The (Sometimes) Ugly Truth About Internships

Photo of a young woman doing chores during her internship, while her coworkers are having meeting in behind.
AleksandarNakic / Getty Images

For college students or those starting out on a new career path, an internship is touted as one of the best ways to get your foot in the door and get relevant experience — but a recent survey found that this isn’t always the case. Before you or a family member decide to accept that summer internship, you need to be aware of what you may be signing up for.

Here are some of the ugly truths about internships.

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Most Internships Don’t Pay Much — If They Pay Anything at All

Fortunately for those starting out in their careers, most internships are now paid. A LiveCareer survey of over 1,000 Americans found that 77% had participated in a paid internship — which still means that 23% of Americans did not get paid for their work. However, those who did get paid didn’t get paid much. Most of those surveyed either made less than $1,300 (31%) or between $1,300 and $2,000 (31%).

While this is, of course, bad news for an intern’s wallet, it also means that internships in general favor people from higher socioeconomic backgrounds who are not reliant on income from internships to make ends meet. And this can have ripple effects.

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“While today’s tight U.S. labor market effectively squeezes out unpaid internships, some programs remain unpaid or don’t pay very well. As a result, it creates a ‘class divide’ where students from high-income families are much more likely to pursue an internship and gain access to well-paying jobs upon graduation than those struggling with tuition bills,” said Max Woolf, a career advice expert at LiveCareer.

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Woolf suggested a couple of initiatives and policies that could help provide a more equitable playing field for college students of all backgrounds: “One, the government could create tax breaks and grants for employers that hire interns,” he said. “With many small businesses struggling to allocate staff time or resources to support interns, federal funding may help convert unpaid positions into paid ones.”

“Two, fund paid internships at nonprofit organizations,” Woolf continued. “Nonprofits are known for offering unpaid internships given their often-limited financial resources. That said, funding paid internship programs at nonprofits could help them deal with increased demand for their services, while also lowering the number of unpaid positions.”

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Most Interns Don’t Actually Get Relevant Work Experience

Internships are touted as a way to learn the ropes and get a taste of the career you are interested in, but most internships don’t actually pan out this way. The survey found that only 7% of interns reported performing meaningful work — a whopping 93% said they performed mostly menial tasks with some important tasks mixed in.

Despite this, internships can still prove valuable, Woolf said: “Although most internships task interns with relatively menial work, they still provide young adults with a chance to gain a blend of marketable hard and soft skills, or — in the worst-case scenario — just help interns supercharge their resumes with relevant work experience. And while the latter might be morally objectionable, the data suggests it’s still a viable option to get one’s foot in the door.”

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In fact, 79% of those surveyed said their internship led to their first job in their chosen career — even if they spent most of their time fetching coffees and making copies.

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Many Companies Don’t Have a Structured Internship Program

One of the reasons interns are assigned mostly menial tasks is that most companies don’t have a formal internship program. Sixty-eight percent of those surveyed said that the company they interned for didn’t have a structured intern policy and made up tasks as the internship unfolded.

Although this makes it more challenging to get the most out of an internship experience, if you are proactive, you can still learn a lot.

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“For starters, have a Zoom call with your supervisor and have them help you set SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timely) internship goals that are aligned with the company’s objectives,” Woolf said. “By setting SMART goals and working hard to achieve them, you’ll maximize your internship experience and ultimately have better odds of landing a full-time job down the road.”

“Second, always try to go above and beyond,” he continued. “While it might be tempting to deliver on everything that’s asked, aim to over-deliver regularly. If you want to stand out and elevate your chances of getting to work on meaningful projects, take on more responsibilities that go beyond your job description, volunteer for projects outside of your department or put in some extra effort to work on time-sensitive tasks. By exceeding your supervisor’s expectations, you’ll earn gratitude and admiration, which, in the end, will help you make your internship more meaningful.”

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Last updated: April 27, 2021


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