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Your Rights as an Intern

Internships offer students the opportunity to get hands-on training and real-world experience in a professional capacity. For Master of Business Administration (MBA) students, internships are a quintessential component of their degree program. Business students learn about day-to-day operations at corporate offices and gain access to seminars, conferences, and other networking events. Ultimately, an internship is an essential part of the transition from student to worker, and a launching point in your career. “Today’s interns,” writes Delece Smith-Barrow, “may be tomorrow’s corporate leaders.”

Most business students participate in either a semester-length internship, a co-op, or an extended period of coursework and supervised training that may last a year or longer. According to the Class of 2015: Executive Summary, a report by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), nearly two-thirds of respondents participated in an internship or co-op during school. Three-quarters of respondents indicated that they were “very or extremely satisfied” with their internship or co-op; just 6.2% of respondents felt “very or extremely unsatisfied.”

This comprehensive article will explore the nature of the internship experience for MBA students. We’ll cover strategies for finding a high-quality college internship, the differences between paid and unpaid internships for college students, and important steps that students must complete prior to, during, and following their internship. We’ll also discuss paid and unpaid internship laws, as well as intern rights. Let’s get started by answering some frequently asked questions about MBA internships.


Frequently Asked Questions about Internships

What is an internship?

According to The Balance, a website that covers finance, an internship is an “opportunity offered by employers, both in the non-profit and for-profit sectors, to students interested in the industry.” College internships are available to students in a range of academic disciplines, and the scope of an internship will depend on your field of study. Counselors and healthcare professionals take part in supervised clinical internships, aspiring teachers receive training in real-world classrooms, and journalists contribute articles as guest staff writers for newspapers, magazines, and other publications. Although internships can take place year-round, most students pursue summer internship opportunities, when their course loads are lighter.

For MBA students, internships are usually offered at corporate offices. Most internships are geared toward students who have completed at least one or two years of their MBA program, giving them the opportunity to apply the skills and knowledge they learned in school. Upon successfully completing an internship, MBA students will be prepared to enter the workforce as experienced business professionals.

What should I expect from an internship?

As an MBA intern, you’ll usually work onsite at a corporate office. Your day-to-day experience will largely depend on your degree specialization. Those earning an MBA with a finance concentration might learn how to analyze financial data and assess investment options, for example, while marketing students are more likely to build brands or promote products. Regardless of your specialty, most MBA students can expect the following during their internship:

  • Firsthand exposure to business strategies, insights, and procedures
  • The opportunity to learn the mechanical day-to-day operations in a functional office environment
  • A combination of challenging assignments, menial jobs, and team or departmental meetings
  • Direct interaction with employees in various corporate roles, as well as other interns
  • A strictly enforced schedule
  • Participation in at least one major project facilitated by a manager or team leader
  • A full assessment at the internship’s conclusion, during which each intern will be evaluated on qualities like productivity, communication, and office conduct

Am I required to do an internship?

Most MBA programs require students to complete an internship as part of their degree. However, internships for college students are widely available regardless of your MBA program’s requirements. MBA applicants can learn more about internship requirements and opportunities by contacting the career center or MBA department leaders at their target schools.

Who should pursue an internship?

Today’s education experts emphasize the importance of internships for college students in most academic fields, particularly business students. If you’re not sure whether you want to be an intern, you can take the following quiz to see if an internship is right for you.

  1. Do you lack the professional experience to compete in the job market against fellow MBA-holders and land a top entry-level job after finishing graduate school?
  2. Are you attending an MBA program that provides reasonable internship opportunities?
  3. Does your MBA program allow you to complete internships for credit?
  4. Are internships at well-established companies, firms, or organizations available to students in your MBA program?
  5. Are you earning a degree specialization in finance, marketing, consulting, or other MBA fields that requires teamwork and group projects?
  6. Do you plan to enter the workforce immediately after graduation?
  7. Would you characterize your professional network as ‘limited’ or ‘minimal’?

If you answered ‘yes’ to more than half of these questions, then an internship is probably right for you. Be sure to contact the career center at your business school to learn more about degree requirements and available internship opportunities.

If you answered ‘no’ to most of the questions, then you may want to consider an alternative pathway for your MBA. Many programs allow students to complete a capstone or final research project in lieu of an internship, and that track might better suit your academic and professional interests.

Are internships worth it?

The value of a college internship is entirely subjective, and its ‘worth’ will depend on your goals. Notably, most MBA interns feel satisfied with their internship once they finish. Of those who stated they were ‘very or extremely satisfied’ in the 2015 NACE survey, roughly 60% said they were ‘extremely likely’ to accept a job offer from the company that sponsored their internship.

Furthermore, employers today stress that job candidates who have completed college internships are much more likely to receive job opportunities. A different NACE survey found that 95% of employers consider work experience — including internships — to be a major factor when reviewing job candidates. Melissa Benca, director of career services at Marymount Manhattan College, writes that internships are a hiring standard at companies across the country. “Internships have become key in today’s economy,” Benca says. “Graduating students with paid or unpaid internships on their résumé have a much better chance at landing a full-time position upon graduation.”

Can I get college credit through an internship?

Maybe — although some college internships do not reward credit, and there is no legal requirement for them to do so. Pertinent information about college credits should be listed in each internship announcement. Some colleges and universities do not allow students to receive credit for internships, or reserve internship credits for students in the latter stages of their degree. Penny Loretto, a career counselor at Skidmore College, explains that school officials also determine how much credit is awarded for internships. “A big myth about college credit is that they’re up to the employers, it’s actually up to the students and their university policies,” Laretto writes. “At some schools, internship credit is awarded through the career center and at some it’s through each specific major.”

Will my internship pay me?

According to the 2015 NACE survey, 60.8% of respondents said they were paid. Employers compensate interns in the form of a wage (hourly or weekly) or a lump-sum stipend. Nace’s 2014 survey found that master’s students who held paid internships received an average hourly wage of approximately $22.

It’s important to note that the U.S. Department of Labor has laws that protect interns from exploitation and unfair compensation. The unpaid internship laws include strict criteria that governs how for-profit companies can employ unpaid interns. However, there are many potentially valuable unpaid internships available to students nationwide. Please read our section below on ‘Unpaid Internships vs Paid Internships’ for more information on these regulations, and some key differences between the two categories.

Will my internship turn into a job?

While there are no employment guarantees for MBA graduates, those who complete internships are more likely to receive job offers after graduation, and many graduates accept job offers from the companies that employed them as interns. The 2015 NACE survey found that 72.2% of paid interns for private, for-profit companies (including most MBA interns) received job offers once they graduated. Paid interns who received job offers from private, for-profit companies earned a median starting salary of $53,521.

Your performance as an intern will directly affect your chances of receiving a job offer from your employer. Intern expectations will vary by workplace, but here are some general do’s and don’ts for MBA interns:

Do’s

  1. Do introduce yourself to everyone you meet in the office and learn everyone’s role in the company or organization.
  2. Do get to know your immediate supervisor and defer to them with any questions about your workload.
  3. Do ask for help if you are unsure how to perform a certain task.
  4. Do remain productive throughout the day. If you complete an assignment early, ask your manager or co-workers if you can assist them with anything.
  5. Do show up on time every day, wearing appropriate workplace attire.
  6. Do find someone on your team or in your department who can serve as a mentor; in many cases, your immediate supervisor will embrace this role.
  7. Do take notes during meetings and presentations.
  8. Do maintain a clean work station where all of your essential tools, documents, and other materials are organized and accessible.
  9. Do treat your internship like a job — because that’s exactly what it is.

Don’ts

  1. Don’t hesitate to ask questions if you have trouble.
  2. Don’t attempt to fix a mistake if you are unsure of the standard procedure — you may just make the problem worse.
  3. Don’t abuse computer privileges by surfing the Internet or using social media that is not directly relevant to your work.
  4. Don’t complain about your workplace at the office; if you experience an issue you’d like to address, then schedule a meeting with your supervisor or a human resources representative.
  5. Don’t limit your social interactions to your supervisor and other interns. Get to know a variety of people in your office and build a network.
  6. Don’t put off important assignments. If you need a deadline extension, then you should speak to your supervisor or the project manager as soon as possible.
  7. Don’t approach employees outside your team unannounced. In most offices, the standard protocol is to first send an email, call their desk phone, or schedule a meeting.
  8. Don’t let your internship impede assignments, projects, and exams in your classes.
  9. Don’t cut ties once the internship is finished, especially if you want to work for that same company after graduation.

How to Land an Internship

Here are some general steps to follow if you want to pursue an internship.

Step 1: Determine your internship priorities. Time commitment is a major issue for many students, particularly those who are enrolled in other courses, employed in another job, or caring for children. Location and commute time may also be important. Are wages a factor? What about course credits? Are you only available for summer internships, or can you participate during the school year? Make a list of what you need from your internship and use it to funnel potential opportunities.

Step 2: Cast a wide net as you search for internship opportunities. College career centers are a great source of information about available internships. Online directories like Internship.com may lead you to additional options as well.

Step 3: Apply early and often. There’s no downside to sending a lot of applications, but you can get burned if you only apply for one or two internships and don’t hear back from anyone. Keep a few backup options on file and submit applications to those if your top choices do not respond.

Step 4: Follow instructions if you receive a positive response from one or more of the internship programs. Every company has different hiring procedures in place, but you will most likely need to complete at least one phone interview and an in-person interview before you get hired. Study company materials online prior to your interviews, and have at least two or three questions ready for the employee conducting the interview.

Step 5: Congratulations, you’ve been hired as an intern! The next step is to officialize the internship with your school. This usually requires you to seek approval from the MBA director or another academic leader, usually through a written application. You must include details about the internship, including hours, pay, duties, responsibilities, and contact information for the company.

Step 6: Once you’ve described the internship, you may be required to meet in-person with the MBA director, college dean, and other campus officials to submit your proposal. You will be notified once your internship application has been approved. Please note: if you are pursuing a summer internship, then you may need to contact substitute staff who are filling in for officials during the extended break

Step 7: Most internships last between 12 weeks and one semester. During this time, you’ll be expected to carry out all of the duties and responsibilities as an intern while also maintaining an adequate grade point average and (if applicable) attending classes. Failure to do so may result in the termination of your internship.

Landing an Internship with No Experience

Employers often look for internship candidates with work experience — even though many prospective interns don’t have any. If this applies to you, don’t worry, there are a few ways you can bolster resume. Here are some tips for gaining industry experience without having been an employee.

Tip 1: Join a campus-based club or organization. Attend meetings, help plan events, participate in fundraisers, and network with fellow students. Be sure to mention these activities during interviews.

Tip 2: Fill your schedule with classes specific to your career pathway. You’ll already be required to take course sequences if you are earning a degree, and you can pad your transcripts with relevant electives as well.

Tip 3: Consider an unpaid internship in the early stages of your MBA. Unpaid internships are often less competitive than paid opportunities, but you’ll still gain work experience and be able to network with established professionals. Plus, many colleges and universities will only allow MBA students to participate in paid internships after they have completed certain advanced courses or course sequences.

Unpaid Internships vs Paid Internships

Unpaid Internships for College Students Paid Internships for College Students
Interns are treated like ‘students’ Interns are treated like ’employees’
A more flexible work schedule A structured work schedule
May be held onsite or online Almost always held onsite
Workload may consist of many different duties and responsibilities Workload is structured, and usually consists of low-level tasks and projects
Interns may answer to several managers or supervisors Interns usually have one dedicated manager or supervisor
Legally, unpaid interns cannot displace paid workers Legally, paid interns are considered paid employees
Unpaid internships may not require the approval of campus officials Paid internships almost always require the approval of campus officials
The average job offer rate for unpaid interns ranges from 33.8% to 50% The average job offer rate for paid interns is 72.2%

Beyond this general list of differences, it’s important to understand that different types of internships are available. Beyond standard internships (paid/unpaid or for-credit), other common options include:

Short Term: These internships are usually only two to three weeks long. Many are offered during winter and spring breaks.

Externship: These opportunities are classified as ‘career shadowing’, and normally range from two or three days to a few weeks.

Service Learning: Here, students must work at the office of a community organization or agency for a set amount of time. Service learning programs often culminate in an intern presentation.

Co-ops: As mentioned above, co-ops are essentially long-term internships, often lasting for a year or longer. Students who participate in co-ops are usually paid, but in most cases they will be required to suspend their coursework until the program has concluded.

Next, we’ll discuss the rights of interns, as well as paid and unpaid internship laws and other regulations governing intern programs in the United States.

Unpaid Internship Rights

Under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), companies must meet certain criteria in order to offer unpaid internships:

  • Unpaid internships must be comparable to training offered in an “educational environment,” such as a classroom or online course.
  • Unpaid internships must be designed to solely benefit the intern.
  • Unpaid interns cannot displace paid company staff, although these interns often work under the direction of paid supervisors or managers.
  • Companies cannot benefit — financially, or otherwise — from unpaid interns and, as the FLSA notes, “on occasion its operations may actually be impeded.”
  • Unpaid interns are never entitled to job offers once their internship has concluded.
  • The employer and the unpaid intern must reach a mutual understanding that no wages or compensation will be awarded during the internship.

With these rules in mind, here are some of the rights associated with unpaid internship laws:

  • You have the right to refuse assignments that could potentially generate revenue for your employer.
  • You have the right to turn down work that does not directly benefit you, the intern.
  • You have the right to leave the internship any time you suspect the employer is not following unpaid internship laws and regulations.
  • Your employer does not have the right to assign work that is normally reserved for paid employees.
  • Your employer does not have the right to employ you as an unpaid intern unless both of you have agreed upon this arrangement prior to the start of the internship.

What are the Pros and Cons of an Unpaid Internship?

An unpaid internship carries certain benefits and drawbacks. The following table summarizes some general pros and cons of unpaid internships.

Pros Cons
A flexible weekly schedule No financial compensation
Wide range of assignments and responsibilities By law, the work cannot mirror the duties of a paid employee
Less competitive for applicants Lower rate of post-internship job offers
Available without approval of school/department officials Lower median starting salary than paid interns

Paid Internship Rights

As a paid intern, you are entitled to the same rights as any other employee. Under the U.S. Department of Labor, these rights include the following:

  • You have the right to make hourly earnings that are equal to or greater than the current local, state, and federal minimum wage.
  • You have a right to earn overtime compensation if you work more than 40 hours in a single week.
  • You have the right to receive the proper accommodations for any disability.
  • You have the right to a safe, healthy workplace that is compliant with OSHA standards.
  • You have the right to report safety and health violations without fear of losing your job.
  • You have the right to leave your internship at any time, thereby forfeiting future wages and potential job offers from your employer.

What are the Pros and Cons of a Paid Internship?

Like unpaid internships, paid internships have their positives and negatives. The table below summarizes some of the pros and cons:

Pros Cons
Duties and assignments reflect real-world workplace expectations Paid interns are often assigned menial, basic tasks
Interns receive financial compensation Interns are expected to follow a structured workweek
Interns have access to conferences, seminars, and other networking events Weekly demands may interfere with assignments and tests for other college courses
Paid interns receive more post-internship job offers from their employers than unpaid interns Paid internships require candidates to follow procedures for obtaining school faculty approval

One final note on rights: Whether you are a paid or unpaid intern, you have the right to report any form of harassment, exploitation, or misconduct that you witness or personally experience at your internship site. If this occurs, you should contact two parties: the human resources office of your employer and the campus official who coordinated the internship. Depending on the nature of your complaint, you may also be able to notify your immediate supervisor.

Before You Start Your Internship

Congratulations! You have searched for college internship opportunities, submitted applications, met employers for interviews and, ultimately, received an internship offer. At this point, there are still a few more crucial steps you’ll need to follow before the internship begins.

  1. Carefully read your internship contract to ensure that all of the details (compensation, hours, etc.) match the arrangements you have agreed upon with the company offering the internship and, if applicable, the campus officials who approved it.
  2. Inquire about the company dress code and, if needed, purchase any attire you need to meet these workplace standards.
  3. Determine an exact route for commuting to and from your workplace, and figure out the most convenient mode of transportation. This will reduce your risk of showing up late to work.
  4. Eat a healthy dinner and get a good night’s sleep before your first day. You can further maximize your time in the morning by assembling an outfit and packing a lunch the night before. Be sure to leave your residence with enough time to arrive at work at least 10 minutes early.

Additional Resources for Interns

For more information about internships, please check out the additional resources below.

Locating Internship Opportunities

  • Internships.com: The web’s largest directory for U.S. college internships lets you browse by city, degree, and specific employers.
  • globalEDGE: A comprehensive worldwide directory of internships for college students that lets you sort by country, subject, and employer type.

Interviewing for an Internship

Internship Laws and Rights

  • U.S. Department of Labor: This summary features laws and regulations that apply to all employees (including interns).
  • Let’s Get Legal: This comprehensive rundown from FastWeb includes laws and regulations pertaining to both paid and unpaid interns.
  • Intern Labor Rights: An advocacy group that fights to end exploitation and unfair work conditions for interns.

Advice for Interns