Unpaid Internships Are the New Entry-Level Job

That sucks. But many entitled, delusional college students are too busy complaining to seize some great opportunities

Before the start of the semester, Temple University’s journalism department holds a welcome-back luncheon for adjuncts like myself and full-time faculty. One particular teaching assistant was cracking us up with tales of a recent internship she had with a big-time media company. Her thankless job—watching bad television all day to find funny clips that the staff scribes could use for blog-post fodder. No writing, just research. For hours spent watching I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant, she didn’t even get a byline.

That led to a discussion about the internships that are so essential to both college students and the businesses that offer them. The T.A. didn’t get paid that summer, and she was still upset that all of her hard work wasn’t compensated. She’s right to be pissed off. In today’s corporate America, the unpaid internship has replaced the entry-level, salaried position. It’s not enough to simply have a college degree. Companies know that students need internships for resume building. Why pay them when the demand is already so high?

This young woman struck me as smart and enthusiastic about her new Temple gig, eagerly soaking up advice on how to prepare for class. But the conversation reminded me of a sense of entitlement that I see all too often among some recent graduates—from the classes I’ve taught, to students from my alma maters who reach out for career advice, to interns at Philadelphia magazine. Anyone who signs up for a semester here is told that research, fact-checking and online support will be their priorities. Yet there’s always someone who’s not just disappointed that he or she didn’t get to write a feature story—they’re surprised or even angry about it. One disgruntled intern performed so poorly that she was asked to leave. She then started a blog about her “nightmare” experience. Here’s a reality check: If you’re fired from an unpaid position, maybe you’re the problem.

Of course, not every undergraduate is that delusional or misguided. One of my students from the spring, Kirsten Stamn, just completed a big-time internship with the American Society of Magazine Editors. I’ll probably end up working for her some day. An outstanding grad from my classes at Rowan University, Rebecca Timms, works in public relations for the Sixers. We’ve also had plenty of recent success stories among this magazine’s intern ranks, with alums at national magazines, publishing houses, and a few who left (escaped?) the print world for careers in business and law.

They’re the lucky ones. The job market is a scary place to be these days—the national unemployment rate is 9.1 percent as of August, and nearly 11 percent of 21- to 23-year-olds with a bachelor’s degree are out of work, according to estimates by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco. Feel stuck in an unpaid internship making photocopies, or answering phones, or fact-checking a story you wish you’d written? Do it better than the person sitting next to you. Impress someone with your hard work. They might hire you someday; four current Philly Mag staffers got their start as interns here. That teaching assistant was wise enough to make the most of difficult situation. Too many other students are so caught up in what they’re not getting—money, cover stories—that they miss the opportunities right under their noses.