Why Taking An Unpaid Internship May Be The Best Thing You Ever Did…

The story you’re about to hear is true.  The names have been changed to protect the employed

Meet Sara.  

Sara is a graduate of a highly respected law school and a licensed attorney in the state of Florida.  Her resume reads like a book with extracurriculars, accolades and honors that would make even the most outgoing student envious.  Her college degree, high school degree are both very impressive; however, there is one minor problem:  Sara started law school in 2005.   So what? 2005?  What does that have to do with anything?  By starting law school in 2005, Sara was forced to enter the legal workforce at the height of the economic recession.  

Sara was different from most young attorneys.  Her drive was not fueled by monetary or materialistic success, but rather the opportunity to work as a public servant.  She knew that her education and experience would give her the opportunity to make life better for people around the world.  Knowing that her opportunities for political involvement would be limited in Florida, Sara picked up and moved to Washington D.C. (resumes in hand).  Intent on finding an opportunity on the Hill, Sara began the job hunt.  This is where her story gets interesting…

Intent on getting her foot in the door, Sara entered the office of a respected Congressman and politely asked if they were excepting any interns.  The member of the congressman’s staff asked to see her resume, only to realize that this young woman was not a college student (the typical applicant for congressional internships).  “Miss, you’re a licensed attorney.  You are looking for an internship?”  Sara nodded her head and stated that she would love to work for the Congressman in any capacity.  With a sense of amazement and confusion, the congressional staffer indicated to Sara that there weren’t any paid positions available, but that if she was interested, she could have an unpaid internship.  She took it.  

Now, the idea of taking an unpaid internship is a significant blow for any young attorney’s ego.  Not Sara.  With the same drive that fueled her success in college and law school, she worked twice the required hours and made herself a fixture in the Congressman’s office (something even the Congressman, himself, noticed).  Within a month of taking the internship, Sara was promoted to a part-time position, but still Sara worked full-time.  Traveling for events, handling constituent affairs, Sara knew that it was only a matter of time before something great happened.  Well, I received an e-mail from Sara a few weeks ago.  She told me that she had been promoted to Legislative Counsel for the Congressman, a highly-prized and well paid position.  Her perseverance and drive had allowed her to find an opportunity where there hadn’t been one before.  If she hadn’t taken the unpaid internship, who would know what she would be doing now?  


My Advice for the Class of 2009:

Be aggressive and ask for these opportunities.  Pick a group of companies that you would love to work for and simply ask for an internship.  Whether it’s assistant to the CEO or in the mail room, get yourself in the door.  Look for smaller companies that are less likely to advertise internship programs, as these may be the people who are really looking for some cost-effective help in this market.  And what’s the worst that could happen?  Even if they don’t offer you a job after a few months, you’ve gained a tremendous amount of experience and made yourself more qualified for the next job you apply for.  

Whether it’s through a volunteer position, unpaid internship or anything else, you are much more likely to find success and promotion once you are inside the organization.  Before you throw away the idea of taking an unpaid internship, ask yourself this question: “Would I rather work for free for two months or remain unemployed for six?”  Put you ego in your back pocket and get radical with your job hunt.  It worked for Sara.  


Vance Aloupis



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