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Evaluating an Unpaid Internship Offer

Internships, especially unpaid internships, work on the barter system. You are bartering your time, energy, and skills for training, hands-on experience, contacts, and increased marketability.

Think carefully about the internship offers that you receive. Make sure that you are getting what you need from this exchange.

Here are some key components that lead to a successful internship:

  • Work that feels meaningful, useful, and which exposes you to different aspects of the agency’s operations
  • Work that requires a variety of skills and challenges you to grow
  • Supervisor and staff who are on-site or easily available for consultation, and who are willing to guide you and answer your questions
  • Opportunities to learn about the career field—this might be done through your day-to-day activities, through informal conversations with staff, or it might include participating in staff meetings, observing site visits, or staff trainings.
  • You won’t know for sure the benefits or disadvantages of any internship until you are actually on the job.By asking some of the following questions beforehand, however, you may learn a lot about the position for which you are applying.
  • Could you describe some of the projects or assignments I would be involved in, which areas or departments I would rotate through, and what my role would be?
  • What type of supervision do interns receive? Do interns meet with supervisors routinely? How do interns get feedback on their work?
  • Could you describe the work culture at this organization?
  • What are the most important qualities you are looking for in an intern?
  • Could you give me an example of an intern whom you thought of as outstanding? What did he/she do that made him/her outstanding?
  • Are interns included in staff programs such as staff meetings, seminars, or training sessions? Do interns observe site visits, or meetings with clients?
  • How do you see the breakdown between time spent on clerical or repetitive work and time spent on career-related projects?

This last question is a tricky one to ask. You don’t want to give the impression that you would be unhappy doing clerical work! It’s important, however, for you to find out how much of your time will be given to projects or assignments that will help you meet your learning goals.

Try prefacing the question with a positive statement. You might say,

“I’m fully aware that every job involves some clerical work, and I am more than happy to photocopy, answer phones, take messages, enter data, and other clerical tasks. However, I would like to know how you see the breakdown between time spent on this type of work and time spent on career-related projects?”

15- 25 percent of hours worked is a reasonable amount of time for an intern to spend in repetitive or clerical tasks.

Reflect on the responses that are given to you. Do these responses make you enthusiastic about the internship or doubtful? If you are offered an internship and are not sure whether you want to accept it, make an appointment to meet with the supervisor or speak over the phone in order to clarify the points about which you are uncertain.

Develop three or four learning objectives that will give the supervisor a clear idea of what you would like to gain from this experience.

Whether you make a decision to accept an unpaid or a paid internship, your next step is to complete the AST Project Outline. (forms.html) Contact us (contact us) to talk with you about your proposed experience or help you explore other opportunities.

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University of Illinois Springfield
One University Plaza
Springfield, Illinois 62703-5407
217-206-6600

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