Don’t Be Afraid to Say “I Quit” To a Crap Internship

Remember how, at the beginning of your internship, you most likely signed a short contract saying you were an “at will” employee? You know how this means that you can be terminated–or that you can quit–for any time or any reason? Well one intern took this to heart, the quitting part, anyway. Check it out, courtesy of The Awl:

Date: Mon, Aug 2, 2010 at 12:34 AM


This is not going to work out. After last week, I can no longer in good conscience stay at [NAME OF PUBLICATION]. I don’t think making bar graphs and quoting other websites is going to make me be a better writer. I quit.



Now this got me thinking. The first reaction to this kind of letter might be, oh, what a spoiled little intern. But really, are they so spoiled? Was that intern really out of line with that kind of letter? I’m not so sure. There is absolutely something to be said for being a hard worker, sticking it out, holding true to your commitment, and networking within any high-profile organization. But it’s not hard for me to envision a scenario where it might just not be worth it.

I’ve been extraordinarily fortunate to have some incredible internships, on Capitol Hill, with the American Legacy Foundation, with MS&L PR, and now with the Consumer Electronics Association. That said, had any of these internships been unpaid and not lived up to my expectations, I may have been tempted to write a similar letter of my own. But I will emphasize, this is especially in the case of unpaid internships.

The legality and ethics of unpaid internships has been in question for some time. While I can’t realistically say I expect unpaid internships to disappear anytime soon, I can definitely say there should be an expectation of legitimate work and learning to take place in an unpaid internship. After all, if you aren’t making money, you should be at least learning something and improving your skills–otherwise what’s the point?

In the case of the letter above, the intern makes an excellent point. “Making bar graphs and quoting other websites,” in all likelihood, will not make him or her a better writer. Those are skills any intern with half a brain already has, and there’s no excuse for any organization to be handing interns such menial tasks (except perhaps very infrequently). If that internship was making him or her connections and giving them access to people in a high-profile organization that they might not have had access to otherwise, then there’s probably some value you there. If not… well then good for them.

My point? Interns–if you get stuck with a crap unpaid internship, don’t do it just for that extra line on your resume. Call it quits early on (don’t wait two months into your internship) with a well-written, concise letter like above (although perhaps more polite), and then tell that story next time you interview for an internship, they might very well be impressed. Intern employers–don’t be jerks.

Update: Great points in the comments by AU Career Center advisor Marie Spaulding–I couldn’t agree more! There’s a lot to consider in a situation like this (see below).