The Value of an Unpaid Internship
by Rogers HR Intern, Samantha Willits, Summer 2014
The summer internship is a staple of the college experience and while the right placement offers experience, knowledge, and a potential job offer, is it worth the cost? Taking an unpaid internship meant not only giving up three months of my salary, but paying tuition for the opportunity. Yes, you read that right; I PAID to work. Now that the summer has reached an end, I ask, “Was it worth it? What did I learn?”
1. Relevant Experience. In just three short months I issued invoices, managed a marketing project, worked on an Affirmative Action Plan, got involved with the TChat community, researched HR metrics and analytics for a training presentation, and volunteered for the 2014 ILSHRM conference. From my conversations with other professionals I’ve learned that in the field of HR, most companies will not hire you without at least 1 - 2 years minimum of relevant experience, no matter what your degree level is.
2. Working from home is harder than it sounds. It takes a great deal of self-discipline to not be distracted by dishes and laundry and well-intentioned family members who think the phrase, “working from home” means they can call five times a day. Unlike grad school where mid-day naps and midnight paper sessions are acceptable, working from home still requires respecting the standard 9-5 day because the quality and timeliness of your work effects more than just yourself.
3. Internships are uncomfortable. It takes the average employee three months to a year to experience a complete cycle of the position, learn job responsibilities, and become a fully functioning member of the team. A three month internship is barely enough time to get your sea legs. It is uncertain, uncomfortable, and full of mistakes. But if you can recognize this challenge from the beginning and find the humility and drive to invest your time and energy anyway, you will learn more than you ever thought possible and be less likely to make those mistakes in the future.
4. Your relationship with your supervisor is your responsibility. Learning your supervisor’s expectations in three months is a challenge! He or she will not know which topics you have learned and which ones are brand new so it is your job to ask questions. Find out which tasks they consider priority, when you can take creative freedom, and when you must follow directions to a T. Ask about their expectations for communication: in-person or electronically? Daily or weekly? Do they want to approve every step of the project or wait until the end? Having these conversations at the beginning saves a great deal of frustration later on.
5. Your grade is the least important part. Instead of worrying about your letter grade, learn your job responsibilities and your supervisor’s expectations. Show up early, dressed appropriately, mentally prepared, and enthusiastic. Read relevant material, ask questions, and submit all assignments on time. If you do these things, the grade will take care of itself.
6. Take time to write weekly reflections. How does your internship relate to the rest of your degree? Your career? What are you doing well and what adjustments do you need to make to be more effective? Taking time to reflect will help you get the most out of your internship and become a better employee.
7. Strive for excellence. Whether you are making coffee or writing the annual report, you should understand how your responsibilities contribute to the overall purpose of the organization and commit to doing your role with excellence and integrity.
8. Take initiative. Even though you are the new wo(man) on the totem pole, look for opportunities to make connections, suggest new ideas, and take on new projects. Taking initiative shows that you are engaged beyond earning course credit. My decision to volunteer for the ILSHRM14 Conference was one of the best decisions I made! Not only did I get to learn about the field from the best thinkers and managers around, but I got to connect with over a hundred professionals I would have otherwise never met.
9. Being professional is NOT synonymous with being boring. At the ILSHRM14 conference I was amazed at the number of authentic, passionate, and opinionated HR professionals I met with a killer fashion sense! Jennifer Mclure said it best in her keynote presentation: CEO’s will only give HR a seat at the table if you can make decisions, have an informed opinion, and are brave enough to share your expertise. Success goes to the professionals who have the courage to step out.
My decision to do an unpaid summer internship was invaluable. It bridged the gap between the theory I’ve learned and the practical knowledge needed in the field. It helped me connect with over a dozen HR professionals in my area and pushed me to get involved with the SHRM community. While internships are not the magic ingredient to finding a job after school, the knowledge, experience, and connections you gain will continue to build on one another and lead to more and more opportunities.
So what do you think? Are unpaid internships worth the investment?