Why Being An Unpaid Intern Is Both The Worst And Best Experience

by Nate Waters

Working as an unpaid intern is almost as agonizing as being the lone freshman on the varsity team in high school. You think you are so amazing because you are a part of this older, more talented group of people; yet, you realize you’re on the bench and no one cares.

Just replace refilling the water bottles with coffee runs and the carrying the cones and balls with Excel spreadsheets.

Make no mistake, any company who broadcasts on its website, “Not your typical internship!” or “Not just another line on your résumé!” is lying.

No logical human could justify having a college student work full-time, in a place where other people earn enough money to pay off loans, for absolutely zero compensation.

The unpaid internship has become a stepping stone for college students, one that is practically unavoidable. Even worse, in order to receive academic credit for your internship, most colleges require you to pay tuition while working!

Just to recap: You are not getting paid, and instead, you have to pay your school more money.

You also have to eat, look presentable and get yourself to work each day. And, let’s be honest, who’s going to ride a bike in khakis or a dress skirt? Nobody. Nobody is going to do that.

Wait. Why did I even take this internship in the first place?

Every internship is going to involve grunt work. There will be days of non-stop spreadsheets, stuffing letters into envelopes, writing thank you notes to people who attended events you were not allowed to go to and reorganizing the supply closet.

Lastly, you have that one friend who has a finance internship from his uncle, the VP of that company, where the company puts their interns up in hotels and casually lets them pocket $8k over the summer.

Then you'll have that other friend who studied abroad the previous semester and caught wanderlust. She somehow is a nanny in Eastern Europe for only two days a week, and yet, her Instagram shows she has traveled more than a National Geographic photographer.

So you begin to wonder why you even took this internship in the first place. You definitely could have been a nanny somewhere and blown your money in Europe, rather than in bus tickets and cold-cut sandwiches.

All of these crazy thoughts race through your mind about the value of education, like, “How can I perfectly explain the dichotomy of deontology and early democratic ideology, but not know how the F*CK you reserve a conference room using Outlook?”

College has taught me nothing.

But somehow, a flip switches during the summer, and you start to enjoy going to work each day.

You create snap stories of you picking up Starbucks, tell all of your friends about this awesome food truck that comes to your building and even get your coworkers to invite you to happy hour on Thursday.

You feel proud of yourself when you take out your ear-buds after cranking out a six-hour project the marketing coordinator left for you because “she had that thing in Nantucket on Friday and couldn’t miss it.”

You begin to learn more about yourself, and how to communicate with others in the process. You start to realize what you want in a career and illustrate a vague picture of what your life could look like after college.

All of a sudden, your LinkedIn profile is blowing up with one or two page views a week from recruiters you are not even third connections with, but they have premium so it’s still chill they checked you out.

The unpaid internship teaches you humility because you realize that at every company, there is work that is not fun, but someone has to do it. And you might as well be the person to do it with a smile on your face because, chances are, everyone else in the office was in your same spot a few (or maybe 30) years ago.

The unpaid internship might be one of the hardest summers during college (or maybe even after college.) However, you learn some pretty invaluable lessons you might not have discovered anywhere else.

You learn to find meaning in doing good work just because you want to be associated with doing good work. You realize you aren’t looking to be rewarded with money. In fact, the greatest gift you could receive is the free lunch your manager takes you to on your last day.

The internship teaches you about being a solid team player, even if you have played sports your whole life or joined student government.

And lastly, that unpaid internship with the small company and the outdated computers, which teach you the hard way that all fax machines were not created equal, sets you up for another internship.

And BLAM. I bet you this one is going to be paid.

You’ll receive a new laptop on your first day, working with the latest trends you are actually interested in, because you learned what you didn’t like before. And who knows? You’re already a networking pro, and hopefully this one turns into something full-time.

Whoever thought of the concept of not paying students for full-time work should seriously be the permanent coffee runner.

It’s true: The life of an unpaid intern is terrible.

Except when it’s perfect.