Negotiate Your Way into a Paid Internship

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Posted by Lindsay J. Westley on January 9, 2013

Unpaid internships are often seen as valuable work experience and resume fodder, but they aren’t the only option. Here are some valuable tips and tricks for talking your way into a paid internship.

This is it: You’re wearing your best suit, your palms have finally stopped sweating, and you’ve answered all of your interviewer’s questions to the best of your ability. “Congratulations!,” your interviewer says. “We’d love to hire you as our intern this summer. By the way, you know the internship is unpaid, right?”

Now what? Do you grab your resume and bolt? Swallow your expectations and look forward to an austere summer filled with brown-bag lunches and (hopefully) meaningful work? Or do you take a deep breath and prepare to negotiate?

Victoria Pynchon, co-founder and principal of She Negotiates Consulting and Training, has one word for you: Negotiate. A lawyer, mediator, speaker and writer, Pynchon co-authors a popular Forbes.com blog titled “She Negotiates,” and is a fierce advocate for informed debate via her blog and a Twitter feed called simply @PayGenY.

“You should never have to work for free,” Pynchon says. “You’re already carrying the greatest educational burden of anyone in history, so we should not expect you to pay for your on-the-job training.”

There are exceptions to the rule though, says Lauren Stiller Rikleen, Executive-in-Residence Boston College Center for Work & Family, and founder of the Rikleen Institute for Strategic Leadership.

“If you’re after a position in a highly competitive job market with few jobs, internships are a chance to develop relationships and stand out from your peers,” she notes. “Sometimes it’s worth it if you can clearly see that the educational benefits are significant, or if you just wouldn’t get that kind of experience elsewhere.”

Pynchon agrees, and advises that certain organizations, like not-for-profits or very small companies, may not have the resources to pay interns. For companies solidly in the black though—some of whom have been known to bill interns’ hours to clients while paying the intern nothing—Pynchon advocates fierce negotiation. Here are some of her top tips for negotiating when you’re staring down the barrel of an unpaid internship:

  1. Ask diagnostic questions:

When you go in for your interview, ask open-ended questions about how you can be put to the best possible use at that company. If you know they’re looking for specific skills, like Photoshop or SEO savvy, then you’re better equipped to sell your own skills — and the reasons why you deserve to be paid.

  1. Believe in your uniqueness:

Pynchon says that you may have the same degree as thousands of other candidates, but that those candidates don’t have your qualities or your unique talents. “Everyone who is granted an interview will be qualified,” she says. “They wouldn’t be there for an interview if they weren’t. So figure out what your unique talents are, and play them up.”

  1. Be likeable:

It might seem impossible to be friends with a person you’ve just met, but Pynchon says it’s easier than you think: Just turn the tables. You think an interview is all about you? You’re wrong, she says. “Be interested in your interviewer. Ask him or her a million questions. Everyone needs something—that’s why they’re advertising for this position—so ask about the company’s biggest challenges, and then figure out how you can make that person’s life easier by alleviating that stress.”

  1. Do your research:

Most negotiators advise you to never name the first number. Pynchon disagrees. “When you know what you’re worth, you can anchor high and start the conversation,” she says. “Look at glassdoor.com. Look at salary.com. Tell your interviewer, ‘It’s my understanding that the market value for this job is $X.’ Then aim high.” She recommends starting three moves ahead of where you want to end up—so if you want to make $20/hour, give $25/hour as your opening number. Your interviewer will likely counteroffer $15 and you can meet in the middle at $20, both feeling like you’ve come out on top.

Few people feel comfortable practicing the art of negotiation, but faced with the alternative—months of unpaid work that may or may not pay off with intangible benefits—it’s worth a shot. The worst thing that can happen is to have your interviewer say no, and if that happens, you can either weigh up the intangibles, or walk away from the bargaining table with self-respect intact, ready for the next round.

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