Intern Experiences Examined

Ideally, internships represent a mutually beneficial arrangement: Young people gain valuable experience, and companies enjoy an expanded workforce at much lower costs than they would otherwise. But if this model of apprenticeship has become a rite of passage for aspiring professionals, it has also attracted intense criticism in recent years.

Many insist that unpaid internships are exploitative, forcing eager students to accept brutal terms in exchange for basic experience. Others allege internships hinder social mobility, as only privileged candidates can afford to take them. These concerns have prompted legal actions across the globe, from enforcement crackdowns in the U.K. to high-profile lawsuits in the United States. Amidst all this controversy, what do interns themselves make of their experiences?

We endeavored to find out, surveying over 500 former interns about the nature and outcomes of their internships. Our findings indicate how internships vary in terms of compensation and long-term value, as well as how men and women fare differently in many industries. Moreover, our data reveal how often internships translate into full-time employment – or simply fizzle in frustration. Whether you’re currently a student seeking internship opportunities or an employer who offers them, you won’t want to miss what we uncovered.

Unpaid Inequality?

If you’re wondering about regulations governing unpaid internships, we’ll attempt to condense Department of Labor legalese. Although the Fair Labor Standards Act mandates that for-profit companies compensate their employees, interns can perform unpaid work if their experience possesses educational value. Unfortunately, it seems female interns are far more likely to take these uncompensated opportunities: Whereas 36 percent of men said their internships were unpaid, 51 percent of women said the same. This finding may indicate just how thoroughly gender-based wage discrimination is embedded in our corporate culture: Even before they’re hired full time, male workers possess a pay advantage.

In some industries, however, the vast majority of internship opportunities entailed some compensation: In the manufacturing and tech industries, approximately 4 in 5 internships were paid. Indeed, many Silicon Valley internships include legendary perks, including complimentary housing and copious amounts of free grub. Interns in civic-minded fields were far less likely to enjoy paid gigs: At government or education-related institutions, less than half of interns were paid. Health care internships were even less likely to compensate, with merely 33 percent of opportunities entailing income of any kind.

Internship Time Investment

Internships vary in their scheduling expectations: Some are designed to occupy college students during the summer months, while others are concurrent with college courses. Accordingly, internship time commitments differ dramatically, and paid gigs typical consume more time than experience-only opportunities. In the hospitality, food services, and retail fields, for example, 11 percent of interns reported working more than 40 hours weekly.

Internship Introductions

It’s sometimes assumed that coveted internships require inside connections: To snag a top opportunity, you need a personal connection to beat out other applicants. Yet our data suggest this route to internships is actually relatively rare: Just 14 percent of respondents said they got their gig through a personal connection. Moreover, 15 percent said they had networked their way to an internship opportunity. If most interns don’t secure opportunities through their expert use of social capital, how do internship connections typically happen?

For nearly half of respondents, internships came their way via a source at school: Twenty-four percent said a professor had supplied a key recommendation, and 25 percent reported a service at their college had facilitated the internship opportunity. Indeed, many schools and specific majors currently require students to engage in internship opportunities to graduate – although scholars of higher education debate whether such programs actually result in improved employment outcomes. Another 17 percent of respondents took the internship initiative themselves, applying through a job platform.

Offer Outcomes

For many, the ideal internship outcome is an offer of employment, either immediately or upon graduation from school. Unfortunately, our findings suggest nearly 3 in 10 interns receive such invitations to join the team. In some industries, however, the outlook was far brighter: In the finance and insurance fields, a high rate of intern hiring reflects extensive recruiting operations. For major accounting, consulting, and investment firms, an annual influx of eager college grads is an integral part of their business model. 

In sectors where budgets are typically tighter, interns were understandably less likely to receive employment offers. Among interns in the fields of arts and government, for example, fewer than 1 in 5 got a job offer. In fact, some experts suggest that internships have effectively replaced entry-level positions: Why hire someone full-time when an eager student will perform the same duties for free? This dynamic could mean that interns are collectively hurting their own chances of getting hired, a cruelly ironic twist in the labor market. 

Relocation Motivation

When internship opportunities beckon from far-flung cities, are aspiring professionals willing to move to take them? As one might imagine, the promise of compensation incentivizes relocation: Of respondents who moved for an internship, 7 out of 10 did so for paid gigs. Some companies sweetened the deal further by offering both housing and cash: Of interns who received some form of company sponsored housing, 87 percent were paid as well. Because many of the most popular internship destinations, such as New York, boast exceedingly high costs of living, underprivileged students might not be able to participate in internships without such perks.



Moving tended to entail a total commitment to interning compared to staying local: Of those who relocated for an internship opportunity, 69 percent worked 30 or more hours a week. Conversely, local internships typically consumed less time, with 81 percent working between 20 and 40 hours weekly. The heavy schedule didn’t seem to put a damper on the experience for interns away from home, however: They were more likely to deem the experience “very” or “extremely” worth it compared to those who pursued local opportunities instead. 

Major Moves

Theoretically, internships are a useful opportunity to refine one’s academic focus, presenting the real-world applications of subjects studied in school. But that experience can also convince students to shift their majors entirely: Ten percent of respondents reported changing their academic concentration following an internship experience. Perhaps some students realize they would rather not work in a field they previously aspired to enter. Conversely, other interns may discover a more appropriate area of study to support their professional goals.

Science and math students were most likely to change majors after an internship experience, followed by those studying art and design disciplines. At the other end of the spectrum, computer science, engineering, and technology majors were least likely to change their academic orientation after interning. The lack of attrition from these fields could reflect the compensation that awaits engineers and business graduates: Many who specialize in these fields can expect to make six figures roughly 10 years into their careers. 

Perks and Problems

As far as the highlights and horrors of internships of all kinds, respondents were most likely to prize hands-on experience. Forty-one percent described face-to-face experience in their desired field as the best part of their internship, and another 14 percent said the highlight was acquiring valuable skills. Of course, pay (or lack thereof) was commonly cited as a major downside of the experience. Twenty-three percent of respondents identified the compensation as the worst part of their internship.

Although our study found that just 10 percent of people quit their internships, 28 percent of those who quit left to pursue a paid opportunity instead. Another common justification for quitting was the sense that they had learned all they could from the experience. This finding resonates with common intern frustrations, including doing work of little consequence or having little to do at all. For these reasons, experts recommend that companies create internship opportunities with clear goals and frequent supervision, lest interns flounder without defined responsibilities. 

Internship Appreciation, by Industry



Of all industries, those who interned in the legal field felt their experiences were most valuable to their professional development (perhaps because of the importance of clerkships within the profession). Seventy-one percent of information services interns also deemed their experiences “very” or “extremely” valuable, as did 73 percent of health care interns.

Whether or not interns contributed substantially to the company where they worked is another question entirely. In the case of government interns, 54 percent claimed their work had been very or extremely valuable to the company. Interestingly, some of the fields in which interns valued their experiences most were also the industries in which interns were least likely to feel they had helped their company. Just 52 percent of legal interns, for example, felt they had meaningfully assisted the firm, court, or agency where they had worked.

Mutual Advantage or Exploitation?

Our data indicate glaring imperfections in many industries’ internship systems: There’s a disturbing gender gap in paid positions, and compensated opportunities are exceedingly scarce in some fields. But whatever shortcomings internships typically entail, their powerful appeal remains clear as well. In every industry we studied, most interns seemed to regard their experiences as rewarding in retrospect – or at least conducive to their subsequent success. Indeed, the general value of internships seems beyond dispute, even as their ethical implications remain somewhat murky.

As long as internships stay deeply entrenched in our professional culture, companies stand to benefit from careful consideration of their own practices and policies. Even the best-intentioned programs can create substantial liability, and a haphazard approach can prove problematic. For additional peace of mind, netQuote can help you navigate your business insurance needs. You’ve worked too hard to leave your business unprotected, so let our team have your back. 

Methodology

We surveyed 554 people living in the United States who have had an internship in the last five years. Fifty-six percent of respondents were women, and 44 percent were men. Participants ranged in age from 18 to 67 with a median age of 26. 

Participants who have not had an internship in the last five years were excluded from our results. We used an attention check question to make sure all respondents were paying attention and thoughtfully answering our questions. If a participant failed to correctly answer the attention check, they were excluded. In addition, any participants who were clearly not paying attention were also excluded from our analysis. 

Limitations

This survey relies on self-report. There are known issues with self-reported data that include selective memory, attribution, telescoping, and exaggeration. Additional research should be done on this topic to make further conclusions from the data.

Sources

Fair Use Statement

We’re sort of like unpaid interns: We don’t ask for cash, just a little credit. So if you want to use this content on your own site or social media for noncommercial purposes, go for it. All you need to do is link back to this page to attribute us appropriately.