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5 Ways to Spot a Sketchy Internship

sketchy internship
Angelica Valentine
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Published on October 16, 2013

Having an internship can be a great experience that impacts what you do in your career, but sometimes you run into the wrong one. Whether the posting sounds great or a bit off, here are the 5 types of internships you should watch out for:

1. The “Pay to Work” Internship

An internship is a chance for you to get into the action of an industry. There are very few examples in which paying for an internship is warranted. There’s a whole business around internship programs that charge for guaranteed placement. While it sounds like a time saver, you won’t like the price tag. Would you pay several thousand dollars for a program that didn’t even include housing? I wouldn’t. The point of internships is to get experience in a field and your (in)ability to pay should not be a factor.

There are some cases in which paying for an internship may be your best bet. Internships abroad can be difficult to find from home, especially if you don’t speak the language. Intern abroad programs that you pay for can be worth the money because you get housing, orientation, international connections, and an experience that will certainly make your resume stand out.

2. The “Unpaid Internship”

Unpaid internships are sometimes illegal, but not if they provide extensive training for interns. Regardless, you aren’t going to make any money and in most states unpaid interns are not legally considered employees. This means that they are not protected under the law and leaves interns vulnerable to sexual harassment and other workplace violations without legal recourse. If you choose an unpaid internship there are specific guidelines employers must follow, according to the United States Department of Labor’s six legal criteria. If you are doing the work that an entry-level employee should be doing or you were told at the beginning that you would be paid and haven’t seen a dime, then you might have a sketchy internship.


3. The “You’re Gonna Be Ballin’ Internship”

If an internship posting highlights that you’re going to make a ton of money, it’s probably commission based and might not have a base salary (aka you could potentially make nothing). Companies that aren’t fully established can overstate perks to entice applicants and it’s up to you to decide if it’s too good to be true. Some startups say they can only pay you in equity. You can’t eat equity or wear it to work right away, so understand what you’re getting yourself into.

4. The “M-I-A Internship”

Some companies might not have their website up if they’re in the early stages, but there must be something out there that explains who they are and what they do. For example, Crunchbase is a database of tech companies that you can look up for free. If you can’t find any information about the company on reputable sites, I’d pass because they might not exist or otherwise be super sketchy.

Deciding to work for a company whose product hasn’t launched yet can be a great opportunity to grow. Sometimes companies that were recently founded don’t have an official office. One thing to think about is where you’re interviewing. If it is in a coffee shop, or anywhere besides the office of the company, feel free to ask your interviewer what the office setup is like. Working out of someone’s house can work for some interns, but the bottom line is that it should be a professional environment no matter where it is.

5. The “We Can’t Put a Ring on it Internship”

You’re there, so they should acknowledge you as an employee and give the terms of employment. You should have an estimate of how long they expect you to work for them. If you don’t have a contract, then you are not legally an employee. Besides a contract, you should receive more documentation that tells you when and how much you’re going to get paid. Also you should be notified about company policies and rules. In order to have rights as an intern, you must ask for formal documentation of your employment at the company, if it isn’t given to you.

 Final Thoughts

Good internship listings usually have three components: an appealing (or at least neutral) description of the company, an explanation of what the role is/duties are, and a list of qualifications. A posting with just a few lines that is full of buzzwords isn’t very helpful. We’ve all seen listings that tell “rock star interns” to apply. How specific.

Researching the company is crucial because it gives you insight into who the company says it is and what its employees say. Reading what  employees have to say can help you get an insider look into the company from the people who know it the best. Employee opinions shouldn’t be your main source of information, but a supplement to the company’s website and social media sites.

Internships let you dive into an industry that interests you. In order to have a great experience, you need to make sure that you’re choosing the right company and program. Listings, reviews, and websites (or lack thereof) can be good indicators of the kind of program and culture a company has. Make sure you choose one that suits your career goals and budget. Happy internship searching!

Angelica Valentine

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