In Praise of Unpaid Internships

| 10/7/2011 2:47:18 PM

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When I came to Minneapolis after college, I took an internship at the book publisher Milkweed Editions while working a paying job as a proofreader for personal ads. (That’s right. SWMs ISO SWFs need editors, too.) Milkweed gave me a weekly stipend that covered my lunches and bus fare, but nothing else. It didn’t matter. The internship paid me in other ways, from experience, to friendship, to a fortitude that helped me see a future beyond the hundreds of ads for walks on the beach and candlelight dinners I read every week.

How valuable are unpaid internships? In The Oxford American, Emily Witt critiques Ross Perlin’s book Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy and writes about her move from New York to Arkansas to be an unpaid intern at The Oxford American. She says:

[I]n my nine months in Little Rock I had some of the most fun I have ever had. A careerist in my position would have stayed in New York, would have smiled and combed her hair and made herself cheerfully obedient, would have pleasantly harassed people until she got a job, would have been plucky and assertive and enthusiastic and all the things I was not. I have since become that person, more or less. But back then I instead went South, gained twenty pounds, got drunk most nights, and made some very good friends.

Witt, now an established reporter at the New York Observer, continues:

At some point, one wants something that looks like a job, and the way in is often an unpaid internship. Today I revel in the luxury of paid employment: the biweekly paychecks deposited to my bank account, the automatic withholding of taxes, the certainty of a fixed address, the health insurance, even the routine of my alarm clock and daily commute, the florescent lights over my cubicle, my desk phone, my business cards—all the usual symbols of drudgery. Those who can’t do, intern; but it’s also true…that an internship gives one both an appreciation for the importance of proficiency in the many banal and thankless aspects of work, and the confidence to insist that such commitment deserves to be rewarded in kind. 

Check out the rest of Witt’s review and rumination here, and tell us about your experiences as a poor, unpaid intern in the comments section below. (We appreciate your reminiscences, but, alas, we can’t pay you for those either.)

Source: The Oxford American  

10/10/2011 11:25:56 AM

I think unpaid internships, if you are resourceful enough to find a way to pay the necessary bills and willing and able to live with family, are actually fantastic. No pay means no obligation to do any tasks that don't directly influence your interests and aspirations, and I'd stick to those guns if I were you. It's the only chance you have to be a little self-righteous and not be submissive in an effort to climb the career ladder. You can work on multiple projects at the same time (a good excuse being that you need enough free time to have another part-time job - who actually know what you do with that free time?), get involved in all aspects of your company or organization and take initiative to learn about departments you're interested in. After all, you're unpaid and an intern because you're just starting out, so it's you're right to learn and ask questions. Seriously, if you're creative and passionate enough to learn, and not just "get a job," you'll land a dream job in no time, poor economy or not.

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