The competition for summer internships is tense. It is heated. It begins months, years before the actual internship starts. College students all over the world flock to resume-building positions at top corporations or government agencies. They meticulously revise their cover letters (and sometimes they don’t meticulously revise, and there’s that opportunity squandered), sweat over upcoming interviews, all for the right to brag to their friends about the “awesome internship I got for this summer!”
But there’s one nagging little word that accompanies these “dope opportunities.” Six letters that aspiring interns try to ignore with increasing fervor until they’ve run out of money. That word, the word everyone wishes would go away: “unpaid.”
The psychology behind unpaid internships is fascinating. Dr. Olivia DeMeo, a psychologist from Georgetown University, has done research on the phenomenon. “The depth to which the illusion that unpaid internships are a good thing is astonishing,” said DeMeo in an interview. “These students, even after they’ve graduated in some cases, are so in denial about the exploitative nature of these kinds of internships.” According to DeMeo, a number of mechanisms are used to perpetuate the idea that unpaid internships are a good thing. Emphasizing the experience one will get from the internship, for example, is the most common way of doing this.
“But of course, that can be a lie,” DeMeo said. “It can be a complete lie and then we have all these people lying about what they did when they interned on The Hill, for example, and these are the folks getting into our workforce. We all know that all they did was shred papers and answer phones, but just the title itself of “Intern at the Hill” on a resume is enough to get you employed.”
Katie Kowaleski, a rising junior at George Washington University, started her unpaid internship on K Street the first week of June. We interviewed her as she strode from Greenberry’s Coffee at Pennsylvania and 19th, two coffee carriers balancing precariously in her right hand as she texted her boss with her left. “Yeah, it’s a really great opportunity for me,” she said as hot coffee burned her wrist and splattered all over a new watch that her mother had given her for her birthday in April, ruining the mint-green leather strap forever.
It is expected that the number of unpaid interns will not decrease any time soon and, in fact, numbers will increase.