A U.S. Mission intern tells you what to love about unpaid internships.
You are a college student. You love your subject and you feel like it’s time to get practical. You finally want to work on what you’re passionate about. You want – no – you need an internship. There are hundreds of thousands of opportunities out there and one of them was made just for you, and a whole bunch of other people who are hunting for the same internship, but let’s ignore that for now. If you are a Social Sciences student, most particularly, if you are a Political Science or International Relations student, you are very likely to experience this struggle throughout your studies. 95% of those beautiful, exotic, thrilling internships are unpaid.
You don’t do it for the money anyway, right? So what?
It’s full-time. Well, that means no studying, no paid employment alongside the internship but the same spendings as before. Okay. But you really, really want this internship!
It’s four months… Now how for goodness’ sake are you supposed to manage this?
Many governmental institutions and NGOs are not in the position or not willing to pay for the work of an intern. However, many institutions are dependent upon us brave, young students who give their time and dedication in exchange for one thing: experience.
When it comes to the modern labor market for academics, experience is the number one currency. With educational programs reaching a certain standard, it’s getting harder and harder to differentiate yourself from others just by attending a good university. What can help you, are internships, voluntary services, au-pair jobs or language courses abroad. Although it definitely is important to gain experience in your desired area of employment before getting a job, the current inflation of the value of an internship for personal development is unhealthy. They are supposed to give you an insight into what you think might be the right choice for you and give proof of your expertise and interest range to your future employer, but they shall not be abstracted to decoration for your applications.
After finding the perfect internship match for themselves, many students face the struggle that comes with unpaid activities leaving some without any alternative but not to apply and look for paid internships instead. Not fair but harsh reality for most young people who want to be involved in politics, society, etc.
After all, I still like the idea of unpaid internships. Of course, it would be nice to get something material back for your dedication but since governmental institutions and NGOs are often tied to a certain budget, they wouldn’t be able to offer any internships at all if they had to pay everybody. Additionally, there are quite some ways to get supported during an unpaid internship. The European Union offers Erasmus internship support, many private and public organizations are specialized on providing interns with a financial base, some use savings from past jobs, some do half-time internships so they can earn money elsewhere and lastly, you can ask your family for whatever support they’re ready to give. With this outlook and from my personal experience, I can only recommend giving it a try if there’s any way you think you could manage it. Just keep in mind: You’re doing this for yourself and the work you love.
I myself am currently working at the United States Mission to International Organizations in Vienna. Many of my friends have asked me how I even found the vacancy. Well, I literally googled „internship embassy vienna“ and this popped up. It can be so easy.
When I had found the offer I was interested in and passed the challenging application process, I chose to do it half-day during my summer holidays. That way, I don’t have to interrupt my studies, I still have enough time for friends and other activities and I can also stay longer during the day in case they need my help or I’m really into working on a specific project. Another piece of advice I can give is, if you’re still thinking about where to move to start your studies, include internship opportunities when assessing schools as well. I came to Vienna to study Political Science already bearing in mind that I would have a broad variety of practical opportunities in the same city. Although going elsewhere for a few months is exciting, it tears a hole into your wallet given the additional travel and accommodation expenses.
The internship at the U.S. Mission has taught me a lot so far. I have made great friends from the States, Norway and Switzerland and I know that our ties won’t break after our time in Vienna because we’re all part of the same international community. I was given the chance to experience the things I learn about at university firsthand, right where they’re made. Day to day I’m surrounded by people from all over the world, who are making decisions about nuclear security, global disarmament and combatting crime. It truly is an exceptional atmosphere that humbled my personality and changed my whole perspective.
Moreover, I learned valuable general lessons about the life as an employee, office worker and diplomatic service member. And although I’m not getting a dime for the two months and all the additional hours I’ve spent at the Mission, I’m being rewarded with great satisfaction because now I know what I want to do for the rest of my working life. And if that is not worth a million dollars, I don’t know what is.