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Lessons From an Unpaid Intern

For the past 9 weeks I have been working as an unpaid intern. Coming back from a 6 month study abroad program and with hardly any money left to my name, I felt lucky to have found any opportunity to gain work experience during my time spent at home this summer. While some of my friends where spending their summer getting paid at part time jobs, a full time killer internship, or enjoying their summer by the pool, I worked part time for free. My younger sister, who had a part time job working at a restaurant this summer, asked me “Why did you take an unpaid internship?” Well ladies, gents, and all you other undergrads out there, these are 4 lessons I learned for free this summer:

1. Make the most of your time with your coworkers, supervisor, and the company.
Due to my study abroad program I only had 9 weeks at my internship, where as most summer programs are 12 weeks long. After exams in April and May, the summer term seems to stretch endlessly in front of students and it’s not until the end of July/beginning of August that they realize their summer is gone. It’s the same with a summer internship. Time can go by a lot faster than expected. So keeping this in mind, make sure that at the start of any internship opportunity that you take the first week to get acclimated with the company, your supervisor, and coworkers. Then, jump right in because time is limited.

2. Don’t be idle, always ask for more.
The first internship I had, even though it was paid, I sat behind my computer on the first day wasting time, because no one gave me anything to work on. By the end of the day a manager asked me what I was working on and I was embarrassed to say “nothing” because I hadn’t been given anything to do! This summer I made it a point to always ask for more. I always kept my supervisor updated on my progress and even approached the receptionist and executive assistant letting them know that I was willing and able to help with anything that they might need. Always ask, the worst they can tell you is to go home. Be efficient with your work and proficient in solving problems each day.

3. Network: It’s who you know.
Everyone who has ever taken an intro to business course knows the importance of networking, especially in today’s job market. After every college graduation students hear of other graduates that have landed jobs because of their connections, whether personal, professional, or through their campus organizations. Because your time over the summer is limited make the time to talk to others in your office, whether getting lunch with the other interns, offering to help the receptionist, or accepting an offer to go out with colleagues after work. Being friendly and genuinely interested in others will get you far. This is definitely an area in which I can improve in, I am very productive when it comes to getting things done but relationships take time and effort. Whenever accepting an internship offer, make a real effort to meet and get to know the people in your workplace.

4. It’s all about the experience.
Other than having a strong network of connections and supporters, gaining work experience is most important If you have no experience your value as a future employee may go down. Employers have nothing to look at in a professional portfolio or no past employers to ask for a professional reference. Experience is the key and helps you start to learn about your strengths and weaknesses as an employee. Work experience does not have to be in the industry that most interests you, but can be gained anywhere.

So why did I accept the offer for an unpaid internship? Because I knew that if I made the most out of my time it would be an invaluable learning experience. My time at the company, while limited, has taught me more about the areas I excel in (efficiency, completing my tasks, and timeliness) and the areas I need to work on (networking efforts). After my 9 weeks internship I am confident in the great connections I have made with my supervisor along with others in the office. I have also gained more confidence in taking on the job search process that awaits me this coming year. Not getting paid for an opportunity should not influence your decision to accept if the experience is going to benefit you in the long run. Take the chance and make the most of it!

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