Four surprising tips for an unpaid internship


Photo by Photo courtesy of Alexandra Atsalis

Reporter Alexandra Atsalis pictured with another intern from Michigan State University

Alexandra Atsalis

Most summer activities college students do can be placed on a scale that has selfless volunteering on one end and profitable paid work on the other. I spent my summer somewhere in the middle, in the illusive territory known as the unpaid internship. Unpaid internships have a notorious reputation for being essentially slave labor in a cubicle. Considering that participants receive neither the warm, fuzzy feeling that comes with volunteer work, nor the coveted cash that comes with a job, the perception is understandable. However, despite their financial shortcomings, something can be gained from all unpaid internships if you know how to make the best of the experience. Lucky for you, I’ve already done the hard work and figured out a few tips to follow.
Anticipate having low motivation 
It’s no surprise that people both work harder and are happier about it when they have an incentive to do so. For example, standing  around, doing nothing is awesome when you get paid, but doing it for free just seems like a waste of time. Expectedly, staying focused is huge problem among unpaid interns. Even if you have a good work ethic and love your internship like I did, your motivation will inevitably plummet. It’s just impossible to stop the little voice in the head from reminding you that there’s no pay check at the end of the week. It’s important to anticipate feeling lazy, because if you’re unprepared, then restoring your motivation is difficult. Accepting that you’ll occasionally have low motivation will help you think of ways to counteract it.
Get Creative
Interns are notoriously given dull and monotonous tasks, like sending mass emails or doing data entry. I had my fair share of this kind of work, and discovered that the best way to handle it was to get creative whenever possible. Whether this means fashioning a tiny dunce cap for your incredibly slow office computer, or putting a sign on your desk that reads “Intern Habitat: kindly do not feed the interns,” there’s always different ways to make things a little more fun. You’d be surprised how something as small as adding a joke at the end of the last email of the day can improve your personal morale.
With a great blazer comes great responsibility
Despite my lowly intern status, I occasionally would indulge myself by wearing a blazer to work. It turns out that appearing so convincingly professional can be both a blessing and a curse. On the plus side, strangers are nicer to you when you wear one. They assume you know exactly what you are doing and that you are in a higher position. The problem is that this can sometimes lead to confusion and embarrassment. For me, this most notably occurred when a TV news crew nearly interviewed me, mistaking me for someone more important. My horrified face was priceless, and the reporter laughed for a good 10 minutes after I confusedly stuttered and stammered incoherently before blurting out, “I’m just the intern!”
Talk to your professional colleagues   
The importance of networking gets drilled into our pre-professional minds so often that I worry it’s literally leaving holes in my brain. If it’s not the number-one-favorite buzz word of people in the real world, then it must be in the top 10. Networking is certainly something to take advantage of during unpaid internships. A lot can also be gained by talking to the professionals you’re working with for the sake of genuine learning, and not just for ulterior network-expanding motives. Listening and asking questions is the only way you can learn about your field, and get valuable insider tips you won’t learn about in class. At the end of the internship you may not be financially richer, but you will have certainly accumulated more knowledge. You never know, in the long run this may prove to be even more profitable.