Going Beyond the Internship

When I was in graduate school, everyone told me how important and valuable internships were for my academic career. However, what they didn’t tell me was those internships had to be unpaid to count towards my degree and the internships would not be counted as professional experience. Let me explain to you how this bullshit idea that internships (paid and unpaid) are not considered professional experience and how that can be avoided on your resume. I would put internships into two categories; actual unpaid strictly a learning experience internship and unpaid free labor for institutions that could not pay you “internship”. In short, an actual internship and volunteering for the credits.

Take notes, readers!

Between my bachelor’s and master’s degrees, I’ve had about four internships. The internships during my bachelor’s degree would be considered actual internships. One of the internships during my master’s degree would be considered the same. And the last internship during my master’s degree was volunteering for the credits. How did you figure that out? You ask. Well, I noticed a few key differences in my internships. 

Actual Internship v. Volunteering for the Credits

The three actual internships I have had in the past shared one thing in common. There was always a mentor present. This mentor not only gave me a project and guided me throughout the process, but they were also always there to teach me something new. The entire internship was one giant learning experience. Which I believe is the truest meaning of an internship. 

Now, not all internships are the same (duh), but it’s key to understand the difference between an actual internship and volunteering for the credits. The other “internship” during my master’s degree had none of the elements the actual internships had. There was no mentor or even a point person to check in on me or for me to seek help or ask questions. The institution hosting the internship also did not guide me during the project. I was basically on my own. 

I asked around to my fellow grad students and they had similar experiences. They had an internship that was completely unsupervised. And maybe because it is graduate school professors don’t feel the need to mentor or monitor students. But that doesn’t explain why the institutions do not supervise or mentor throughout the internship. And that is because many institutions hosting internships in the library, archives, or museums do not have the appropriate funding to pay someone to complete a simple or short term task. It is so much cheaper to get an unpaid intern to do paraprofessional work. 

When you realize the internship is really just volunteering.

This is how grads get roped into volunteering for credit. And it is complete bullshit for both the student and the institution. Graduate students are looking for an internship or any experience that allows them to exercise their skills. They need a place to practice and in order to learn from that practicing grad students need a mentor. They need someone to guide them through a project. When you give a grad student an internship with no mentor then their skills are not being shaped and the outcome can leave the institution with more work. I cannot tell you how many times an institution has said: “oh, this project was done by an intern and it’s just all wrong” (and how many times I have wanted to yell in their face “WHERE THE FUCK WERE YOU!?”). 

But I get it. Some institutions simply do not have the funding nor the support staff to mentor or supervise an intern and they just need someone to work on the backlog. I get it. But institutions should not sacrifice the quality of work just to get the project done. And they shouldn’t waste young professionals (aka grad students) time and money on free labor. 

Giving Internships Value on Your Resume

As you write (or rewrite) your resume, categorize those unpaid internships as “Service” or some category that can lump all the volunteering and leadership positions you’ve had (or still have). The actual internships probably include processing a collection, researching something, or weeding a collection. While this may not seem like professional experience, I would argue that it actually is. During the actual internship, you were sharpening your skills as a professional and probably had to show that work through a paper, poster, or presentation. This is what professionals do! This is a chance on your resume to let internships read as professional work! Defend it!

For those volunteering for the credits “internships”, give yourself a real title (“collections processor”, “librarian assistant”, “web developer”) and make it read like a professional project. Because if the host institution treated you like a professional then you worked as a professional! No one was holding your hand or advising you. You did that work on your own- like a fucking professional! 

Yes! You ARE a professional!

A lot of positions you are applying to require professionals to do administrative work like running meetings, setting up interviews, training student workers, or some other boring task. The “Service” section of your resume can be a place for that type of work to be noticed. Were you on a committee or head of a committee? Did you hold a position for a student group? Did you lead a project? All of that should be considered a service, which is expected of all professionals (i.e. professional development) and therefore should be on your resume. 

Stepping Out of Student Status

In a perfect world, all internships (actual and not) would be paid or at least include some stipend or compensation. However, our world is (very) far from perfect. Colleges expect students to give their time away for free in hopes of gaining some relevant experience. All we can do for now is make those experiences worth it for ourselves and our resumes. 

It’s exciting moving from student to professional!

Your resume is more than just a laundry list of shit you’ve done the past four or five years. It’s a place to see how you evolved from a student to a professional. As much as I hate saying this, keep volunteering and keep applying to internships or fellowships. Because as much as they seem to not count as professional work, you have the ability to make it professional by presenting it as serious work. And don’t be afraid to present that work (add it to your resume)! As you wrap up classes in grad school your resume should reflect that change in status from student to professional. 

One thought on “Going Beyond the Internship

  1. […] However, if you can, try to avoid using the term “intern” and “volunteer” because it doesn’t sound professional on paper. Even if you built an entire website from scratch or processed a huge collection. While I think the value of internships and volunteering is much greater than others believe, the simple fact is, sadly, they are not. I like to believe those roles will one day be valued. For more on this mini-rant, read “Going Beyond the Internship”.  […]


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