Sometimes you have to start at the bottom, and for a lot of young people, the bottom means doing an internship. Interns are usually expected to produce labor fitting of a full-time paid employee for a small pittance, but usually for free, in exchange for precious experience and professional contacts. Sometimes, companies treat their interns well, and the experience can lead to a job or greater opportunity down the road. But more often than not, businesses take advantage of young people, exploiting them for free labor, all in the name of “paying your dues”—just like everyone at the top allegedly did once.
So how does a student or recent graduate know when to cut her losses and walk away from a situation where she’s being treated unfairly, and when to suck it up and take on the grunt work and extra responsibilities with a smile, because the experience is worth it?
They say three times a bridesmaid, never a bride, but that’s superstition, and if it doesn’t hold true in terms of love and marriage, it certainly isn’t true in the workplace either. Perhaps I say this merely to comfort myself, as someone who has been four times an intern, never a full-time employee. Regardless, I’ve experienced the good, the bad, and the ugly of intern life, and I feel that I have a good idea when a company respects and appreciates you and your work, and when they are merely taking advantage of your free work, spunk, and enthusiasm.
My first big internship was with a startup company in my hometown during the first semester of my senior year of college, and the position was unpaid. As such, the company was lax about start and finish times, and did not strictly enforce anything, except the fostering of enthusiasm and new ideas. By taking a Montessori approach to our professional toe dipping, they forced us to create an experience we wanted, to decide what we wanted out of it, and to make it happen instead of waiting around for someone to tell us what to do. However, because they were not paying us, they did not treat us like full-time employees and expect us to work long hours or take focus away from our studies and/or the part-time jobs some of us worked to pay our rent and feed ourselves.
Usually, we made an effort to go above and beyond anyway, because we were all passionate about what we were doing, and the company started things off on the right foot by treating us so well. And despite not being paid, the end result was ultimately positive. Three of the five of us were hired at the end of the three months, and I was hired on as a freelance writer while I finished my last semester of college.
After that, when I took a paid internship in a writing-related field, I felt incredibly stressed all the time, and constantly insecure and unsure of myself. After one month, I knew it was not the right job for me. But I didn’t quit. I pushed through and bounced into the office everyday determined to fulfill my intern duties to the best of my abilities, and learn as much as I possibly could from my supervisor and temporary co-workers. Despite feeling inadequate much of the time, a majority of those feelings were self-produced because I was doing a job that wasn’t the right fit for me. Otherwise, the company appreciated my efforts and did not take advantage of me, although I felt awkward leaving the office before dark, as most everyone stayed at their desks into the evening.
I finally learned when the anxieties I experienced at an internship were not eustress, but the very, very bad kind of stress when I spent a few days working unpaid for a publication that did not seem to appreciate my time, effort, expertise, or personage in any way. This was an internship that showed me what it means to be taken advantage of as an intern.
What was advertised as a part-time, unpaid position was more akin to a full-time job. It wasn’t verbalized, but the pressure was on to exceed the part-time status by working a few hours overtime everyday. As an intern, I was expected to attend multiple outside events—paid for out of my own pocket—and report on them by week’s end in addition to my daily duties. Though I was only there for a few days, I did not get the feeling that I was appreciated, valued, or respected. I’m not advocating that businesses take it easy on interns, or saying that much shouldn’t be expected from people in these positions, but what I am saying is that there’s a blurry line between what is and isn’t acceptable treatment of an intern. To further complicate things, it’s very subjective to you and your situation as well.
In my situation, I realized that more bad would come out of the position than good, so I took charge immediately. I showed up at the office the next morning and pulled my supervisor aside to tell him I was sorry, but the internship was not a good fit, and that I wished them the best. He was disappointed, agitated, and put out, but it was a big step for me to realize that being treated well, and keeping sight of my own goals and aspirations is more important than making someone else happy.
So how do you know if you’re being an entitled millennial who really just needs to put her nose to the grindstone and stop whining about hard work, or if you’re truly in a lousy situation that’s not going to benefit you and your future? I think if you’re asking these questions, you likely already know the answers, but are afraid to admit them. When I was stressed at the first two internships, it came out of a desire to shine and really make my bosses and editors proud, because I genuinely looked up to them, and felt that they saw something in me. Whereas in the last instance, I felt like a mere packhorse without a name, someone who would hop to it and fetch spring rolls with a smile.
If you can’t envision yourself as a full-time employee at the company, if you don’t feel respected by your coworkers and bosses, and if you can gain the same experience, credentials, and contacts elsewhere, then you should allow yourself to cut the cord and move on. Because, as a wise person once told me, opportunities have a way of turning up for talented, hard working individuals. Just be sure to handle yourself with as much dignity, grace, and professionalism as you possibly can, whether or not your intern masters have treated you with the same respect. Because intern or not, that’s what classy people do.
Abby Carney recently graduated from Georgia State University with a bachelor’s in Journalism, and where she ran cross country/track. She has reported on sports and entertainment throughout college for the student publication The Signal, and her work has appeared in Daily Candy, Scoutmob, VentureVillage, and more.