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Why an internship is step #1 to figuring out what to with your career

October 20, 2022 - 14 min read

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What is an internship?

Are internships paid?

5 benefits of internships

How do internships benefit employers?

Your next move: the best ways to find an internship

Close your eyes and think of what comes to mind when you hear “internship.” 

Do you imagine yourself organizing files and going on coffee runs? Would you strive to make a good impression and land a position that could make or break your career? After all, that's what an internship is all about: gaining work experience, boosting your professional network, and hopefully even landing a job offer. 

Landing an internship might be part of your career path planning, but it's no walk in the park. They’re usually highly competitive, and 43% of internships at for-profit companies are unpaid. One survey found that when asked how similar their tasks were to entry-level positions, over half of the interns said “very” or “extremely” similar.

It’s not all negatives, though. Internships are an excellent way to explore an industry without making a huge commitment or gain experience to build skills that prepare you for your future career. 

If you aren’t sure if an internship is right for you, don’t worry. We'll cover what an internship is, how to find one, and of course, the pros and cons of paid and unpaid internships.

 

What is an internship?

So, how do internships work? An internship is a trainee position and learning opportunity for people to gain experience in a field of study or industry. Perhaps someone is considering a career change and wonders what a new work environment might be like. 

And what do interns do, exactly? Interns work alongside employees at the company to gain real-world experience. They pick up how their industry works, what it's like to be an employee, and further their self-knowledge of what they're good at.

Internships usually operate on a short-term basis. They can demand full-time or part-time hours, usually lasting between 10–12 weeks, depending on the company and type of internship. For instance, summer internships might last longer than those during a school semester. 

Internships are usually geared toward college students. Sometimes they quality for academic credit, and for others students do them electively to gain experience. Even though people usually think of students when it comes to who does an internship, they're open to anyone. 

And at the end, the company might even offer their interns a full-time job to extend their working relationship.

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Are internships paid?

Are internships paid? This is the question most people have. Ideally, there should only be paid internships. And while they aren't uncommon, as we mentioned before, they aren't the standard. 

One study from the National Survey of College Internships found that at one university, only 48.4% of student internships were paid in 2020. And on a national level, only 59% of internships were paid opportunities. 

This makes it incredibly difficult for low-income students or people to seize internship opportunities. Wealthy students with more resources can afford to take advantage of internship programs, while 64% of students who don’t take on internships have conflicts with work schedules, simply can’t afford it, or can’t find relevant placements.

But under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), something called the primary beneficiary test determines if an intern is entitled to minimum wage. The test is flexible, and no one factor holds the most influence. It also decides on a case-by-case basis since internships all have different circumstances and responsibilities.

Here are the factors at play:

  • If the intern and employer understand there’s no expectation of pay because if there's any promise that the intern would be compensated, it suggests they're an employee
  • The level of training the intern is provided and how hands-on it is compared to in-class studies
  • How the internship connects to the intern's program requirements, if at all
  • When the internship falls in regards to the intern's school year
  • How long the intern would be working and learning with the company
  • How the intern's work assists but doesn't replace the work of full-time employees, while still being a learning experience
  • How the intern and employer have agreed to the internship ends

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And it's not just us who think internship opportunities should be paid. Lots of calls have been put out to end unpaid internships. Sometimes if it's part of a college student's coursework, they'll be offered a stipend, but that's not always enough. Unpaid interns usually still work full-time jobs. And even if they’re offered minimum wage, they don't earn as much as full-time employees. 

But interns still receive perks from their company. They might be invited to attend seminars and work events or they'll temporarily have access to other employees' perks, like discounts on products or access to learning resources.

5 benefits of internships

If your particular field is super hands-on, then an internship is your chance to get your feet wet. It finally puts your coursework into perspective and real-world context. 

Your role and duties will depend on what industry you work in. But before you start working independently, you'll probably offer support to others while learning how the company works.

The benefits of an internship make a real impact on you moving forward. Research has found that internships help students unlock more practical knowledge about their field of study than in-class learning.

Here are five benefits of internships for you to think about:

  1. Developing a better understanding of yourself: Sure, your internship is a great job experience and will look good on your resume, but it's also an opportunity to learn more about what you really need. It'll show you what you want from your career development, the lifestyle you prefer, and what you don't want in life.
  2. Gaining new skills: Some things just aren't taught in class. At your internship, you'll pick up transferable skills for many different work environments. If you choose to pursue a job in another industry, your soft skills will still come in handy.
  3. Networking with people in the industry: Start thinking of questions now, because your internship is your chance to boost your professional network and seek some answers. Is there anything confusing to you that you didn't learn in class? Try to find someone who'll act as a mentor, and absorb all the knowledge they give you.
  4. Strengthening your resume: Being part of clubs and teams is one thing, but work experience is like no other. Your resume will show that you've worked in professional situations, and you'll have a portfolio to prove it. Even shadowing someone else is worth highlighting because you'll likely learn something new.
  5. Solidifying a job opportunity: OK, not to jump ahead, but internships sometimes lead to job offers. Even if it's not the same work, it's a job at the company. Maybe it'll open you up to trying a new role on another team and you'll find new passions and talents along the way.

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If you’re unsure if an internship is right for you, find someone to help you better understand what your professional career needs. At BetterUp, our coaches will provide the guidance you need to strengthen your self-awareness and find your dream internship.

How do internships benefit employers?

Just to let you know, employers benefit greatly from internships. Interns make a difference in the work environment, even if it's another set of helping hands.

Here are six reasons why employers want to hire interns:

1. Increase brand awareness. An intern shows that a certain company is a desirable place to work and learn. If they have a positive experience worth sharing with others, it’s great visibility. 

2. Boost productivity. An extra worker means the company will accomplish more work. Plus, the intern could handle tasks that don't require a senior employee, so the other full-time employees can focus on high-priority tasks.

3. Bring in new perspectives. Maybe the company is a little dry as far as creative ideas. An intern will add a new perspective to freshen things up. Their other experiences and ideas could help with problem-solving, and their fresh-out-of-school knowledge might be relevant.

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4. Scope out new hires. An internship is basically like a long working interview. It shows companies what the candidate is capable of and if they'd be a valuable asset to the team. And they often do it without going through the whole hiring process.

5. Cost-effective workers. With unpaid internships, the company doesn't lose out on any money. It's basically free labor, and while that’s not a plus to the intern, it's a plus to the company. 

6. Help young professionals. Giving back to the up-and-coming professionals means a lot to people, and it's a way to help the company's community. It's an opportunity to mentor others who want to break out into the industry by taking the time to support and guide them as they work in the real world for the first time.

Your next move: the best ways to find an internship

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So you've learned what an internship is, how it benefits people, and if it pays. But learning how to find an internship is another crucial piece of the puzzle. It might seem like no opportunities exist or maybe too many, and it's overwhelming. 

Before you start your search, sit down with yourself and figure out what exactly you want. Forget about how you need it for college credit, and consider if it'll help your underlying needs and fit your values. 

As for finding an internship opportunity, here are some tips to consider:

  • Use the power of social media and cruise sites like LinkedIn or Facebook
  • Use your network of people and resources to your full advantage, like your school's connections or friends who've already completed internships
  • Start your search as early as possible to avoid leaving it until the last minute and stressing yourself out
  • See if your college or university has a career center that can help you 

One last thing: have your resume at the ready. You never know when you might have to jump on an application, so you wnt to be prepared for anything. Make your resume stand out, write a strong cover letter, and don't forget to review some possible interview questions that might come your way.

Above all, remember to enjoy your experience. This is an opportunity to feel the job market and how things work in your industry. But you're also beginning to do what you're passionate about, and that's what counts.

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Published October 20, 2022

Erin Eatough, PhD

Sr. Insights Manager

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