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The GOOD Guide to Hustlin': How To Know if Your Internship is Worth It

A former GOOD intern explains how to survive that painful rite of passage: the internship.

In our series, The GOOD Guide to Hustlin', we go beyond the pitying articles about youth in recession and discover ways our generation is coping. The last few years may have been a rude awakening, but we're surviving. Here's how.

There’s just no getting around it—internships are a painful rite of passage. I should know. I’ve been through it four times.

I told myself I was there to keep my résumé robust, build a creative portfolio and amass a list of contacts. But every time I reassured myself, “Hopefully it will lead to something,” one nagging question followed: “What if it doesn’t?”

Internships are pretty sweet deals for employers, especially during a recession that’s forced them to lay off thousands of workers. They get to cull from a pile of résumés from increasingly qualified and well-rounded students and graduates (some of whom have done internships since high school) to choose interns to come work at their company for free for two, four, or six months. Where interns may have once been confined to the coffeemaker, post-grad interns may now find themselves overworked, doing tasks that cost-cutting companies once had hired employees to do.

Of course, unpaid internships are technically illegal, but pointing this out to your employer at an interview probably won’t land you the gig. So how do you know whether the company in question cares about treating their interns well? I've learned how to separate the learning experiences from the nightmares after being through the ringer multiple times (including at the GOOD offices in L.A., which, I assure you, was a humane experience). Here are some rules to getting through an internship alive—and being able to tell whether it’s worth it.

Define what’s in it for you. Let’s be real: Getting hired directly after an internship stint is the exception, not the rule. While it’s certainly prudent to ask your employer during your interview if this is a possibility, it shouldn’t be your main motivation for drudging out four months in an office where you’re filing papers and going to FedEx.

Think about your day-to-day tasks. Are you creating content that can be part of your portfolio? Are you meeting qualified people with whom you can keep in touch? Are you learning to use programs—like Photoshop, Google Analytics, or blogging platforms—that are marketable skills? The oversaturation of interns out there has made that extra résumé line less valuable. You need to define how this experience is going to build your professional know-how.

One friend of mine, who now works in marketing in San Francisco, said that after spending a summer at what seemed like the perfect internship, he realized it was kind of a waste.

“I didn't apply myself outside of my comfort zone and job duties, which were simple, mundane and trivial (bitch work),” he says. “The company saw me as someone that could do something for them and [didn't teach the] skills I needed to learn ... In the end, I learned very little and realized you get what you put into it.”

Pick your employer’s brain. If the internship is a good fit, it’s likely that your bosses and supervisors currently have the job that you covet. Don’t simply admire from a distance. Take the opportunity to grill them with questions. What was their first job in the industry? What are the pros and cons of their profession? Do they have any contacts that might be useful for you?

These people are insanely busy, but this shouldn’t intimidate you. Shoot them an email asking to schedule a time to sit down for coffee. Remember, they’re are getting a lot from you, so you should be getting more than a résumé bullet point in return. One editor of mine sat down with me multiple times during a four-month stint at a magazine, and the wisdom and insight I gained from our talks was the most useful part of the experience.

Don’t take abuse. Ok, you’re an intern. Yes, that means you’ll be doing dignity-reducing work. (Some things I’ve done as an intern: entering endless figures on a spreadsheet, cleaning out a back storage room, dropping off boxes at an event, and fetching a pair of shoes for an editor.) But if this is all you’re doing, you should reconsider whether the experience is worth it.

And if you’re expected to do an unreasonable amount of work, even if it’s not menial, that counts as abuse as well. If multiple supervisors are giving you projects and tasks without coordinating with each other first, don’t feel like you have to do it all. Just because you’re an intern doesn’t mean you have the superhuman ability to pack 14 hours of work into eight. Besides, if you miss a deadline because you have too much work, what are they going to do—fire you?

Politely ask your main supervisor how they would like you to prioritize—“I don’t think I’m going to be able to complete XYZ in the two days a week I’m here, so which would you like me to work on first?” I’ve often found the boss doesn’t know that all the employees are asking things of you, and he may be appreciative that you let him know and respect you more for speaking up.

Be up front: You have a job, too. Unpaid internships are often characterized as a privilege of the middle-class elite, held by people whose parents are willing to foot the bill of living expenses. It’s possible to work a paying job while interning, but you should make it very clear to your employer that this is your plan.

If your employer says the hours are 9 am to 5 pm and you have to leave at 4:15 to get to restaurant gig a few days a week, they should be understanding. “I’m really happy to be here, but the only way I can make it work financially is if I leave early a few days a week,” is a nice way to put it. Don’t apologize. Everyone has to make money.

The main compensation of an internship should be practical knowledge and skills. If that’s not a major part of the equation, it’s probably not worth it. A fellow intern I worked with said it best:

“Looking back before these internships, I realize I had no freaking clue what it was all about,” he says. “So, I might not be employed yet, but I'm at least a little smarter, and these days I'm not sure if you can ask for a hell of a lot more than that.”

Illustration by Andres Guzman

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