31 Jul 2012

Tips to Protect Yourself as an Intern: A Cautionary Tale

Melissa Reyes’ internship was a bust. After graduating from Marist College with a degree in fashion merchandising, Reyes was excited to learn she had been selected for an internship position at the Diane von Furstenberg fashion house in Manhattan. She had every reason to believe that the position would provide her with professional skills, which, in turn would help further her career. Instead, Reyes became expert in the arts of fetching lunch and running errands. Far from reviewing the season’s fashions, she was sent to clean out her manager’s closets. Moreover, Reyes never anticipated that she would be expected to work twelve hour days–9am to 9pm–five days a week. She kept reminding herself that she had landed an enviable internship that would certainly stand out on her resume. It didn’t help.

Horror stories like Reyes’ are (sadly) fairly common and should remind us to be cautious when considering an internship position. In this blog entry, I will first suggest strategies for students to track down meaningful work. Following this, I will provide tips for turning a disappointing internship into a meaningful experience and discuss whether it’s appropriate for interns to quit a bad post.

What is an internship and how is it different from paid work or volunteering?

The distinction between interns, paid workers and volunteers is, in fact, not arbitrary. Whereas volunteers and paid workers commit time and skills to serve an organization or cause, interns work to better themselves. In other words, an internship—much like going to school—serves to further the intern’s job readiness and personal growth. Making this distinction reminds us that a legitimate internship will amount to more than a resume entry–it provides challenging and meaningful work in an area where a student has real interest.

Federal law requires unpaid internships to meet six criteria. Two of these criteria reinforce what has been stated above: An internship’s primary purpose is to train students to perform tasks associated with a certain career. Another of these criteria maintains that unpaid interns cannot displace paid employees. Unpaid interns, that is, cannot perform operations essential to a business. They are necessarily redundant so they can focus on learning.

Of course, most internship programs don’t fully meet these criteria—and that’s OK. Interns should expect to do some unskilled work that benefits the company more than themselves. Such work, however, should complement rather than replace the training and projects that foster professional growth.

So, a true internship provides professional training. How, then, do I ensure my internship experience will be a valuable one?

1.) Before you start looking for your internship, define what you want to get out of the experience.

Finding an internship to further your growth will be nearly impossible if you haven’t first defined your goals. Before you even begin looking and applying for internships, take some time to consider the experiences you wish to gain.

Vague goals like “I wish to gain experience working at an art gallery” must be refined. If your expectations are unclear, research the tasks professionals in your field of interest typically perform. An internship should refine—not found—your understanding of what it’s like to work in a particular field.

2.) Talk to students who have interned in your field of interest.

Your friends are a goldmine for internship information! Asking your friends about their internship experiences will help you identify qualities to look for in a program. Good questions include:

  • Was the internship what they expected? Why or why not?
  • What was their favorite/least favorite part of the internship?
  • What aspects of the internship caused them to grow most?
  • What professional skills did the internship help them develop? What projects or assignments contributed most to these skills?
  • After completing the internship, do they still feel excited about a career in the field?


3.) Interview your Interviewer!

You’ve done your research, defined your goals, and you’ve just received a call asking you to interview for a position you’re really psyched about! Hooray!

The interview is an important time for you to not just impress a potential employer, but also discover if the internship is indeed a good fit. Be sure to ask your interviewer about the specific tasks and duties you’ll be expected to perform and make it clear that you are excited to contribute

Other questions to ask:

  • Will you please describe a typical day for interns at your company?
  • Are interns at your company paired with a mentor? How much opportunity do interns have to interact with supervisors and paid staff?
  • What skills do interns develop by working at your company?
  • Are interns permitted to attend meetings? If so, how frequently?

Finally, don’t be afraid to ask about opportunities to gain experience doing tasks or assignments that you’re especially interested in. By asking about this, you will not only determine whether this internship will help you meet your goals, but you will also demonstrate motivation, initiative and eagerness to learn.

4.) Keep in mind: A paid internship is not necessarily better than an unpaid one.

Unpaid internships are not always un-serious. Many companies, especially in the non-profit sector, offer amazing unpaid internships that will provide experience, training, and insight into the field.

What happens if your internship turns out to be less than expected?

Don’t lose hope or motivation if you find yourself working a disappointing internship. As Kayla Riley for Her Campus explains, it’s not uncommon for interns to have a lot of downtime. “Think of your next internship as an extended job interview,” she writes, “and prove that bullet point on your resume that says you’re ‘self-motivated.” If you find yourself with a lot of downtime between tasks, make it your own mission to come up with projects and activities that will be of use to the company and advance your skills. Someone will notice!

Along similar lines, don’t be discouraged if you’re asked to do some tedious work. Happily tending to menial tasks is a good way to demonstrate your flexibility, humility, and ability to work as a member of a team. Talk to your supervisor, however, if unskilled labor is the main thing you’re being asked to do. Politely explain that you can better serve the company by completing assignments that peak your interest and utilize your education and skills. Additionally, show your initiative by proposing a few projects or duties that you would like to take on.

No matter how bad the situation, do NOT act out or behave in a passive-aggressive manner. This is HIGHLY immature and unprofessional and it’s better to quit than to behave badly. If your manager is unsympathetic to a request for more challenging tasks, try and think of ways to make the best of your situation. Just being inside the office brings access to invaluable resources. Jump at any and every opportunity to speak to coworkers about their work. Also, spend downtime observing coworkers or researching the industry—rather than checking Facebook.

Finally, toughing out a bad situation not only builds character, but you will also appreciate it more when you land a better job.

Should I stay or should I go…?

Internships rarely last longer than a few months, so you should strive to survive even the most disappointing program and get a good review. Under some circumstances, however, you should absolutely quit. These include:

  • If your duties compel you to violate your values or moral beliefs.
  • If you are being sexually harassed or physically or verbally abused
  • If you are required to do something illegal
  • If you are manipulated or coerced into doing something that makes you uncomfortable


Resources for finding good internship programs:

The following websites provide excellent resources and advice for hunting down—and landing—the perfect internship.


These Key SAT Words are Expertly Identified by Sentia Tutors

Arbitrary: random; meaningless; haphazard
Coerce: to compel by force, intimidation, or authority

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