4 Reasons Why Internships Are Worth The Hassle (Even The Unpaid Ones)

Photo by Airman 1st Class Areca Wilson

Internships may seem pointless and grueling at times, especially while being a full-time student. However, they are worth the trouble and commitment, even those that don’t offer any form of compensation. Despite the long hours and tedious, grunt work, internships teach valuable lessons. They can be especially important to student veterans trying to break into the professional world with little work experience outside the military.

I enlisted at 17 and my career outside the Army consisted of six or seven classes per semester as an undergraduate, followed by graduate-level study. The hope was that rigorous academic study would translate into a career. Unfortunately, a lot of times liberal arts diplomas alone are not enough to get a job right away. My skills were primarily military and academic related. I had no real-world professional experience. While my military background certainly gave me a viewpoint that few of my peers had, that uniqueness didn’t easily translate into abilities I could bring to a civilian nonprofit or private business. I had done little outside the military in ways of professional development.

A career coach once asked me, “Do you even know how to use a copier?” It was meant as a joke, but the point was: I didn’t know the professional world. I realized in order to make myself more experienced, competitive, and knowledgeable in my own field, an internship was the best way to get entry-level and practical exposure.

While in graduate school, I interned at two different nonprofits and the U.S. Department of State. I did everything from database entry, taking notes, and attending seminars to managing portfolios, researching, and writing in-depth reports. Those three experiences showed me the worth of doing the work of an unpaid intern. While I questioned the point of such grunt work at times, I came away with four major lessons.

1. Very little beats hands-on, practical experience.

First, even if the work is unpaid and you are the lowest on the totem pole, the basic skills you develop by working in an organization are essential to not only building your resume, but building your own personal skill set. That sounds cliché, but if you never worked in a professional setting, understanding the culture, working with new software, and learning an organization’s protocols are all essential to understanding that profession. Often companies will hire interns for this very reason: They already understand the nature of the beast and it will cost them much less in time and money to hire an intern than to train a brand new recruit.

2. Rebranding yourself for the civilian world is harder than you think.

Once you put on one type of uniform and become proficient in a particular skill — whether it's accounting or police work — it can be difficult to transition to something new. Internships can help you rebrand yourself in a new career track.  So if the goal is to cross into the nonprofit world from the private sector, interning at an actual nonprofit will not only teach you about how nonprofits operate, but demonstrate to a future employer that you have some practical experience in that specific field. Sometimes this requires going back to school, but coinciding with that is the need to get your hands dirty in the actual occupation, demonstrating that you know what you’re getting into.

3. Internships open doors to lifelong networking opportunities.

Interning and “working in the trenches” is essential to building relationships and demonstrating your work ethic for future recommendations. For a student or recent graduate who is still not accustomed to the notion of “networking,” this can be a difficult thing to learn. Networking can seem artificial, but when interning and working with people everyday who are interested in the same ideals and goals you are, you build friendships and connections. These networks will not only help navigate the organization itself but also your career path. Especially for those coming straight out of school, it is important to “pay your dues” by being an intern. This is more the case in public and nonprofit work. Most supervisors in the professional sphere came through the same pipeline. They were likely an intern at some point in their careers and they know the importance of learning an organization from the ground up.

This might translate into making copies or taking endless notes in endless meetings, but those tedious efforts are appreciated and noticed. Your supervisors become valuable references when you start to apply to other jobs down the road. Employers remember those team players. A good employee is harder to find than you think. If you demonstrate ambition and a strong work ethic as an intern, supervisors will remember you when they have a position to fill or move on to another organization and want to take people with them.

4. Don’t just take any job, take the one right for you.

Lastly, and probably the most important thing I learned from my time interning was figuring out whether or not a job is actually for me. For someone who went from being a sergeant to a student, I had no real way of knowing how the jobs I thought I wanted would look like off paper. Discovering what you don’t want to do can be just as helpful as learning what you enjoy.

The nature of unpaid internships for a student who is already incurring debt and trying to find full-time employment can be daunting, but there are bonuses to starting from the bottom. It may translate into a job after the internship or an important recommendation. But even if neither are the case, it will give you skills and experiences you won’t get in the classroom.

Pictured left to right: Pedro Pascal ("Catfish"), Garrett Hedlund ("Ben"), Charlie Hunnam ("Ironhead"), and Ben Affleck ("Redfly") Photo Courtesy of Netflix

A new trailer for Netflix's Triple Frontier dropped last week, and it looks like a gritty mash-up of post-9/11 war dramas Zero Dark Thirty and Hurt Locker and crime thrillers Narcos and The Town.

Read More Show Less
Army Sgt. Daniel Cowart gets a hug from then-Dallas Cowboys defensive end Chris Canty. Photo: Department of Defense

The Distinguished Service Cross was made for guys like Sgt. Daniel Cowart, who literally tackled and "engaged...in hand to hand combat" a man wearing a suicide vest while he was on patrol in Iraq.

So it's no wonder he's having his Silver Star upgraded to the second-highest military award.

Read More Show Less
A small unmanned aerial vehicle built by service academy cadets is shown here flying above ground. This type of small UAV was used by cadets and midshipmen from the U.S. Air Force Academy, the U.S. Military Academy and the U.S. Naval Academy, during a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency-sponsored competition at Camp Roberts, California, April 23-25, 2017. During the competition, cadets and midshipmen controlled small UAVs in "swarm" formations to guard territory on the ground at Camp Roberts. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Drones have been used in conflicts across the globe and will play an even more important role in the future of warfare. But, the future of drones in combat will be different than what we have seen before.

The U.S. military can set itself apart from others by embracing autonomous drone warfare through swarming — attacking an enemy from multiple directions through dispersed and pulsing attacks. There is already work being done in this area: The U.S. military tested its own drone swarm in 2017, and the UK announced this week it would fund research into drone swarms that could potentially overwhelm enemy air defenses.

I propose we look to the amoeba, a single-celled organism, as a model for autonomous drones in swarm warfare. If we were to use the amoeba as this model, then we could mimic how the organism propels itself by changing the structure of its body with the purpose of swarming and destroying an enemy.

Read More Show Less
Soldiers from 4th Squadron, 9th U.S. Cavalry Regiment "Dark Horse," 2nd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, are escorted by observer controllers from the U.S. Army Operational Test Command after completing field testing of the Armored Multi-Purpose Vehicle (AMPV) Sept. 24, 2018. (U.S. Army/Maj. Carson Petry)

The Army has awarded a $575 million contract to BAE Systems for the initial production of its replacement for the M113 armored personnel carriers the service has been rocking downrange since the Vietnam War.

Read More Show Less

President Donald Trump has formally outlined how his administration plans to stand up the Space Force as the sixth U.S. military service – if Congress approves.

On Tuesday, Trump signed a directive that calls for the Defense Department to submit a proposal to Congress that would make Space Force fall under Department of the Air Force, a senior administration official said.

Read More Show Less