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Unpaid Interns: Top 5 Things to Do Before Taking That Internship

The semester’s almost over, which means students all over the country are starting to line up their summer internships for 2012.  And while there are a lot of great learning opportunities out there in the form of legal, legitimate unpaid internships, there are just as many (if not more) “unpaid internships” that are nothing more than an attempt to get you to work for free, while offering you nothing in return.  How to know the difference?

Here are the top 5 ways to weed out the good from the bad:

1. Do your homework.  Chances are, as an intern, you’re going to be treated (and utilized) in much the same way as your intern predecessors.  Use that consistency to your advantage and do your homework!  There are some great sites out there where interns review their internships/employers.  You can glean a lot from this sort of inside information.  Were these interns getting coffee and making copies all day?  Were they stuck behind a desk doing data entry when they thought they’d be involved in the creative process?  Did their employers mentor and train them in particular skills, or did they simply dump work on them?  Peer review sites like these can be an enormously valuable asset when determining whether a particular internship will be a valuable learning experience or a waste of your time.

Similarly, if you are aware of anyone who has been or currently is an intern with that employer, reach out to them for information.  Find out what their experience was like.  Don’t be shy–most people are usually happy to help, especially if they had a bad experience and can help keep someone else from ending up in a similarly poor situation.  Getting as much information as you can beforehand can save you a lot of frustration and wasted effort, and can help keep you from being taken for a ride by a shrewd employer.

2. Ask questions.  So you got an interview–that’s great.  Use the interview as an opportunity to find out as many details about the internship as you can.  What will you be expected to do?  How will your time be spent?  What responsibilities will you have, if any?  More importantly, what will your training look like?  What skills can you expect to have learned or mastered by the end?  Prepare a list of questions to ask that will help you to understand exactly what you should expect from your internship.  Use the opportunity to get a firm grasp of what the experience will be like.

3. Set Boundaries.  Before you begin, make sure you and your employers are on the same page in terms of your role as an intern and the objectives of your internship.  Your role, and any responsibilities you might have, should be clearly defined and oriented around the skills you hope to acquire from the outset.  Although many unpaid internships have become notorious for their lack of clear boundaries, it is that very ambiguous relationship that opens you up to spending hours of your day doing data entry as opposed to learning the skills you set out to learn.  Avoid that problem by clarifying the scope of your internship beforehand, making sure you’re getting at least as much as you’re giving.  Your time is valuable–make sure the experience is worth your while.

4. Be prepared to speak up for yourself.  Sometimes, despite all your preparations and homework, an internship might be very different than what you were led to expect.  While you may have anticipated learning the ins and outs of film production, it may turn out that your employer has other things in mind and would rather use you to get his filing or cataloging done.  Be prepared to press for the deal you struck and to stick to the boundaries you’ve agreed to, however difficult it might be.

5. Know the law.  As the adage goes, “knowledge is power,” and in the case of interns who otherwise have very little power in the workplace, this is particularly true.  One of the most important things you can do in preparation for your internship is to become familiar with the laws that govern unpaid internships.  What makes an unpaid internship legal?  What is the difference between an intern doing work and any other worker?  When must an intern be paid?  What can I do if it seems my internship is illegally unpaid?  Even a basic understanding of the laws relating to interns gives you a strong starting point in being able to distinguish between a beneficial unpaid internship and a harmful one, and will give you a good deal of power if what looked like a good unpaid internship turns out to be an exploitative unpaid job.

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