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The Unpaid Internship: Ticket to A Full-Time Job or A Dead End?
By: Hallie Crawford
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Our clients in career transition often ask us whether they should apply for internships as well as jobs, paid or unpaid, especially when they are just out of college or making a transition into a new career path. There are obvious pros and cons to working for free or having a short-term gig. And the argument can be made that internships are just a way for employers to just take advantage of free or low-cost contract labor. While some people are completely against them, I believe internships can be a great thing, IF handled in the right way. It can be a ticket to a full-time job if you are strategic about leveraging its benefits, set specific goals for what you want to accomplish, and create boundaries. Here are a few things to consider:
 
See it as an opportunity to learn something new. Whether it is in your current field or a new one, seek out ways you can learn something new during your internship. Even if it’s in your existing industry, there is always something new you can learn or a skill you can develop. If there is not an opportunity to learn something new that is industry-specific, you could learn or hone your skills in project management, or team management, for example. Do not be closed-minded about what you can learn; make a concerted effort to make it worth your time. If the employer is not giving you projects that can help you hone your skills, have a conversation and ask for more if needed.
 
Set specific goals. Write down the top three things you want to learn and get out of the internship for yourself and three things you want the employer to gain from your time there as well. Focusing on both will ensure it is a win-win situation, and that you leave with both the experience you want and a good recommendation to take with you if it does not lead to a full-time position at that firm. Take the internship for a reason and have a strategy. Do you want work experience? Do you want to create more connections? Or are you looking to just brush up on your skills? If you have a purpose for being involved it will not be as frustrating if you are not getting paid, and if you do not land a job at that firm afterwards.
 
Define boundaries. Determine a timeframe with the employer for how long the internship will last, as well as the possibility for future employment. Find these things out up front. We had a client who, fresh out of college, was still in her unpaid internship after a year with no prospect for employment — not good. Set the timeframe up front, and get an idea of what might happen next before you dive in so you have a plan. How long would it take to get a full-time job at that firm? Is that an option at all, and if so, what goals would you have to achieve to help ensure that happens?
 
Understand how it will help your long-term career goals. Having an internship or temp job can help fill gaps in your resume, so for those who are unemployed, it can help with your job search. If you are a recent college grad who has little to no work experience and your parents can help you, or you have some way to support yourself short term, an internship (although unpaid) can give you the experience you need to get your foot in the door of your industry. It can also give you a sense, firsthand, of what it is really like to work in a specific industry instead of wondering what it might be like from the outside. It can be a way to determine if this career is truly a fit for you before you commit to a long-term, full-time position. Finally, an internship can be a great way to make new networking connections that can help you with your job search in the long term.
 
Regardless of whether the internship is paid or unpaid, be sure you have a financial plan as well — a way to remain financially stable while you are there. One of the downsides of internships is their low-to-no pay. So if you have bills to pay, which most of us do unless we have another source of income like a parent or spouse, taking a paid position, even if it is not in your industry, and finding an internship on the side may be a better way to go. Going to your internship stressed out about your financial situation will not help your work performance. Internships can be a great next step for your career depending on your situation and goals, as long as you are strategic and smart about it.

   

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About the Author
Guest Blogger Hallie Crawford is a certified coach and founder of HallieCrawford.com. Her team of coaches help people find their dream job and make it a reality. She is regularly featured as an expert in the media including the Wall Street Journal, CNN, and US News & World Report. Visit her website at www.HallieCrawford.com for more information about her team's career coaching services and to sign up for a complimentary consultation. http://www.HallieCrawford.com
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