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What to Look for in an Internship (and 3 Red Flags)


One argument in the growing debate about whether interns should be paid is that too many companies benefit from the free labor of interns. This goes against the grain of what an internship experience was originally designed to be: an important part of the intern’s education. One way to address this is to examine the quality of the internship. Here is what to look for and what to avoid.


(Photo Credit: Travis Isaacs/Flickr)

Six Criteria

Do You Know What You're Worth?

Remember, an intern is not an employee (and usually is not paid.) The Federal Wage and Hour Division has six criteria for companies with interns. If these six requirements are followed, it is legal to not pay interns.

  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.

If you are applying for an internship, look for a company that is set up to accommodate interns. You should have an interview first in which you discuss your learning goals, and get a sense of what they are able to teach you.

When looking for an internship, keep an eye out for these three red flags:

1. No Place to Sit

There needs to be a place for you to work. You shouldn’t have to stand around while waiting for instructions. The room in which you have a chair and table or desk may be shared, but you should have access to work space and equipment, as necessary.

If employees are flustered because they don’t know where to put you or what to do with you, this shows lack of organization and preparation, which is not good for you. To be fair, be flexible. Your space may change, meaning you may need to switch to another space halfway through the internship, and it may be a shared space, but it should be adequate for your needs.

2. Not Enough Substantive Work

An internship is an educational experience. It is not free labor for the employer. You may be asked to do some administrative tasks on your internship. This is to expose you to all aspects of the business. You need to know what everybody does. The bulk of your internship should not be spent doing administrative tasks. Again, to be fair, you may be willing to help out with these things especially if your supervisor is backed up with them, but it is not your job. It should not be the main reason you are there.

3. Lack of Mentorship

The most important is last. If you walk into an internship in a crowded office with no place to sit, initially, and tons of old filing to be done but you have a skilled mentor ready to teach every aspect of the job and answer every question, stay put! Mentorship is the most important part of any internship.

Because an internship was designed to benefit the student, not the employer, your supervisor should be taking time out of his day to show you ropes. He should give you work to do that he may normally do himself so that you may learn to do it. He looks over your work, and helps you to do better. It takes longer, but that is what an intern’s supervisor does.

You should be able to ask questions and discuss work-related issues. If nobody is there to teach you, it’s not a good internship. If you have a supervisor who is approachable and available for questions and discussions, you likely have the opportunity to learn a lot on your internship.

Tell Us What You Think

Have you had an internship or do you work with interns? We want to hear from you! Leave a comment or join the discussion on Twitter.

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Great tips! An internship is incredibly important for college students, but it’s not useful if the experience is not useful. If you want to know the top ten reasons to get an internship, check out our blog post:

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