A Note on Internships

It’s internship season again: people are proudly announcing what they’ve lined up for the summer, or starting to really scramble to get something set up.

Unpaid internships are such a part of the culture now, and there’s (rightfully) plenty of debate as to whether that’s healthy or not.

The trick is that there’s a fine line between an investment in future opportunities versus indentured servitude. And it really pays to know the difference — in the short run and the long.

If you’ve got an opportunity to be a linchpin, it might be appropriate to intentionally work for free for a short time. (And, of course, it’s worth showing up as a linchpin in any role — especially if you’re not yet getting paid, but wish to.)

If it doesn’t look like there’s a realistic shot at becoming a (paid) linchpin anytime soon, however, it might be worth asking some tougher questions about whether it’s worth doing, or whether your talents might be better invested — and invested in — somewhere else.

The internship industrial complex runs in large part on the assumption that there’s no other way. Could we start turning a different ratchet instead — one that rewards organizations that offer great work (and fair compensation), as well as people who show up and do great work (even if only for a short while)?