Advice to Recent Grads: Vet Your Employers and Never Work For Free


In May 2012, the national unemployment rate for persons 25 and over with at least a Bachelor’s degree was 3.7%. With overall national unemployment hovering around 8.2%, the former rate brought marginal comfort to fellow spring Master’s graduates. 

Still, uncertainty pervaded and tales of Ivy League MBA's sans employment and saddled with six-figure debt a year after graduation were as ubiquitous as diplomas come late May.

The job market is increasingly competitive and many candidates, particularly those still in graduate school or recently out, are willing to labor wherever, for whatever, to ensure better employment down the line.

Last year the BBC ran a piece on graduate internships, and whether employers took advantage of supremely well-educated, under-experienced students as cheap or unpaid labor.

This wasn’t the first time internships were called into question for their ethics practices. Three years ago, the UK’s Daily Mail announced a new study that would "probe into exploitation of graduate students working for free." These articles shed light on the anticlimactic, underwhelming, and underpaid opportunities awaiting newly minted Masters.

So you can imagine the sheer delight experienced when I was offered a paid position a mere five weeks after completing my Master’s degree in global affairs at New York University. It was mid June, just over a month after I’d received my diploma, and six days before I had to move out of my apartment.

It wasn’t an offer I’d dreamed of. It wasn’t an opportunity I’d worked for. An NYU Professor knew a guy who needed someone and there I was. One afternoon I had an email and eleven days later I had a job. Some people caution against love at first sight. I am not one of them. I remain someone very keen on the idea of gut instincts. And when I accepted this role, it was against each and every one of mine.

For starters, there was the office. The firm billed itself as one of the finest political institutions in the world. I thought it odd they could only afford a modestly square-footed room.

"No matter," I told myself. This is a small firm, and also, this is New York. I knew that plenty of startups labored in alternative spaces — teams of thinkers squashed side by side on the same bench at Starbucks, hunched and furiously keying at their laptops.

“And they did just fine! I exclaimed internally. And repeatedly. There was also the website. Prior to my initial interview, I logged on to do some background prep but found the company’s website was in the process of “updating.” Again, that must be OK, right? "Don’t we all need to update from time to time?" and "We’re transitioning to our new site to reflect our new client work," I was told. Transitioning. Updating. "Perfectly reasonable," I chanted.

Then, there was my salary. An offer was extended, and I countered, based on both their reasoning for why I was made the offer to begin with, and the costs of living in the world’s sixth most expensive city.

I expected to be met somewhere in the middle, but my counter was accepted, with a perfunctory explanation of the firm’s "accounting management and processes," terms I would soon come to know and loathe.  

I assumed my negotiating ability was to thank for the agreement to my stipulations. Making that assumption was a poor choice, as was failing to question why their site was more construction than web.

Once I had the final offer, and the confirmed salary, I did what any foolhardy Master’s graduate student with a new contract and high hopes might do. I signed a lease, my first in New York. So long, sublets! Goodbye, Craigslist! Hello legal consequences!

Someone told me recently that the first year out of grad school is about survival. It felt extra significant when she said it because, there was a hurricane outside, and a few of us were sitting in a circle, in the dark around some candles, which makes everything seem more profound.

Exactly two weeks later, I was fired. Technically, I was “let go.” This was after I’d been written one bad paycheck that caused my rent to bounce (due to the "updating and transitioning accounting management and processes") but before the second paycheck that left $24.73 in my checking account while I was out of the country.

The job dropping in my lap felt like a beautiful thing at the time because it provided all sorts of explanations. It allowed me to stay in New York. It allowed me to move into my apartment. And it allowed me to give people a solid answer when they asked what I was going to do now that graduate school was over.

Lately, people have asked why I took the job to begin with, and the simple,true explanation is that it was a job, and I needed one. I still do. It just wasn’t a final answer. It answered certain questions, at a certain time, and then it was over.

Today, the national unemployment rate has crept down to 7.7%, while New York’s remains around 8.7%. Re-reading the stories of intern graduate students who spent hours managing client accounts, googling fundraising opportunities, and translating legal documents, only to have their employer offer little more than a shrug when said student complained he or she could no longer afford to “work” for free, it’s easy to see why this may be considered exploitative. 

Just ask "the queen of internships," Rachael Levy.  But to be offered a paid opportunity under false pretenses, to sign a lease based on a projected salary, to commit to city residence based on financial expectations,only to have your paychecks bounced, your calls not returned, and your employment options during the holidays minimal— that’s something else altogether.

And none of it’s good. Like so many eager graduates before me, I was able, willing, and ready to take the first job that came my way. It was all I wanted. And amidst my excitement over getting it, I neglected to exercise the necessary care in ensuring that it was actually a sound opportunity.

Be careful what you wish for.