Internship vs Indentureship: How to Spot the Difference

Internships can be a tough racket: they look good on your resume, they can lead to jobs, and they provide valuable experience, but too frequently employers view interns as free labor.

Things have gotten so ugly in the internship world that the very legality of unpaid internships has come up again and again in the news, and former interns have even taken companies to court over poor treatment.

We implore you: Don't let your summer internship lead to a lengthy legal battle! An internship should be an educational opportunity that enables you to learn more about a potential career path, not indentured servitude that leaves you broke, drained, and bitter about the working world before you even step foot in it.

With summer internship season kicking into high gear, here are a few suggestions for making sure you end up with a great experience.

Before the Internship

1. Make sure the company is reputable.

You'll be willing to sacrifice more hours and sweat at a top company with an incredible reputation than a business that might not last the next six months. A quick search will usually help indicate how long a company has been around, if it has a significant reach, and if it will continue to be around down the road.

Does the company have a professional website? If it's a start-up, are there reputable people behind it? Being informed about a company is a quick and easy way to protect yourself from a potentially shady situation. Also, nailing down a company's specifics will help you out during an interview.

2. Check out where former interns land.

Consider it good business, and not cyber-stalking, to check out the trajectory of current and past employees through networking websites like LinkedIn and Twitter. What kind of people have interned at the company in the past? Have they gone on to incredible careers? Did their internship lead directly to a job with the company?

Employer review websites like Glassdoor can also be a great resource for getting opinions from employees and interns. You can even try reaching out to a former intern via email. For the most part, you'd be surprised how willing people are to talk about their experiences.

3. Take time during your interview to ask questions you actually want the answers to.

Of course, most people know that when an interviewer asks if you have any questions, you shouldn't sit there silently with a blank, drool-y stare on your face. Remember to take time to ask questions that matter to you.

  • What, exactly, will my responsibilities be?
  • How many hours a week is the internship?

If it seems appropriate, ask the hiring manager if you can take a walk around the workspace. If a company isn't willing to lay out the basics of their plans for you, it should be a big ol' red flag.

During Your Internship

1. Human contact: it should happen once in a while.

Are people showing and telling you how to do things? Living, breathing, thinking, human people? Sure, modern offices can be full of folks with their heads buried at their computers, but once in a while, there should be some face-to-face contact and instruction. If you don't feel like you've been adequately trained for your responsibilities, be sure to bring it up with your manager.

2. Your hours and responsibilities should be reasonable, and around what you had previously discussed.

Staying an extra few minutes to finish up a project you're working on, helping out at an after-hours event, or even volunteering to pick up a few extra hours? Totally fine. Being forced to work fifteen extra hours over an already forty-hour-a-week internship? Significantly less so.

Also, you should never be put in a situation that requires you to take on work that either makes you uncomfortable or is wildly far above your comfort zone.

3. You should be doing (some) work that relates to your potential career.

Pretty much every job requires filing, copy making, and other general office drudgery; you probably won't be immune to that as an intern. But the mundane Office Space stuff should intermingle, with the challenging, job-specific work. If your entire day is spent sitting in a corner licking envelopes, that's probably worth bringing up with your manager. Unless said envelopes are unbelievably delicious.