10 Things You Wish You Knew Before Starting Your Unpaid Internship


Ah, the unpaid internship: an ubiquitous experience that every millennial knows well. I've previously written about the importance of the passion that interns bring to Washington, D.C.  

I half-jokingly describe myself as an eternal intern: I've held my fair share, and have figured out a few key lessons that are worth bearing in mind as you embark on this great journey into your desired career. Here they are:

1. Every morning you must choose between getting up early and making your own lunch or staying asleep and paying $15 for lunch

The latter always wins.

2. You will pay the equivalent of two weeks worth of wages in order to commute to your unpaid internship

If this does not depress you, you are not human.

3. You will learn that there are some people who are incapable of commuting

You will see everything from:

People making out on the subway...

(something you can never un-see)

...to people who find it necessary to yell into their phone about their marital problems on the bus...

(something you can never un-hear)

...to people that don't understand escalators.

You will marvel at society's ability to function.

4. Your dry-cleaning alone costs another day's salary from your second job

Leaving you wondering how you'll eat and pay rent.

5. You'll arrive, all brushed up on everything you've ever learned that is in any way relevant to this internship. None of it will matter

Your job will most closely resemble the above, unless, of course, you've taken classes in Introductory Errand Running, Intermediate Letter Drafting, or Advanced Phone Calling.

While at first you may seem disappointed, don’t be: it’s all part of putting theory into practice.

6. Between dry-cleaning your business professional clothes and commuting to and lunching at your unpaid internship, you will realize you are literally making negative money

No one will judge you if you cry a little bit when you realize this.


7. You will realize that it is people like you who write the recommendation you will ask for when you apply to your next internship

Depending on how good a writer you are, this will make you very happy:

Or very sad:

8. Sometimes, you really are smarter than one or two paid adults around you, yet cannot assert this as you are but an unpaid intern

This terrible burden will teach you diplomacy.

9. No matter how on top of things you think you are, you will do at least one thing that is completely idiotic

Including, but not limited to: breaking the copier, walking into a meeting you’re not supposed to be in, and/or getting lost.  

Nothing can insulate you from this. It’s okay, it’s just part of being an intern. Celebrate it

10. No matter how irritating things get, (and trust me, they will), you will count this experience as one of the greatest of your life

You will get practical experience in a field you find interesting, finally getting to take what you learned about in books and classrooms and implement it in the real world. You will learn that there are a lot of things you can't learn from books, and that the best jobs are the ones you learn through baptism by fire. You will find yourself in a cohort of people who will interest you endlessly: some opening your eyes and intellectually challenging you, some providing an example of who you don't want to be, and some that will be your role models despite how close you are in age. You will walk away with amazing personal and professional connections, and revel in reminiscing about the good old days over coffee on rainy afternoons. The financial punch in the gut, the early mornings, the commuters that inspired in you both feelings of fellowship in common misery and an unquenchable desire to throttle them and the grunt work will all be worth it.