Monday, November 8, 2010

Don't Let the Headlines Fool You: Inside An Unpaid Internship

Jane Austen and unpaid internships have a lot more in common than you might think. It sounds like a strange connection, right? I would’ve thought so, too, if weren’t for the situation I found myself in a few weeks ago.

From Jane Austen’s Famous Prose May Not Be Hers After All to Jane Austen’s Style Might Not Be Hers, Academic Claims, these headlines got me to thinking---and not just about how to control my literary meltdown.

I like to think I’m a pretty optimistic and even-tempered person who can take life’s lemons and turn them into a fabulous recipe for lemonade.  But what is a girl to do when confronted with such black and white (not to mention blasphemous) headlines?

It turns out the answer was simple: keep reading the article.

Despite the misleading headlines, none of the articles actually claimed that Jane didn’t pen her own work. Sure, she needed an editor to correct her grammatical and spelling errors—what author doesn’t? –but there was also a focus on Jane being an “experimental and innovative writer, [who was] constantly trying new things.”

Not exactly a conclusion to be gathered from reading the headlines alone.

The more I thought about it, the more it reminded me of attitudes pertaining to an unpaid internship. At first appearance, the mention of “unpaid” can be a turnoff to current or recent graduates, and it shouldn't be. How do I know? I was one such person.

While I was in college there was no question about accepting unpaid internships—there were the benefits of college credit and I could always get another part-time job that paid. Upon graduation, though, “unpaid” became a word I was eager to avoid. How would I support myself? What would I live on? What about my college degree—didn’t that mean paid employment was within my grasp?

Taking a long look at how the economy and job market were shaping up revealed that I still had a few lessons to learn about the real world—and that included making “unpaid internships” part of my repertoire. I didn’t realize it at first, but it was the best decision I could have made.

Taking a Risk

So, like many recent college graduates, I packed everything up and moved back home after graduation. Three months and hundreds of cover letters later, I accepted an unpaid internship with the San Francisco PR agency, MSR Communications. Yes, it was hard at first. I couldn’t afford to move to the city so I was commuting an average of 440 miles a week, waking up at 4 a.m. and every day I wasn’t at my internship, I was at my part-time job. Were there times I wanted to quit? Of course there were, but unpaid or not, I had a gut feeling about what I might learn from the experience. It’s one of the few things I haven’t been wrong about.

Before working for MSR, I knew next to nothing about Twitter (I know, what rock was I under…), my professional relationships were at a seedling stage and I didn’t have much published work to speak of.  I may have had four years of college under my belt, but there’s only so much you can learn in a classroom. I’ve since had the opportunity to work with some amazing people at MSR who have pushed me to succeed and introduced me to a host of new career opportunities. All that and I didn’t even have to pay college tuition to learn it.

Now on the verge of concluding my internship, I think back to the Jane Austen headlines. Like those articles, the title “unpaid internship” can be extremely misleading. Before completely crossing them off your list, do your research first and ‘keep reading,’ as Jane would say. Not all unpaid internships out there are created equal, but you owe it to yourself to explore your options. Trust me, it won’t kill you to move home after graduation (think of the money you can save on rent) and working multiple jobs is just another chance to meet new people.

The day I came home and announced that I'd accepted an unpaid internship, my father had one question: "Are unpaid internships even legal?" These words have served as my motivation to show him, and others, just how much an unpaid internship CAN do. I dare you to take your own risk, step outside your comfort zone and seize hold of every opportunity like it's your last.