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4 Questions to Ask Before Taking an Unpaid Internship

College students are demanding change, but when might it be a good idea to take an internship that doesn't pay?

College career experts give their take on the the value of unpaid internships. Credit: Sonia Su.
College career experts give their take on the the value of unpaid internships. Credit: Sonia Su.

 
With the summer of 2013 almost over, college students are already looking for internships for next year, with the big question being: Would I work for free?

Baltimore's college career experts share advice on questions students should ask themselves when deciding whether to take an unpaid internship or to find another paid opportunity.

  1. Do my responsibilities comply with the law?
    Unpaid intern Eric Glatt from the 2010 movie "Black Swan" proved unpaid internships can be illegal. The guidelines outlined in the Department of Labor’s Fair Labor Standards Act should be your first checkpoints when evaluating an unpaid internship. Knowing about the act made Glatt realize that Fox Searchlight Pictures had violated minimum wage laws. Glenda Henkel, associate director and internship program coordinator at Towson University's Career Center, said that she ensures that employers who do not pay interns are "well-informed about the Fair Labor Standards Act and about the academic focus of the internship."

    Another checkpoint? Take a look at National Association of Colleges and Employers, which conducts research on college career-related topics. "All interns, regardless of their compensation, should enjoy similar basic protections in the work setting consistent with all laws, ethical considerations, and sound business practices," according to a statement by the nonprofit, which gives its own definition of internships.

  2. Will my duties support my academic pursuits?
    While many students see internships as stepping stones into certain industries, students can also use internships as a way to confirm their areas of study, said Christine Routzahn, director of University of Maryland Baltimore County's internship program. "If [companies are] open to training someone who might be a freshman who’s trying to decide on their major, then that student would be okay for an unpaid internship because they’re seeing that added benefit for them by taking that opportunity," Routzahn said on the Baltimore-based radio show Midday with Dan Rodricks on WYPR. Keep in mind that the internship should enhance your academic and professional development.

  3. Have I pursued all options with my school's career counselor?
    It may also help to discuss your decision with a career counselor and consider how the unpaid internship will affect you academically, professionally and financially, Routzahn said. Such professionals can provide more options to consider—including having a mentor or supervisor during your internship. Your career counselor can be a resource before, during and after your internship.

  4. What do I hope to accomplish by the end of the internship?
    If the internship will not compensate you, then you can create your own value by making sure you will at least come out of the internship with new skills, networks, etc. Routzahn said that you should create goals for both paid and unpaid internships, but setting goals may be especially helpful for unpaid internships. Then, ask yourself if the opportunity will allow you to accomplish your goals.


About this series: As part of our jobs reporting, Patch is profiling people with internships throughout Maryland, focusing on the issue of paid and unpaid positions. What do you think about paid and unpaid internships? Let us know in the comments below.

Editor's Note: This story was written by a paid intern at Patch.

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