Should I Intern?

If you’re a college student, about to graduate, recently graduated, or trying to switch careers, you’ll probably agree with me: one of most frustrating things about the job hunt is that little bit in every job listing that says “X-Y years’ experience.” You can cross your fingers as your eyes track slowly down the page, hoping that if you calmly avoid looking specifically for it, it’ll just turn out to not be there at all.

It usually is.

Fortunately, you’re in good company! You’re in the same boat as plenty of your peers. As we’ve covered before, there are jobs for liberal arts graduates, there are plenty of ways to learn skills on your own, and options for staying in the game during dry spells – but the best way around the experience bit is, well, to go get some experience!

Over the past decade or so, the internship has gone from an optional step to a de rigueur career event. They’re everywhere, if you look. Internships.com lists over 60,000, including both paid and unpaid opportunities.

Wait, unpaid? Yes, unpaid. It’s worth acknowledging that being interning often involves taking on a lot of work for no compensation, and this is a consideration that, for you, may indicate that an entry-level position might be a better option.

That may be a shortsighted view, though – or, at least for a lot of jobseekers, the benefits of an internship outweigh the inconvenience of taking a 3-month pay cut. For example, it’s worth noting that the National Association of Colleges and Employers found that a whopping 67% of internships in 2011 led to job offers.

There are also reasons to intern that go beyond the possibility of an offer at the end. As Alison Green of AskAManager.org wrote in a recent US News column, “Your co-workers can be very helpful to you in the future—telling you about job leads, recommending you, helping you figure out career choices, and so forth. But most people won’t offer this kind of help if you don’t explicitly ask for it.”

You should also be careful to consider where you’d want to intern. While you might be tempted to chase down an opportunity at the biggest firm in your field, you might find that access to higher-ups and chances to self-direct are both in larger abundance at a small company or a startup. For locals of our native Boston, check out BostInno.com’s recent list of 19 startups looking for summer interns.

If you’re farther afield, or you just simply don’t know what kind of internship is right for you, Internships.com offers a Predictor to help you narrow down some choices.

It may be tough to decide to work for free, but the potential rewards may make it worth your time, especially as more and more job seekers dip their toes into the market as interns before seeking full-time positions. If you’re unsure what your next step is, you should consider looking into an internship. At the bottom line, there’s no substitute for the experience, connections, and foot in the door that comes with a well-chosen stint as an intern.

[Confidential to Boston-area employers: want in on the intern action, but don’t know how to hire your own? Our intrepid CEO, Jennifer Fremont-Smith, is teaching a class via Intelligent.ly on how to hire an army of interns. It’s May 17th, and it’s not too late to sign up!]