No one likes to hear the words “unpaid internship.” It carries with it the connotation of a glorfied coffee runner or file clerk that can be abused or manipulated into doing a task for the veiled promise of a job. With law suits being filed against companies for using their interns as integral parts of their work force, it makes for a pretty strong argument that all internships should be paid. And while I agree, I don’t think we’re going to see that happen anytime soon. That leaves media students scrambling in the competitive market of paid internships and many others being left in the dust.
So, when should you take an unpaid internship?
Personally, I think the best time to log those hours filing stories, transcribing interviews and printing out schedules for reporters is during your sophomore and junior year of college. Part of the reason is that you don’t have the threat of the “real world” and job hunting looming over you. And during this time period you can effectively balance an internship and school life, while also building a foundation for paid internships (and paid positions) in the future.
According to a survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, most unpaid internships have an equal or stronger emphasis on clerical work. That’s the filing, photocopying, transcribing — all the unappealing tasks that reporters and other media professionals don’t have the time for. If your financial situation allows, there is no reason not to take an unpaid internship during this time. The truth of the matter is, while half of the work you’ll be asked to do may be menial, the other half (or more, if you’re lucky) will be relevant to what you want to do and will look great on a resume. And, of course, being exposed to a media environment will give you the opportunity to observe and learn.
Also keep in mind that many of those paid internship positions are going to be filled by college seniors and graduates who have had more experience. You may even notice on job listings for paid internships that you have to be at least a college junior; meanwhile, unpaid positions have the benefit of being used toward college credit.
However, after you’ve graduated, unpaid internships don’t hold much weight.
The same survey released by NACE found that grads who had not taken part in an internship fared only slightly worse than those with an unpaid internship when looking for a job. There was just a 1 percent difference between the two groups when it came to receiving job offers. So college grads might be better off getting a job that will keep them from eating ramen every day, while finding another way to gain that much-needed media experience.
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