Please Don't Ask Whether My Internship Is Paid Laura Donovan

In June, I saw The Internship, and though it was torched by critics and viewers alike, the movie showed me I wasn’t taking enough professional risks or going after what I really wanted.

“These are some deep thoughts about a Vince Vaughn movie,” joked fellow giggler Anna Swenson, but even the most light-hearted of productions can put you on the right track if you need some guidance. The Internship is about two grown men who lose their jobs and move out West to pursue internships at Google, where they may or may not end up working full-time. Not to spoil the flick for you, but as you can imagine, things pan out for our friends Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn, and the feel-good story about interning in sunny, inspiring California proves it’s fine to intern later in life if that’s necessary to build a new career.

I’ve had more than one internship, some paid, some unpaid, and while I understand the pervasive negative response to unpaid work, I also wish there wasn’t such an emphasis on whether or not the position is compensated. What about the internship itself and what it can do for an ambitious individual?

I’m starting an exciting internship next year, and when I told people about it, almost all of them asked right off the bat, “Is it paid? Or just a networking opportunity?” Why has that become the default first question? Yes, it’s important to address, especially since unpaid internships can potentially push away talented folks who can’t work for free, but why not also inquire about what the internship entails? When you’re green, the most valuable thing is the experience itself, not if it comes with a paycheck or stipend.

I understand the concern that unpaid internships keep less-than-privileged people out of certain fields, but that’s another discussion entirely, and many unpaid programs offer school credit or flexible scheduling so interns can have part-time jobs on the side. I don’t like to say this, but that’s just the way it is, and sometimes you have to bite the bullet and be willing to start fresh when embarking on a new adventure. Life is unfair sometimes, but you could be rewarded in the long run. After graduating college in 2010, I held an unpaid internship for two months before it turned into a full-time position, which opened many doors for me in the online media world. I had to begin from the ground up, and doing that a second time is both terrifying and exciting.

Not everyone walks out of internships gainfully employed and insured, and I consider myself lucky to be able to do this, but when asked about my plans for the new year, I don’t just want to hear questions about how much money I’ll be putting away, because that’s my business.

As for internships that are paid, there’s always a possibility that the earnings won’t be significant. It’s just a tough time to be young and unemployed or underemployed, and those with unpaid internships aren’t the only ones making sacrifices. Just assume your friends with unpaid internships have a plan to stay afloat, whether by working elsewhere during their off-time or taking odd jobs whenever possible.

Also, it’s rude to talk about money. You know better than to ask people how high or low their salary is, so don’t put interns in the same awkward, unpleasant boat. We’re people too.

Featured image via The Internship Movie

What are your thoughts on internships? Is it rude to ask whether the gig is paid? Tell me in the comments.


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  1. Well this was a good article. Sorry about asking you!! :) I am glad that you have the experience whatever it may be, paid or unpaid. I know how hard you’ve been looking for jobs! So happy for you either way!

  2. I definitely agree. Seriously, I don’t understand how people still think it’s acceptable to talk about a) money and b) weight/other people’s bodies. IT’S NOT!

    Also, I loved “The Internship”. Not ashamed!

  3. Unpaid internships are a scam and completely unnecessary. So is overpriced higher education, Just a couple of generations ago, we fought particularly hard for workplace rights. Especially as women! I find it very interesting that there is a much higher percentage of women in unpaid internships than men. Since when in this country did we ever just buck up and take it? The system is flawed, we know it. So let’s damn well fix it! It’s very expensive and complicated for a company to even offer a legit internship, so it’s really not that far of a stretch to pay at least minium wage as well. And you’re probably going to get a better caliber of interns. Win-win. Don’t fall for the brainwashing. Your time and work are worth something, There is never an amount of so called “experience” than can make up for requiring someone work for free for years just to get an entry level job.

  4. It’s all well and good to talk about what the internship has to offer, but it’s naive. When someone has no choice but to take paid work that doesn’t provide experience that is directly relevant to one’s intended career over work that does but is uncompensated (usually in order to fund and thus earn their undergraduate or graduate degree in the first place), it doesn’t matter how much that unpaid internship has to offer you. All unpaid internships do is continue to provide more opportunity to those that already have rather than those that have-not, regardless of how much ambition those in the latter category have. Rather than asking people to not ask about whether or not your internship is paid, maybe just count yourself lucky that you were able to take ones that weren’t.

    • I specifically state that Im lucky to take internships that aren’t paid, but even when I’ve had paid ones, it’s still a rude question.

      • So your discomfort at being asked is more important than people having open discussions to ensure that no one is being exploited and that federal labor laws aren’t being violated?

      • I’m not arguing with you that the question is rude – it’s well known that one shouldn’t discuss salaries in polite society. However, I think you had an opportunity to write an article that spoke to the problematic nature of unpaid internships rather than simply bemoaning peoples’ lack of decorum and etiquette.

        • That article has been written many many times. You can google it. And it’s not about my “discomfort” — another person’s income is none of your business.

  5. Amen!!! Completely agree! By the beginning of this semester I had my dream internship, but I was never able to start working there because some asshole interns sued the company because they weren’t getting paid. I know people that have two part time jobs and an intership, it can be done. The people that complain are just lazy and the ones that sued just wanted easy money.

    • I have worked two-three part time jobs throughout my undergraduate and graduate degrees – I have never been able to take an unpaid internship. I am not lazy. I do not expect anything to be handed to me. I work hard and create opportunities for myself. Your comment that those who choose not to take unpaid internships are simply lazy is misguided, offensive, and utterly blind.

      • Yes, those interns were real assholes for sticking their neck out, probably going into debt to hire lawyers, and working hard on their own to secure a better future for themselves and their fellow interns. What shallow, inconsiderate jerks.

  6. Internships are essential to gaining experience, networking, and finding out what you do and do not love. There should not be any expectation to be paid, it’s just a nice bonus when it happens. I love how you point out that internships don’t take up all your time, and a flexible for part time jobs. People act like internships are 40 hours a week, when it’s usually at tops 16 hours a week. Love the article, and rock that intern title!

  7. I think a big reason people ask if it’s paid is because they have seen companies take advantage of interns. I’ve seen it first hand- working in the film industry I see it all the time and it’s an embarrassment that interns don’t get paid considering how much the people at the top are making. I’ve seen interns do the same exact job as entry level employees but they are only getting compensated for meals and gas.

    • You’re right — it’s problematic in journalism as well. It’s just annoying when people are like, “Congrats, so are you getting paid?” Why should that be the most interesting part of the discussion? It is rude to talk about money, even if it’s also rude of companies to take advantage.

  8. I asked you! But only because I’ve been looking for jobs too. But I admit, I am nosy also. Don’t hate me! Lol