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Unpaid Intern: To Be or Not to Be?

Unpaid Intern: To Be or Not to Be?

Karen Siwak

December 06, 2010

Over coffee recently, I listened as a soon-to-be new graduate lamented the fact there were few job prospects for somebody in her field. She was asking for advice on whether or not to accept an unpaid internship in order to get her foot in the door. To help with her decision, I laid out my personal experience as a soon-to-be graduate.

By the fourth year of college, I had a diverse and storied portfolio of part time and seasonal positions under my belt:

  • Sorted Christmas overflow mail for Canada Post; learned the meaning of the phrase “go postal.”
  • Took messages in a call answering center whose clients ranged from restaurants to call girls (yes, really); learned you have to pay really close attention to whose line you pick up before you answer the question, “What’s on the menu?”
  • Sold encyclopedias door-to-door; learned some people will buy anything.
  • Solicited participants for market research studies; learned some people will say anything.
  • Flipped burgers and pushed French fries; learned some people will eat anything.
  • Painted house exteriors with College Pro Painters; learned the top of a 45-foot ladder is not the place to be when the wind picks up from Lake Ontario.

While my “career” path thus far proved I was willing to tackle anything, it did not give me a whole lot of marketable skills for a Mass Communications and Computer Science graduate who would soon be launched unceremoniously into a job market recovering from 9.6% unemployment rates.

In my final year of university, my fortunes turned. I was offered an unpaid internship with a university-based research group. Through this internship, I learned how to design research studies; how to prepare grant submissions; how to source hard-to-find information & resources that aren’t available in the college library; how to edit research papers for publication; how to collaborate with a team of professionals who had conflicting interests and perspectives; and how to think critically about complex issues and prepare cohesive arguments so I could be heard above the voices of 15 intellectuals. I also developed a network of connections who were able to help me when it was time to land my first full-time job as a Policy Analyst with the Ontario government.