Once, a college diploma meant access to entry-level jobs — jobs that provide relatively stable work arrangements with health insurance and biweekly paychecks.
But in the last decade, post-graduate internships have become the norm: Graduate from college; take a un- or under-paid gig in your field that will, the thinking goes, open the gates to a promising (and gainfully employed) future in some number of months.
“It’s just kind of this expectation,” says writer and researcher Miya Tokumitsu, whose upcoming book, “Do What You Love: and Other Lies About Success and Happiness” takes on the mythologies of contemporary work culture. “Unless you’re going to law school, or some other very clear pathway, you’re just going to do an internship. It’s assumed.”
Internships are one manifestation of what researchers Kathleen Kuehn and Thomas F. Corrigan call “hope labour,” Tokumitsu explains, which they define as “un- or undercompensated work, often performed in exchange for experience and exposure in hopes that future work will follow.”
But here’s the complicating factor: That’s not necessarily untrue, Tokumitsu tells Business Insider. Despite their potential hazards — chief among them the possibility that un- and low-paid internships drive wages down — internships truly can be on ramps to careers.
“As much as I have issues with internships, you kind of need those reference letters, and those connections really can help,” she says. And so for recent grads and career changers, the fact remains: You’re likely getting an internship.
If you’re going to intern, though, you want to be intentional about it, Tokumitsu stresses. Here’s what to consider before signing on:
1. “Can I actually afford this internship?”
“Realistically, can you support yourself with this position?” asks Tokumitsu. Can you do it without taking on credit card debt? Are you willing to? If you would be drawing upon other sources of financial support — your savings, your partner, your parents — how much are you willing to take? And what would you be willing to sacrifice to emerge from the gig debt free? “Consider duration,” she advises. “Perhaps you’d be willing to put in a few months, but not a full year.”
2. “What tangible benefits am I going to get from this?”
“If it’s not going to be money, or a lot of money, ask yourself what tangible things are you going to get out of this internship,” Tokumitsu says. It’s easy to assume that because you’re not being paid, you must be getting something worthwhile out of this, but that’s not necessarily the case. It might be! But also, it might not be.
“I think people kind of get stars in their eyes if they see a big name,” she says, but if you’re one of 50 interns and you’re there six months and you’re probably going to get a form reference letter at the end of it, the big name might not be worth your time. Think about who you’ll meet and what you’ll get to do on the job. Will you get meaningful references? Substantial networking opportunities? Real career sponsorship? Will you have opportunities to stand out from all the other interns in your field?
Proximity to the work you’d actually like to be doing in the future is potentially useful, but proximity alone isn’t enough.
(Also worth noting: All of these things are worth asking about in your interviews for the position. “You’re totally within your rights,” Tokumitsu promises.)
3. “How long am I willing to be an intern?”
Tokumitsu points to a 2014 New York Times article about permanent interns — educated millennials who find themselves in an endless loop of internships with no end (or salaried job) in sight. Even if you do decide an internship is the way to go for now — and there’s a good chance it is — it can’t be the way to go forever.
The dominant narrative may be that if you hustle, work hard, and pay your dues, you’ll set yourself up for success, but the Fed report tells another story. “If you keep doing that, and that’s all you do for the better part of your first decade in the workforce, you’re really shortchanging yourself down the line,” Tokumitsu says.
4. “Do I understand my (lack of) legal protections?”
“Understand that if you agree to an unpaid internship, you are very likely waiving your right to the basic labour protections of the Fair Labour Standards Act (FLSA), which doesn’t cover ‘trainees,'” Tokumitsu cautions.
While it varies by state (The Huffington Post has a map of coverage here), it’s likely you won’t have legal recourse if you experience sexual harassment, workplace bullying, or discrimination on the basis of race, disability, sexual orientation, or pregnancy, she explains.”I think that’s probably not going to dissuade many interns, but it’s important to have that out there.”
5. “Have I considered my other options?”
Finally, while interning is an option, it isn’t the only option — and, depending on your circumstances, it’s possible that another path could serve you as well, if not better.
Taking a service or retail job for money and pursuing your own projects on your off-hours may not be a fantasy set-up, but Tokumitsu emphasises that it can work.
“One of the things that kind of work offers you is not just a paycheck, but a shift that actually ends,” she points out. “After you clock off, you’re really done.” It’s not necessarily ideal — and she’s the first to acknowledge it’s not easy, but it could, she suggests, be an alternative way to pay the bills while working towards your own goals.
It can feel risky to step off the seeming path to white collar success — and that feeling isn’t necessarily wrong — but putting your all into a 50-hour-a-week, minimally paid internship is also risky. It’s just that we tend to forget that part.
Perhaps that’s the biggest takeaway here: It’s not that internships are, as Tokumitsu puts it, “blanketly not worth doing.” It’s just that they don’t come with guarantees. “The truth is, they can really pay off,” she says. But the other truth? “They don’t, necessarily.” The trick is to weigh the risks — and that means going in with your eyes open.
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