The 5 Red Flags of Internship Hell

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Internships are touted as the surefire way to guarantee a grown-up job after graduation, but not all internships are created equally. In fact, some companies will milk you for all your worth and then leave you with a couple crappy lines on your resume. To ensure you’ll actually get something out of your internship experience, be vigilant to avoid these five red flags.

1. Vague job descriptions

You decide that you need a fall internship two weeks before school starts and you come across an available internship with a title like “Creative Intern.” Your heart starts racing (*cue the scene from The Devil Wears Prada where all her dreams come true*). Then you scroll down to the description and it’s filled with vague phrases like, “will gain experience in creative fields” and “must have a can-do attitude.”

But sometimes, you doubt your go-getter mentality. Does this mean you shouldn’t apply? Yes, you shouldn’t apply, but not because of your attitude or lack of creativity. Don’t apply because the job description is so nonspecific that you could end up doing absolutely anything.

Denise Fesik, Learning and Organization Development Manager at Nestle USA, said, “Read the job description in its entirety. Sometimes there will be one line where you will say, ‘Wait a minute!’” That “wait a minute” moment can save you hundreds of minutes of working at a company that just wants you for cheap (or free) labor. Turn on some inspirational music and continue with your internship search.

2. Daily assignments fit for a hermit

Sometimes internship directors do this thing where they stick you inside your own little cubicle and demand you do data entry, research, transcription, whatever. You’re totally and completely by yourself. The next Ice Age could come upon the earth and you wouldn’t know it sitting in your sad hermitage. Don’t let this happen. Human relationships are your Wonka’s Golden Ticket to the real world.

Laura Peterson, former intern at the Dictionary of American Regional English, said that cultural capital was the most valuable aspect of the internship she completed. Why? She said, “Those internship connections are the people that are going to be able to steer you. They know what’s going on; they’re the experts.  If you’re not making connections, then why do it?” Truer words have never been spoken.

If your internship makes you feel more isolated than the kid in Home Alone, either quit the internship, or have a very serious talk (respectfully, of course) with your superior. You cannot let that shit fly.

3. Labor without pay

To be paid or not to be paid, that is the question. For some of us, it is imperative (for the sake of tuition and/or to pay rent) that we get paid. For others, we are lucky enough to take that unpaid internship and learn what we can. If you are considering unpaid internships, think about how you are going to make that time pay for itself in the long run.

Decide if that unpaid internship is worth your time by testing if it pays in other ways. As a former intern at Morris Public Relations firm, Penn State alum Madison Spence explained that although she wasn’t paid, she racked up desirable skills including writing press releases and managing social media accounts like a seasoned expert. She said, “I could’ve done a paid internship somewhere else but I wouldn’t have gotten a hands-on experience or learned what it’s like to work at a small PR firm.”

The point? If you’re going to take a job that won’t compensate you with real money, they better be compensating you with real world skills. Otherwise, you’re just wasting your time.

4. Administrative tomfoolery

Although most internships involve some amount of administration (hell, I bet even Vice interns have to email famous people to interview), the whole internship shouldn’t be busywork. If your only job titles include “Coffee Runner,” “Paper Shredder” and “Data Enterer,” you need to hit the road, Jack. And don’t you come back no more.

Fesik said, “Avoid internships that look for people to do monotonous data entry-type tasks.” How can you find out whether or not your internship might use you as a glorified secretary? Denise said the answer is simple. “Ask the company about various projects that other interns have done in the past because that will be a tell-tale sign of the kinds of experiences they got.” The long and the short of it is, only take an internship that offers hands-on experience. Otherwise, it’s just a secretarial position without pay.

5. Passionless projects

If you’d rather watch paint dry than do political research for a professor, skip that “looks-good-on-your-resume” internship. Opt for one that could actually be something you want to do even if the company name isn’t as recognizable. It will pay off because your passion for the project will lead you to go above and beyond. Spence said, “Search for internships that reflect your interest. If you’re not interested in what you’re doing, it makes the days go by really slow.”

Heed Spence’s advice. If reading about your intern project makes you feel like you need a cup of coffee, NEXT.

Chelsea is a senior at the UW-Madison, majoring in Creative Writing and Sociology. In her free time, she enjoys petting strangers' dogs, making a mean fish fry, and riding her bike (until it was inevitably stolen). When she graduates, she hopes to adopt several German Shepherds and become a starving writer in New York City.

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