Viewpoints

Summer internment

Photo: Tom Tian/The Chicago Maroon

It must really pay to sell your soul. Or, at least, given the effort of so many students to land this or that summer job you’d certainly think so.

Metcalf season may have passed, but this is the time of the year when all the non–finance and consulting people (read: the ones who aren’t tools) actually line up their summer plans.

For the poor students still job-hunting, the anxiety has been slowly building since January, when Career Advising and Planning Services (CAPS) traditionally kicks off the internship season. Inevitably they made an appointment with CAPS at some point in February. After all, that’s the only advice CAPS ever gives: Make an appointment with CAPS. About two seconds into the meeting you realize that there is nothing CAPS can tell you other than “good luck” and “here’s how to use the Internet.”

Slowly your classmates start to get jobs. By March everyone starts to ask, “So, what are you doing this summer?” The anxiety starts to mix with shame when you have nothing to tell your classmates.

Soon, you are as desperate as The Killers. The prospect of networking doesn’t seem as dirty (nothing a hot shower can’t fix). Sending your form cover letter to anyone with an e-mail address becomes a justifiable action. Even working 40 hours a week without pay starts to seem like a good move—anything to salvage a couple lines on your résumé.

Now that I’m graduating, it is hard to comprehend how on Earth our current internship system ever came into existence. The extent to which skilled, smart, and hardworking students are willing to go just for a meaningless summer internship is stunning, especially when there’s no empirical evidence that suggests getting an internship has any future value. Lucrative internships in finance or consulting make sense, but for those interested in public service, taking an unpaid or low-pay internship isn’t an inconsequential decision.

Your average student who goes to Washington, D.C., for an unpaid internship is essentially paying something on the order of $4,000 in opportunity cost for a job. That line on your résumé might have some future value, but $4,000? Really? You could go to Europe to “learn a foreign language” for much less than that. (I’m convinced that that is what the truly intelligent students do.)

To make matters worse, there’s an inverse relationship between your pay and what you actually get out of the internship. I guess it makes sense to a business that if you are willing to work for nothing, you’ll probably be content answering phones all day. Still, I can’t comprehend why so many on the supply side put up with this—or why no one has even bothered to complain. Ironically, many of the non-governmental organizations and political action committees that work tirelessly for increases in minimum wage and workers’ rights are quite content to make students work for free each summer.

I think most students realize that the whole thing is a racket. But, for whatever reason, we still go out there and waste perfectly good summers. It’s easy to blame CAPS for pushing us in a certain direction or to tell ourselves that we need to stay competitive with Northwestern students.

But, in all honesty, we are the ones to blame. There is nothing stopping us from spending summers doing stuff we like. Of course, you are going to need a résumé at the end of your college career. But, you should also travel, backpack, and relax.

And make sure you get paid.

Alec Brandon is a fourth-year in the College majoring in economics. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.