Loading icon

The Good, The Bad, and The Unpaid

News & Features | November 15, 2010

Today more than ever, college students are on the prowl for that near-mythic internship opportunity so touted by universities, parents, peers, and employers. For our generation, obtaining an internship has become more than a useful side-trip to the world of the workplace—it now stands, in most minds, as the stepping stone that leads straight to careers in every competitive field of employment.  In light of the tough economic climate that has more or less defined the past few years, students feel pressure to plump up their resumes with more than good grades and extracurricular involvement, realizing they may not be enough when it comes to the big job hunt. Since most students now complete an internship before graduating, employers have started to view previous workplace experience as a necessity, rather than an advantage. How this cycle will affect the job market and opportunities within it in the long run still remains to be fully understood.

“To be competitive in the job market, you must have some kind of career related experience,” wrote Jean Papalia, Director of Tufts Career Services, in an email. She went on to note that, according to a “Tufts 2010 senior survey, 80 percent of the class of 2010 reported doing at least one internship during college and 52 percent indicated they had done two or more internships.” These stats are up 8 percent and 12 percent, respectively, from a survey given to the graduating class of 2006.

“Especially since jobs and the real world are coming up soon, I feel the pressure to have something more than just grades on a transcript that I can put on my resume,” said Tufts junior Zach Laub, echoing the trends described by Papalia. But after being “roundly rejected or ignored” by a slew of internship programs this past summer, Laub sought an alternate summer experience by heading to Chile with World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF). With WWOOF, Laub was connected with an organic family farm outside of Valparaiso, where he worked for most of the day tending goats and doing other odd jobs, and slept at night. For Laub, the greatest realization was that of understanding the toil and resources behind the food taken for granted at the grocery store.

“Though it was an eye-opening opportunity I wouldn’t give up for anything,” Laub said, “I’m definitely going to go through the same internship application process for next summer.”

Laub is not alone among both the rejected and the hopeful here at Tufts and around the country. According to an article published this year in the New York Times, the fight for the most competitive internships has reached new and feverish heights. While a company like ESPN received 10,000 applications for only 90 paid internship spots this past summer, a media internship at Vogue sold at auction for a whopping $42,000 at a fundraiser put on by the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights. Another recent Times article listed a number of companies that have popped up in recent of years that promise to help students and parents navigate the hairy world of internships. Customers pay for these companies to aid in all levels of the application process; from resume writing to networking at organizations and companies that seem a good fit for the candidate, businesses like University of Dreams are there holding the hands of those that pay.

The pressure created when so many qualified students flood the internship arena with applications raises questions about the social implications of the process as it currently stands. A Vault.com survey cited in a Times article this year said that “while half of internships nationwide are paid or have at least a small stipend, unpaid internships are concentrated in the most competitive fields, like politics, television, and film.”  In such a climate, students can find themselves disadvantaged by their inability to work a whole summer for free. Papalia of Tufts Career Services acknowledged this concern in an email.

“Many students on financial aid, or those who utilize their summers to help defray the costs of college, are not able to participate in meaningful internship experiences because most summer internships do not offer salaries or stipends,” Papalia wrote. “As a result, many students cannot ‘afford’ to gain first-hand experience in the career field of their choice. This not only limits their appeal as potential employees after graduation, but also their ability to make informed career decisions.” Many universities, including Tufts, have set up programs to combat this disadvantage. For example, Tufts students that have already secured an internship with a non-profit organization or in the public sector are eligible to receive a grant of $3,500 through funding by alumni and AS&E Diversity Funds. But, as is the case at many schools, such grants are few and in high demand; Tufts only offers 35 every year. A Times article from 2004 cited a similar situation, noting that the University of Virginia student services center reported receiving 10 times as many applications as the number of stipends available.

Other students get more resourceful in their search to obtain an internship experience while still getting paid. Tufts junior Aaron Ratoff landed a paid internship through the Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service this past summer. Through the recommendation of his advisor, Professor Kevin Irwin, Ratoff applied to work as an intern on a project with the Somerville Homeless Coalition that Tisch was already slated to fund. He spent his summer putting together a resource guide for the homeless in Somerville and administering a local survey about food security and hunger.

Still others manage to pin down that coveted enigma, the paid internship. Tufts junior Kristen Davenport worked as an intern this past summer in a toxicology lab for Pfizer, the largest pharmaceutical company in the world.

“It was an amazing experience,” Davenport said. “Plus, it paid enough for me to live on for the whole summer.” Davenport also credits the internship with providing invaluable insights into what she should be doing in the near future to prepare for jobs after graduation.

“Everybody at Pfizer who has a job that I would like to have has a PhD,” she explained. “That wasn’t my plan before, but now I have a clearer picture of what it takes to get on the career path I want. I may not work for a drug company, but I know I want to get into research. And now I know what I need to do.”

Tufts senior Josh Aschheim’s experiences as an unpaid intern gave similarly positive impressions.

“I worked at the New York City Parks Department planning special events one summer, and I really loved it,” Aschheim said. “They gave an extreme amount of responsibility and really let me do what I was interested in.”

When asked about the unpaid aspect of his internship, he conceded that, “it was a bummer I didn’t get paid, but I guess you have to put in your time. The general workplace experience is really important, though. You learn how to be professional, how to deal with things diplomatically, how to deal with people of different ages.”

In his statement, Aschheim echoed the sentiments of the nearly 125 colleges and universities countrywide that have begun to require internships, at least for certain majors. Participating in the well-known co-op program, about 90 percent of undergrads at Northeastern University in Boston take on an internship. But an interview with a representative for Northeastern in the Times provided an interesting look into the program.

“We’re not into the vocational aspect of this,” the representative insisted. Instead, he cites the communication skills, the problem solving skills, and the possibility for students to learn more about themselves and the direction they want to go in their lives as incentives to make internships compulsory.

Still, in an age when even the government is concerned about unpaid interns displacing paid workers or being financially exploited as the Obama administration demonstrated when it cracked down on the legal criteria for internships this year, it’s worthwhile to take pause and think about the consequences of the system.