There I sat contemplating the news — “Mr. Charles will call you at 9:30 a.m. for your phone interview.” I had never had a formal job interview, yet alone a long distance one over the telephone. There was some upside to not having to interview face-to-face I figured; I had time to plan out exactly how I wanted everything to go. Would I dress up in a suit to put myself in the interview mind set? Would I be more comfortable and relaxed if I did the interview au naturale? What questions could I possibly be asked? How would I respond? After jotting down some brief notes, and after deciding that regular clothing would suffice, I was seemingly ready for the interview.
As expected, the interview did not go completely as expected. It was slightly less formal than I had imaged, and I was surprised how genuinely interested the president of the Charles Group seemed to be in my background and beliefs. There were very few if any generic questions such as “Why do you want this internship?” and many more open-ended discussion questions such as “So how do you think we can get out of this current economic crisis?” I was also pleased to hear Mr. Charles speak about what his career objectives were as a college student, what kind of work he does now and what direction he wants to take his company.
After 30 minutes had quickly elapsed, Mr. Charles explained some of the perks interning with the Charles Group in Washington D.C. could have — eating lunch with Justice Scalia and Justice Alito, attending daily Congressional hearings and possibly taking a private tour of the Oval Office and West Wing. Mr. Charles then said that he was thoroughly impressed with my qualifications, and based on my resume and interview, he would like to extend me a formal invitation to intern with the Charles Group over the summer. Things could not have gone any better. That is until the closing seconds of our conversation when Mr. Charles uttered, “Unfortunately, we cannot afford to pay any of our interns at this time. However, we will be happy to work with your school to get you credit for your work.”
For me, what appeared over the phone to be an invaluable opportunity, in reality, became an impossible opportunity. As interesting, engaging and mentally stimulating the work that I would be performing with the Charles Group seemed to be, I could not afford to live in Washington D.C. for a summer without any income. Though I was not thrilled with the idea of working for academic credit either, it became insignificant when I found out that ILR does not grant credit for summer internships anyway. Hence I was introduced to a fundamental student dilemma — the unpaid internship.
According to Vault, a career information website, “84 percent of college students in April planned to complete at least one internship before graduating.” Furthermore, half of all internships are unpaid. The latter of these findings was somewhat shocking to me. This led me to wonder: How can students afford to work for three months without getting paid? Do some students chose unpaid internships simply due to a lack of other choices? Are there really benefits to some unpaid internships that we cannot put a price on? Though I do not have definite answers to these questions, I think that they are topics worth exploring.
The first question I pose raises a serious argument that unpaid internships favor more affluent students and those who can afford to forgo summer wages. The cost of an unpaid internship in D.C., which I estimate is $6,500 ($2,500 in housing/food costs, and $4,000 in lost wages), is far too high for me to possibly contemplate accepting. Furthermore, my parents, who thankfully contribute what they can towards my tuition during the school year, are unwilling to subsidize any of the costs towards me interning in D.C.
Furthermore, I am thankful that my parents contribute what they can toward my tuition, and having them subsidize a summer internship is unfeasible. Perhaps unpaid internships are not for everyone, but does that really imply that they are not for those less well off?
The second question I pose relates to how many internship opportunities are actually available to college students. In high school, summer employment was relatively limited — you could serve ice cream, work as a camp counselor or maybe lifeguard if you were lucky. However, as a college student, especially of sophomore standing or greater, there do exist more opportunities. A general search on the Cornell CareerNet yields around 400 summer internship postings. When I narrowed down the results, there were about 15 that I was eligible for that also seemed appealing. Though I was not overwhelmed with options, 15 still does allow for some choice. As I still needed to apply for these positions, it is not entirely clear how many options I actually have. In addition, these opportunities were simply listed as being “paid,” while the actual compensation is not stated. I hardly consider a $500 stipend for an entire summer “being paid.”
The last question that I raise is the most difficult to answer. Do I imagine that some internships offer truly invaluable experiences? Yes, if I could intern directly for a Supreme Court justice or as Derek Jeter’s personal assistant, I would probably do so free of charge. However, beyond such extreme cases, it is difficult to measure both the short-term enjoyment and the long-term benefit that I would gain from an unpaid internship. I understand that it is important to enjoy what you do and that not everything should be about money. However, I do have student loans to pay, and does photocopying really vary from company to company?
The dilemma between paid and unpaid internships is a real concern for many college students. If you have any feelings, opinions or advice, I welcome you to speak up. In the meantime, I will continue my hunt for a summer internship position, and I will be considering only paid positions, with one exception. President Obama, if you are still looking for a Treasury Secretary I would gladly accept the position without receiving a dime.