The independent news organization of Duke University

Internship blues

Calls for fare-splitting Ubers crowding social media news feeds, a steady stream of suitcases rolling on asphalt and the palpable dread of postponed midterms: all telltale signs that Spring Break 2018 has officially come to an end. Despite the forecast of temperatures barely hitting above sixty (and even potential snow this week), summer appears much closer now that the one week respite has drawn to a close. Along with the last stretch of classes before finals comes talk of jobs, internships and prestigious summer programs. It seems that childhood summers filled with family and idle days are long gone and the pressure to achieve something, to accumulate work experience and to earn money is prioritized over all.

The psychological impact of this mounting pressure to land that highly sought after internship or grant is significant and widespread. An ever-increasing ferocity of competition for summer jobs at top companies has resulted in earlier and earlier recruitment seasons, creating anxiety as early as freshman fall. Then, once the chaos of interviews settles and the dust clears, those left with no envy-worthy internship grapple with feelings of inadequacy and panic. Moreover, those lucky few who do earn a spot in the good graces of Goldman Sachs or an impressive nonprofit are tasked with spending their only long vacation from the stress of school working long hours. 

Despite the overwhelming mental toll of constantly applying, interviewing and networking, students are still desperate for these positions. Duke undergraduates—like so many other bright-eyed, hopeful students—put themselves through these trials and tribulations hoping the temporary position will look good enough on their resume to net them a job after graduation in the tumultuous market. Companies are well aware of this desperation and actively prey on it in the form of unpaid internships and vague, noncommittal promises of professional “experience.” Although some types of internships like ones in the consulting industry “are often designed to retain interns, in hopes of eventually hiring them as full-time employees,” most others don’t offer such a direct path to employment. Unpaid internships are already frustrating enough for most students, but after factoring in all the hidden costs, prove to be even more so for those who cannot afford to live in large cities for months at a time without a steady income. Not only do unpaid internships devalue and exploit student labor, they also directly benefit the rich and shut out those who arguably need the connections and experience the most. Universities offer some financial support for those who can’t afford these internships, but Duke’s program, for example, doesn’t apply to students who will earn more than $1,500 in pay from the position—even though the summer contribution expected of those on financial aid is $3,000.

Unfortunately, there exists no one, definite solution to this problem. The nature of the issue is self-perpetuating with few regulatory practices or representative bodies in place. It’s also a symptom of a larger toxic, capitalist mindset of hyper-productivity and the normalization of precarity. However, policies like increasing internship funding and a limit on how early recruiting occurs can help alleviate the situation to some degree. In the short term, a focus on mental wellbeing is essential. Detach concepts of personal worth from internships and jobs, find solace in loved ones and try to redefine how you think of leisure time. Who knows, we might just be able to recapture a small bit of that childhood summer magic.


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