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For whatever reason, businesses throw around the word “intern” like its some kind of magic phrase. They will literally pair any word with “intern” and think it will work: video intern, web design intern, social media intern, etc.

That’s not how it should be, though. Apparently, the world of today has forgotten what exactly an internship is, and geeks looking for jobs in the tech, design, and creative fields suffer because of it.

Instead of interns, many employers are simply hiring rotating staff members for temporary periods of time under the guise of unpaid internships. They aren’t looking for a web design intern. Rather, they want a web designer that they don’t have to pay.

Consider the recent ruling against Fox Searchlight Pictures. In short, internships should be educational – not just work. Fox Searchlight hired two interns for the duration of the production of Black Swan. However, rather than fostering an educational environment, the employers were treated as regular employees – not individuals who were there to learn.

We want you to take a refreshing look at the working world in order to formulate a more educated decision when it comes to taking on your internship. Remember, you do have a choice in this. Don’t fall victim to the modern intern scam.

What Is An Intern?

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These days, many employers ignore what an intern truly is. Merriam-Webster even skimps on the definition:

in·tern: a student or recent graduate who works for a period of time at a job in order to get experience

This leaves quite a bit for interpretation. Is this aforementioned experience referring to actually working in the field, or is it experience while being trained? Most malevolent (or ignorant) employers would likely prefer the former, but the truth is that there are a few guidelines on the issue.

While not necessarily applicable to the rest of the world, the United States Department of Labor offers six criteria for unpaid internships:

1. The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment;

2. The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern; 

3. The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff;

4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded;

5. The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship; and

6. The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.

All of this seems pretty reasonable, does it not? In short, an internship is for the good of the intern – not the employer. Furthermore, while no job placement is guaranteed, the employer may be able to find a suitable candidate through such a program. This means the employer may benefit by finding good help, and the intern will have proper job security.

But there you have it: legally (at least in the US), this is what constitutes an intern. Do the above guidelines mean you’re not allowed to touch real work? No, not at all. However, you should do so under the close supervision of an employer through educational means.

In some cases, particularly when an internship is counted for class credit, an employer may allow you to work additional hours in exchange for compensation. In this circumstance, don’t view your unpaid internship hours as a bust, for you’re still being compensated in the form of proper education. If the employer trusts and finds you a suitable candidate for extra responsibilities, then good for you! You’re likely doing a fantastic job.

How To Sift Through The Good & The Bad

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Realistically, it’s sometimes hard for students and graduates of today to know what exactly a “bad internship” is. Employment is currently hard to come by, and many interns hang onto that one glimmer of hope that says their internship may get them a job. With that said, the conclusion is often made that any internship is a good internship.

This simply isn’t the case. Students and graduates must realize something: their time is worth it. 

You are a valuable person with a drive and willingness to succeed, and if someone is making you work, they should be paying you. While in a proper internship, you should take the time and opportunity to learn so that you can better yourself as a person and worker, so eventually, you can become even more valuable to any future employer you may have!

With that said, there are three important questions you should consider before commencing an internship. You can ask them of yourself, of your employer prior to the interview, or of anyone else while you are doing research on the position:

1. Where is the internship located?

This is a very important question to consider. If you’re looking for an internship in computer information systems, do you really want to “intern” as the tech guy for a law firm? Furthermore, if you are a graphic design student, should you be interning for a record label?

If the internship is located in a relatively strange place for your field, chances are that you do not want to take it. Friends, family, and employers may try to persuade you, “Oh! But you’ll get so much experience by actually working!”

To this, I would suggest that you consider where your competitors are interning. While you are designing flyers for some shady record label’s artist on a bootlegged copy of Photoshop, there’s probably some intern at a design firm making coffee and learning from the pros.

In ten years, who do you think people are going to hire: the guy who spent time working on his own knowledge or the guy who spent time learning?

Granted, there are some exceptions. Such strange places of employment may actually have full-fledged IT or design departments, so there’s the possibility of this internship being valuable. Just make sure to check.

2. Who will you be interning under?

It’s perfectly reasonable for you to ask who your supervisor is. In fact, most people would encourage it when it comes to internships. If the employer simply says, “Uh, me,” then you may want to re-evaluate the internship unless he or she is actually associated with your field.

On the other hand, if the employer says something along the lines of, “We just want you to have the freedom to work in an uninhibited environment!” then get out fast. Else, you’re probably just going to be working for free.

Instead, your supervisor should be someone with experience in your field who is willing to teach and let you grow as a professional. Don’t settle for anything less. You may – by all technical means – be working, but at least you will be doing it under someone who can correct you and instruct you to do things more efficiently.

3. How educational will the internship be?

Companies with internship programs typically already have their system worked out quite efficiently. As an added note, if you’re interning through a university, then you may want to even check if the business has a good relationship with the school.

With that said, such employers should know what kind of educational experience you will receive. Think of it like a professor’s syllabus – the employer knows what you will learn and typically in what stages you will learn it. If you can’t get a solid answer as to what kind of education you will receive while on the job, then again, re-evaluate the position.

What About Getting Hired?

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Let’s be real for a second. Most of the time, when people are looking for internships, they aren’t looking for something educational. Instead, they want it to turn into a job, and if you are reading this it’s likely you feel the same way. This is perfectly reasonable considering how many jobs actually come through internships.

Consider the requirements of an internship to be two-fold: 1) you are getting education, so even if a job does not come out of it, you will at least have the experience and knowledge to take on a position somewhere else, and 2) you have your foot in the door, so not only do you have the chance to get the job, you have the experience and knowledge to do it well.

Being hired should be something on your mind, but you also need to realize that the educational side of it is worth your time. If you are working an internship with no educational benefit, then what good is it for the remainder of your employment? Furthermore, when this employer says, “Sorry, this won’t work out” after you have worked your butt off for months, what do you have to take away from it? Some Podunk company with no relevance to your field on your resumé Getting Results In The Jobs Market: The Modern Resume Getting Results In The Jobs Market: The Modern Resume Your resume? Well, it's just a simple piece of paper, now. This certainly isn't to say that your resume no longer has a purpose. It most definitely does, my friend. Instead of serving as the... Read More ?

Employment should be the goal of your internship, but education should be the takeaway.

Don’t Let Them Take Advantage Of Your Geekiness

Children of the Technology Information Age, whether you are in school, recently graduated, or looking for an internship, you are the fire behind today’s working force, and employers know it. They also know that jobs are currently hard to come by, and they will take advantage of you.

As said before, your time is worthit. Either use it to be paid for your technology skills, or use it to enhance those skills in such a way that puts you ahead of the competition.

What other tips do you have for finding the right internship? Have you ever fallen victim to a “fake” internship? What do you consider to be an internship?

Image Credits: Dunedin Internship via Flickr, Tulane Public Relations, Ruben, 401(K) 2013

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