A Millennial’s View on Cost/Benefits of an Unpaid Internship Post-MBA

InternLindsey Roberts here, a recent MBA grad, who like hundreds of thousands of others is looking for a job. Since May of 2008, the start of my MBA program, I’ve been on the hunt for a job with the goal to have a job offer or two by the time graduation roles around. Unfortunately for the class of 2009, whether graduating from undergrad or grad school, the market is “the worst job market in US history, minus the Great Depression,” which left me in the approximately 50% of my class sans job at graduation.

As the realization of not having a job turned from a MBA nightmare into my reality, I looked at my options. 1) continue full-time job search 2) “settle” for a “less than job” 3) find an internship or 4) flee the country, travel, and return to the US by the fall when the hiring freezes have thawed. Remembering my Dad’s motto, “looking for a job is not a job,” #1 was out, #2 goes against my DNA and #4) cost too much. So #3 it was.

After three of the companies I had been in contact with for months told me that they aren’t looking to hire until 2010 or at the earliest, Q4 2009, an internship began to look like a better option. What was I going to do all summer anyway? I thought my days of being “the intern” were behind me, but guess not. When a friend-of-a-friend-of-my- Mom’s-friend reached out to me with an internship opportunity, I was all ears. After a phone and an in-person interview, I was offered an unpaid internship at a marketing research company in downtown Chicago.

That’s right, I had just invested approximately $75,000 in a top business school education and I was going to work for free. “Was I making the right decision?,” I wondered. The concept of not being paid to work after 4 years of great experience as a Divisional Sales Manager, on top of b school education was definitely a “tough pill to swallow.” But who was I to turn down an opportunity to learn and gain experience? I could either sit at home all day and drive myself nuts going from company websites, to indeed.com and back to Gmail and Facebook, or I could get out there, put my education and experience to work while I continued my job search. I decided to have faith in the age old adage, “it’s easier to find a job when you have a job.”

As a one-year MBA student, I did not do an internship between my first and second years of business school. In fact, I never had a second year of business school. From orientation to graduation was just under 365 days. Would a few months of “volunteering” post graduation kill me? What would people say? As some of my friends were starting work for Fortune 100 companies, some getting paid over six figures, I was going to be an intern! What did I do to deserve this? I began to question myself and my accomplishments, at school and during my work experience; but what did I really have to lose? I made the decision to accept the internship and make the most of the opportunity.

Financially I am no worse off with an internship than without. True I am no better, but what is the price of “June 2009 – the present” on a resume? I’d argue it is more than a few dollars per hour. If I am more likely to get the job offer I want, thanks to this opportunity then I would put a price tag on my recent experience at between $10,000 and $15,000. Plus I now have an answer for, “What have you been doing since graduation?”

As a 27-year old Millennial, I am looking for the next step in my career. Not unlike Sugarland’s song, “There’s Gotta Be Something More,” I want “more” in my next opportunity. “More,” to me personally, is defined by a passion for my work, a sense of work/life balance, a respect for the products I market, and an understanding of the global impact of the company. I am not looking to sit in a cubicle, wait for the clock to turn five o’clock so I can cash my paycheck twice per month and count daily the time until my 10 days vacation. What would be the point in accepting a job that would not only set me back pre-MBA, but would also lead to my next job search sooner than later. Accepting an internship allows me to remain focused on what I am looking for and not “settle” for a job that does not fit what I am looking for.

Upon my starting my internship, I didn’t anticipate the questions people asked. More specifically, I didn’t think people would ask if I was getting paid, and if so, how much? Last time I checked, it is not socially acceptable to ask how much you weigh or how much money you make. Why when you say the word “intern” do people think it’s okay to ask? I know MBA interns making between $1,400 and up to $3,500+ per month. What was it anyone else’s business how much money I make? Honestly, in most cases I lie or divert the question. If the person is a self-respecting business person, successful in their career, and/or sees the value of hard work, I will divulge. If I think the response is going to be, “Why on earth would you, a smart MBA grad from a top school, do that?” I change the subject, as I don’t wanting to explain myself.