Thursday, March 8, 2012

Resist The Internship Arms Race

One of the things I find unfortunate among American society is the inherent suspicion of unstructured recreation time. There seems to be a large fear among many people of having ‘gaps in your CV’ – that all of your life up to this point must be able to be accounted for when life’s potential employers come knocking.

Personally, I’d never want to work for such a place anyway – if that’s how they expect you to account for every second of your time when you aren’t even employed there, imagine how it will be once you get a job.

In fairness, the suspicion of idleness has its admirable aspects – it is tied up with the strong work ethic that has made America such an economic giant, and is far, far preferable to a widespread desire for handouts and mooching which seems to herald the death spiral of welfare states (see Greece, California).

But perhaps the more pernicious result is that people feel the need to always be working, even if the work itself is not particularly valuable. This seems to find its zenith in the internships that US college students vie for so much.

A lot of these are just worthless CV fillers. Many of them are unpaid – add in the cost of your time and transportation, and you’re literally paying to be there. And what do you get out of it? It’s unlikely to be valuable skills – do you think an employer that won’t even give you minimum wage is going to be assigning you important tasks? Hell, do you think you’re going to be doing much other than photocopying and fetching coffees?

But people want them anyway.

A small number of these internships are genuinely useful – if you’re close to graduating and you want to get a job at Deloitte, you probably want to get a Deloitte internship, because they use this as a screening device for their job offers. That makes total sense. But if you’re just volunteering at some museum? Yeah, I’m pretty sure that’s not a screening device for the next curator position.

The real tragedy is that there are very few opportunities in life to go backpacking around the world for months at a time. College summers are one of them. If you can afford it, and the alternative is just some worthless unpaid job, take at least one of them off and tour around.

Some people seem to realize this partially, and decide to make their overseas holidays part of some career-building thing – studying abroad for a semester, volunteering in some third world place.

Which is fine, if that’s what you want to actually do.

But if what you actually want to do is just tour around a bunch of countries, get boozed and stay in youth hostels, then  go and do that!  It will be more fun than spending half your time studying for useless classes or pretending that what you actually wanted to do was build houses in Guatemala.

This is cheap talk advice, of course. The sad reality is that a lot of US employers will judge you for these things. But my guess is not as much as people think. Personally, I’d do it for at least one summer. If an employer can’t get over that, screw ‘em.

But the average person is stuck in a true arms race – they know the internships are worthless, but they know everyone else will have them, so they fear they’ll look bad if they don’t have them too.

It’s hard to get out of arms races - everyone knows they're a negative sum process, but they can't commit to disarm. 

I’m just glad I’m not involved in one myself.

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