrate my skill in an industry that places site experience over educational background. This has definitely been a “wakeup call” week and this article was yet another alarm for me! Thanks, luv.


    • Janet Aronica
      April 13, 2011 at 11:12 am (7 years ago)

      It’s tough! I would just encourage you to figure out some way to play the college student card while you can, get through these couple of years money and job-wise if possible and get internships. Also, not sure which industry you’re in, but depending on your experience already there may be remote freelancing/intern opportunities (like social media stuff) that you can do on your own time and it’ll build your resume and contacts. Good luck. 🙂

  5. Brooke S.
    April 13, 2011 at 1:24 pm (7 years ago)

    While I am not totally opposed to unpaid internships, I think they can be avoided.

    In college, I had one really amazing internship that happened to carry me through many semesters, including the summers. Did I get lucky? Not really. Did I network with people to find that internship? Sure did! I interned part time while going to school and doing extra-curriclar activities. I treated that internship as a very long job interview – one that I was getting paid for.

    The problem with unpaid internships is that many of them boast the fact that you’ll be “surrounded” or “immersed” in, let’s say, the marketing aspects of the company. However, many people just find themselves surrounded by the filing room, mail room, or supply closet. It’s these kinds of internships that shouldn’t go unpaid, and quite frankly shouldn’t be called internships.

    Janet, you say you learned a lot from these unpaid internships, but I’m sure you evaluated them to the fullest, comparing some paid and some unpaid – where could you learn the most? Where would you have the best mentors? Where would you be challenged? If the answers led you to something unpaid, then I totally agree – unpaid is the way to go if you can mangage it. Some people can’t rely on their parents to pay for car insurance, gas, their cell phone, and life in general. Some colleges don’t give credit for internships.

    All in all, I could go either way on this topic, but I believe people should be paid if they are given responsibilities, deliverables, and deadlines. It’s that simple. Pay them minimum wage if you want!

    How different is the concept of your job today vs. your internships? We’re still young and learning A LOT, but would you take a job for free today to gain more exposure? Ehhh…..probably not, lol.

    • Anonymous
      April 13, 2011 at 3:28 pm (7 years ago)

      Hey there! Agree on your point re: copy rooms/mail rooms. What what really really sucks is when someone DOES take an unpaid opportunity and then they find themselves making copies or something all summer. Then they really probably felt like it wasn’t at all worth the struggle of working a job on the side + doing the unpaid internship because it was a crappy experience. For my evaluation of opportunities, talking to people who’d had the internships in semesters before me was very valuable. Everyone was pretty honest whether or not is was just making copies or if I’d get to do some cool stuff.

      For me, I wouldn’t have been able to pick just one internship to stick with. I admire people who are focused like that. I know some that started out as unpaid interns but got paid 6 months later. I needed to try a ton of different things because honestly I was really mentally young I didn’t know what I wanted. Internships were my way of figuring that out career-wise. 🙂

  6. Dayngr
    April 13, 2011 at 2:34 pm (7 years ago)

    Excellent advice from someone who’s clearly been there and done that. Nicely written and based on how well written and how well spoken you are – I never would have guessed you were 24!

    • Anonymous
      April 13, 2011 at 3:19 pm (7 years ago)

      Aww that’s so sweet of you to say I’m glad you read this. 🙂

  7. Mary Faulkner
    April 14, 2011 at 5:32 pm (7 years ago)

    I think this begs the question, if you’re not willing to do the work for no money, is this really the right job for you?? We spend a huge part of our lives at work. IMHO the opportunity to learn what a career or industry is REALLY like is worth far more than an intern’s salary, and if you’re not willing to do it for free, at least for a little while, that’s not a good sign. Sounds like you picked the right path for yourself, though, Janet! Thanks for the interesting post.

    • Anonymous
      April 14, 2011 at 6:47 pm (7 years ago)

      I’ve never heard that argument before! But I see your point. A lot of what I do doesn’t feel like work, it honestly is fun for me. I generally just love the internet and writing and much of my job involves those two things. It’s stressful but fun. I wish everyone felt that way about their job 🙂

  8. Michelle Burnett
    April 14, 2011 at 7:50 pm (7 years ago)

    See, the thing is, as a journalism student, I also had internships all the way through school – but I always made sure I was paid for them. I didn’t have Mommy and Daddy paying my bills, and I also didn’t want to take out a gajillion dollars in student loans. So I worked as a “stringer” for the local newspaper – and got paid. When I didn’t have stories to write, I worked in the ad paste-up department – and got paid. I also worked at my college newspaper – as a writer, editor, managing editor and finally editor-in-chief – and always got paid. I got paid peanuts, but it was money.

    “If you’re good at something, never do it for free.” The Joker said that in The Dark Knight, and truer words were never spoken. Big businesses hire free interns to do work that could be done full-time by a salaried employee with benefits. What they’re calling “work experience” usually translates to “taking advantage of youth and inexperience to get grunt work done without paying for it.” And the kicker is, the work product is usually poor, but internship programs are so badly structured, the intern doesn’t get any real substantive feedback on their work and they don’t end up learning anything. Whereas if someone is PAYING you for a work product, you better believe they will let you know if the product is not up to standards.

    Of course people should have passion for their work, blah blah blah. But I am with the NYT – I don’t get why it’s OK to hire free interns instead of real employees, in any field. Pay the damn interns. You will get better products and they will actually learn something, and be able to pay their bills to boot.

    • Anonymous
      April 14, 2011 at 9:16 pm (7 years ago)

      Love lots of your points and especially your passion! I’m glad you commented. Still sticking to my feeling though that if I were a college student today, I would not limit my internship applications to just paid opportunities for fields like PR, marketing, journalism etc. Do I wish interns got paid? Yes. Do I think companies try to get grunt work done for free? Of course. Do I think that is changing any time soon? Unfortunately, no. 🙁 So that’s why I don’t think college students should limit their applications to paid opportunities because the internship hiring process can get competitive and I wouldn’t want to see kids not do an internship at all because they limited their searches too much.

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