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It's the end of the winter semester: do you know what you'll be doing this summer?

Once exams are done, some lucky students and graduates get to jet off to exotic locations for some rest and relaxation before starting their lives in the 'real world.' Most students and new grads, however, must almost immediately begin the daunting task of trying to navigate their way through what seems like an endless list of internship opportunities, with hopes of finding the holy grail of post—post-secondary education: full-time employment.

More and more, it is becoming common practice for students to look for an internship as opposed to paid, full-time work, because many available full-time positions require years of experience in the field. The hope then becomes to gain relevant experience through an internship, with the possible added bonus (fingers crossed) of a modest stipend. Unfortunately, not all internships are paid, which can seem irrelevant if the work experience can bring you closer to finding full-time work elsewhere.

But how do you decipher which internships are actually relevant and valuable to have in order to get closer to attaining your career goals, especially when the term intern can mean anything from a four-month contract to run errands and do menial labour to actual on-the-job training from industry professionals? The truth is, not all internships are created equal, and we're here to help you sort through them so you can make the right choice when internship application season—formerly known as summer—arrives.

The bad experiences

While there are lots of good internships out there, there are still certainly some that could use a bit of improvement. Ian Metcalfe, former intern from Toronto, shares an uncomfortable and unrelated-to-his-career-path internship experience which involved spending a day looking for size 13F sneakers for their boss' mother who had elephantiasis feet. Metcalfe was given clear directions that he could not come back empty-handed. Although he did eventually find said footwear, he was still later fired. The tale might seem scarring, but was shrugged off by Metcalfe as being pretty funny. If only all bad internship experiences could be laughed off.

There are plenty of disheartening intern tales, like being made to retype and rewrite a to-do list from a piece of notebook paper four different ways: into excel, as a word doc, onto individual post-its, and then re-written in my neater handwriting for their boss. These experiences that leave the intern without any new, relevant work experience, or any sort of compensation for doing the menial tasks they've been assigned, is one of the reasons why Claire Seaborn, chair of the Canadian Intern Association, founded the organization in 2012.

[Founding the organization] wasn't something that I planned to do at all, says Seaborn, also a second-year law student at the University of Ottawa. That is, until she realized that, there isn't really any advocate for unpaid/interns in Canada, and that the issue isn't very well understood. A lot of people are not aware of the legal aspect of unpaid internships or about the rights that interns have.

So, before going off to find your dream internship, and hopefully your dream job not long after, we thought we'd give you some tips to ensure that you gain valuable experience from your chosen internship.

Get the specifics

It's always good to read and re-read a job posting before applying to ensure that you can be well-prepared to be interviewed by a potential employer. But what about once you're actually being interviewed?

Potential interns should ask their employer about the duration of the internship, says Seaborn. A lot of people just take internships for an indeterminate amount of time; if the employer is perhaps promising a paid position in the future, try to get a specific period of how long you have to work unpaid before you're going to start to get paid for that work.

In addition, you should make sure to have a clear outline of the kinds of tasks you will be doing. While it's really important that people get on-the-job training, because it's really, really helpful, says David Macfarlane, columnist for the Toronto Star, he suspects that if students aren't careful, they can be easily taken advantage of by their superiors. It's [internships] really regarded as a kind of free labour by a lot places that don't really have much interest in educating the intern, he says,  which unfortunately leaves interns feeling like they've been taken advantage of.

Earn that money (or something like it)

Everyone wants a paid internship, but not everyone is going to get one. The best thing to do is try and take advantage of the internship you do have, and make it work for you.

My younger brother did an unpaid internship for the Comedy Network in Toronto, and his internship was a month long, said Seaborn. He received school credit at Queen's University, which was great. He wrote documents, sat in on meetings, and did lots of interesting things. He really felt like he learned from the industry, and he was also asked back the following summer for paid employment She said that aside from leading to a paid position, an internship like her brother's is an example of what a truly successful internship experience should be, because it was educational and gave her brother an opportunity to learn new skills. Skills which, if he weren't hired on the following summer, he could take to another potential employer.

This is the reason why Seaborn isn't discouraging young people from taking on an unpaid internship. Before you skip over all of the unpaid internship ads, Seaborn suggests taking advantage of your internship by asking employers if they're willing to let you shadow them to see their day-to-day activities. Don't be shy to ask the employer if you could help draft something for them or if you could research something that interests you, if you feel like your work isn't giving you the experience that you were hoping to get, she says.

Know when to go

If you feel like you're not getting the experience that you hoped for (even if it is a paid internship), should you leave? It may be hard to bid adieu to an internship, with all of its promise of experience and knowledge, but if you haven't signed a contract, you would have no reason why you need to stay at that place of employment, Seaborn says. I don't think people should feel required to finish the duration of their internship, as long as they give some sort of notice.

Macfarlane agrees. Really, life's too short. I don't think you have to be rude, and you don't have to be abrupt about it, but I think you should let it be known that this isn't working out the way you'd hoped it would, and that you've got all sorts of other things you'd like to be doing, and get on with other things.

No matter what sort of internship you get this summer—paid or unpaid—there's really no point sitting in a job where you're putting filing cards in alphabetical order or something like that, if it's not providing you [work experience], says Macfarlane. Sometimes just being in a workplace provides you with insight, and you have to take that into account. It may be that the job you're doing isn't teaching you much, but just being there is teaching you something. But if that's not even happening, then I think you have to look for something that's going to be profitable, whether it be actually profitable, or at least, experientially profitable.

To be, or not be (a paid intern)...

Paid  interns:


  • You are essentially a contract worker who should be getting paid minimum wage, says Seaborn.
  • Employers are more likely to hire people who have had paid internship experiences as opposed to unpaid ones.


  • Paid internships don't always translate to minimum wage.
  • Paid internships are harder to find than unpaid internships.

Unpaid  interns:


  • You are essentially a volunteer, which is fine if you're working for a non-profit organization.
  • Unpaid internships are not always under a contract, so if you feel unhappy with the work you're doing, it is much easier to leave.
  • Unpaid internships are easier to find than paid internships.


  • The most obvious con: no wages.


Do you have any good or bad internship stories?

Photo: Anthony Capano