Pro Advice

The Do's and Don'ts of Unpaid Internships

Unpaid internships have been taking a hit in the media lately. Former interns have been filing class-action lawsuits against their former employers more frequently than ever before, alleging they are owed unpaid wages for the hours of work they performed.

There are definitely some exploitative internships out there – ones that don't meet the standards for unpaid internships set forth by the U.S. Department of Labor – but that doesn't mean every unpaid opportunity is a total waste of time.

"The first job I received was from an internship," says Cassi Willard, Esq., the Advanced Entertainment Law Course Director in Full Sail's Entertainment Business Master's program. "It was unpaid initially, but it branched into amazing networking and job opportunities. So, personally, I think [internships] are a huge leg up, particularly if your background doesn't include a lot of work or industry experience."

If you find a promising opportunity that will give you great experience and boost your resume, then yes, you should take that unpaid internship, says Cassi. Tammy Elliott, Vice President of Full Sail's Career Development department, agrees.

We spoke with Tammy and Cassi about unpaid internships and what students should know about them. Follow this advice to make sure you're taking the right opportunity.

DO your research. According to Tammy, this is the most important advice of all, and absolutely shouldn't be overlooked. "Sometimes these [unpaid] internships are the only way to get your foot in the door," she says, "and my response to students is always, you best be sure that you want to be on the other side of that door."

DO ask questions, and lots of them. You need to make sure the internship is the right one for you. Research the company beforehand, and make sure you're asking important questions in the interview: What are my responsibilities? Who's going to be mentoring me? Will you work around my schedule? What are the potential opportunities for me after this internship is over?

DON'T get exploited. In order for an unpaid internship to be legal, it has to meet six guidelines laid out by the Department of Labor:

  • The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment.
  • The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern.
  • The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of the existing staff.
  • The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded.
  • The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship.
  • The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.

Source: U.S. Department of Labor

In addition to helping students find and apply for internships, Tammy says the Career Development department frequently works with small and mid-size companies to make sure they're aware that they need to meet these requirements if they're looking to add unpaid interns to their roster. If you find yourself in an adverse working situation, immediately address your issues with your mentor.

DO reach out to former interns. Cassi suggests looking for people on LinkedIn who have interned at the company you're interested in, and asking them about their experience. "Make sure you vet whatever opportunities you have very thoroughly, because not only is it your first experience in the industry potentially, but it is also now a line on your resume," says Cassi. "It may not be an affiliation you want and it may not be an opportunity worth forgoing something else that's already out there."

DON'T do an internship just to get it done, says Tammy. "Do an internship because it affords something of value to you and your career path."

DO keep looking for what's next. "Many students think once they've accepted an internship, they need to be completely devoted and stop everything else they're doing," says Tammy. "You don't have to." Be devoted to the hours you work your internship, yes, but spend your other time networking, freelancing, working a part-time job, and looking for a full-time job. It's all about working toward that next step.

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