I’m a 30-Year-Old Intern!

Internships. Everyone’s had one. Or ten. As a dutiful college student, I worked several unpaid internships. In fact, my journalism school required students to intern with a magazine, newspaper, or broadcast news station. But when I turned 22 and moved to New York City, I thought I left those days behind me. There was no way I could afford to pay for rent, food, and all of my other expenses if I took an internship, even if it was paid.

Fast-forward eight years and I am back to wearing the intern hat as the (paid) social media and editorial intern at Idealist.

Deciding to pursue an internship

While my writing and editing background served me well as I worked for a variety of business publications, the changing media landscape led me to look into a career with communications and social media. But as I ventured out on the job hunt in October 2012, I realized that my years of experience writing about communications and social media weren’t quite enough. Even my continuing studies classes in digital media weren’t getting the job done. I needed hands-on experience using Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and more — and not just for my personal accounts.

Still, when my friend Jessica sent me the job listing for a social media and editorial intern at Idealist, I was a little apprehensive. Are 30-year-olds even allowed to be interns? Fortunately, I was reminded of my all-time favorite sitcom and thought, if Chandler Bing can survive an internship in his “old age,” then I can too.

Obviously, I did apply, and as I went through the interview and hiring process, I took several things into consideration:

  • Will this be valuable to me? Taking a step back to work as an intern is a bit of a risk. But internships should be valuable experiences, especially in an industry or field where you don’t have much experience. I knew that this position would provide me with the social media skills that I needed and the introduction into the nonprofit world that I wanted.
  • What can I offer in this position? As someone a little more seasoned in your career, you often have skills, experiences, and more that can benefit the organization. For example, I knew that my journalism background would be helpful in this position, even as I demonstrated my eagerness to learn something new.
  • What do my friends and family think? My friends are a rockstar group with amazing jobs and I trust them when it comes to career advice. Despite the job title, many told me that the position was “very you” and were ready to back me up as I made the leap.
  • How practical is this? Can you afford to take a lower-paid or unpaid internship? I am able to supplement my work at Idealist by freelance writing. Don’t let money dictate every decision you make in life, but be realistic and practical, and make sure this is a smart decision for you.
  • Can I commit? Organizations and companies usually expect interns to stick around for a few months. Are you willing to take a break from the full-time job hunt and honor your commitment? Even though it is an internship, you need to give it your all.
  • Do I care about the title? This was a trickier one for me; when I started the job, I didn’t tell every acquaintance I spoke to that I was an intern. But look at the job description, the organization, and the people you’ll be working with. Like them all? Then who cares if you’re “just an intern”?

Have you taken an internship in the middle of your career? What was the experience like and how did you make the decision?

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  1. Well I’m not sure how you would categorize this but I have been back in the Chicago for over 4 months now after spending almost 2 years in South America and Asia volunteering for nongovernmental organizations. I worked at an architectural/engineering firm here in Chicago for almost 10 years doing the kind of job that I didn’t really want in the beginning but was available when I graduated from college. I couldn’t find a job in public relations at the time. On my last year at my old job, I had to make a decision to quit because if I didn’t do it then, when would I be able to do it.

    I volunteered for a few organizations doing communications work such as writing for newsletters and even teaching English. I also took on photography in the process. I must say that it was an incredible and amazing decision. I had enough money to survive for that long and was able to gain experience that I really lacked to pursue something in communications.

    After all of those months since the day that I got back, endless research for jobs online took place. And yes, I even got an internship interview, possibly unpaid. However, I skipped it because I found a job in the Dominican Republic as a volunteer Administrator/Facility Manager for COPA, which I found here on idealist.org website. It doesn’t pay well but enough to survive for 2 years. The position itself is perfect for me for the kind of job that I was looking for the experiences that I’ve gained the last few years.

    At 32, I’m taking a huge gamble that someday, this job would lead to a better position that I would truly enjoy. I asked myself virtually the same questions you have listed above and came away with the mindset that even age shouldn’t stop me from pursuing things that I want to do.

    • Jay Haapala
    • February 5, 2013

    I haven’t done a mid-career internship myself, but I’ve worked with many people who have since I run an internship and volunteer program with about 80 interns and 1200 volunteers each year. I’ve made a couple observations.

    At my organization, about 1/3 of 120 employees started as volunteers or interns, but the lucky ones needed to be lucky as well as talented. If an intern impressed, there also had to be a matching job available during the right window of time.

    People who know in what field they want to work AND exactly what skills or experiences they lack fare better than those who just try to build their general experience. Therefore, interns seeking technical or semi-technical employment tend to get the job they want more frequently.

    Here’s the bad news about internships: according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, class of 2012 unpaid interns had (virtually) no advantage over college grads without an internship in terms of getting a job offer. Paid interns received a job offer about 50% more frequently. Obviously, this is about recent grads, but I think it’s probably true for mid-career folks as well. See: http://www.naceweb.org/Infographics/2012_Student_Survey_Infographic.aspx

    • Jennifer Caban
    • February 5, 2013

    Being 33 and having just completed a graduate fellowship… I thought I would have a smoother transition to full-time employment. 6-months later (with a strong professional background and masters in tow) and however many jobs Ive applied for later, Im STILL unemployed. All that to say, thank you for writing up your experience and sharing with us. Its made me a bit more open to looking at such opportunities. Hope it pays off… all the best!

    • Lisa Brewer
    • February 5, 2013

    How about just-shy-of-50-years-old and serving as an intern?
    The economic tsunami / upheaval made a career change critical for myself, and the path has been both fascinating and tumultuous in turns. During a year without work, i continued my volunteer community service and took on internships to make the best use of the void. Some of the experiences were fantastic, and some groups are simply offering internships as a way to get work done without having to pay for it. i was a little embarrassed at first, but then realized i have a life’s worth of professional experience to bring to the party, and endless curiosity for learning new things. If an organization will have me, i’m there. i may be “seasoned”, but it’s with zest for life and hopefully some fine day all the pieces will fall into place.

  2. After college I spent a few years working for a law firm trying to decide if I wanted to fork over tens of thousands of dollars to go to law school. When I finally decided that wasn’t the path I wanted to take I went back to school for a time to learn GIS. I’m one of those folks who get very excited by spreadsheets and maps and was thrilled to turn it into a career.

    At 29 I took an unpaid internship with a solar energy nonprofit called Solar Oregon. This organization had great data sets and I was happy to be paid in information, for a short time. It had to be short because like many 29 year olds I had a family, a mortgage and a supportive spouse but a limited amount of his patience while I figured things out and we squeaked by on one income.

    To cut to the point I fell hard for the organization, the mission and the folks that I was lucky to be surrounded by. I climbed from unpaid intern to education coordinator to programs manager and am now executive director. I would encourage anyone to take an internship at 30 but I would also recommend that you carefully select where you intern and look for a team to join that fosters growth and appreciates hard work.

    I now have the pleasure of recruiting new interns and helping them to learn about solar energy in Oregon. While we can’t hire all of our interns we work hard to help them make connections and build careers in our industry. These folks have turned out to be our best advocates and have helped us expand our organization and our mission even further.

    Claire Carlson

      • Jill
      • February 6, 2013

      Great story, Claire. I just love that you were so passionate about your organization’s mission, and that you rose to the top. Interning is like the NGO version of starting in the mailroom!

      I was thinking about my career, and realized that with only one exception, every job I’ve held (all in the nonprofit sector) I got through internships.

      Now I’m approaching 40, and after 5 years home with the kids, I’m looking into interning again — to gain new skills, but also to reconnect with the nonprofit community I’ve been apart from for so long.

    • Allison
    • February 5, 2013

    I am in my late 20’s almost 30 and I have taken up a fellowship with the SCA. I just finished my first 10 months and really enjoyed it. I had the title of Volunteer and Community Outreach Coordinator at a National Forest. I haven’t had success still trying to find a job after my position and I started looking 3 months before my final end date. I have been asked to do the fellowship again which I have accepted but I am also looking for other part time jobs because even though money isnt important it is important.. I gotta live and the experience is needed but I have to live also. I’m hoping I will land a federal job but I can’t sit and wait I have to keep being inventive and making sure I work the hardest I can. All journeys are a journey :0)

    • Suzan Rosen
    • February 6, 2013

    I am a 46 year old MPA who just completed an internship at a major city’s emergency management agency. It was an incredibly valuable experience. Of course, the duties included some time at the copier, but most of my time was spent on tasks that impacted the real day to day and long term operations of my department. I authored documents now included in official operating manuals, represented the department in some interactions with other agencies and organizations, and felt valued and respected for my input from the start. The people in the department took great care to make sure that my experience was at least as valuable as my contribution to the organization.

    Moreover, the supervisors have been incredibly supportive of my search for a paid position. I haven’t found a spot yet, but have had or been called for several initial interviews.
    Good luck to anyone brave enough to take this step. I hope it pays off as well for you.

    • Denise
    • February 6, 2013

    I entered grad school at 31. I received a HUD fellowship and I was required to do THREE internships. I didn’t think about age related to being in school and being an intern at that time of my life, so it didn’t phase me. Now, (ahem) years later, I am interning again because the jobs in field I was working in dried up, and so I needed to go in another direction. I’m learning and I’m getting paid (a little), I do it part time, and I have another better paying part time job. I feel it is a little bit ridiculous at this stage in my life, but it was my choice.

  3. Welp, I was going to write about this very topic, but you covered the bases so nicely, I’ll just respond by saying, A THOUSAND TIMES YES! I quit my job in December to focus on grad school and to write as much as possible. At the age of 37, and having never had an internship before, I felt a little crazy when I submitted my application to be an intern at my local NPR affiliate. They interviewed me, and gave me the position right away. I am two weeks into the internship, and I can honestly say it’s the best decision I’ve made in a very long time. I am incredibly fortunate; I have a husband who is willing and able to support me financially and mentally while I focus on the MA in English I am working towards. Adding a part-time unpaid internship to my weekly tasks is like taking an extra class that not only gives me on the job experience but connects me with like minded people in an environment that inspires.

    I’m so happy to have the opportunity to be an intern; it’s a decision that caused some sleepless nights for sure, however the payoff is something I never would have received if I had stayed in a job that was making me miserable. I am contributing to the group I work with, and they are teaching me things I never would have learned otherwise. 30+ year old interns of the world, UNITE! Thanks for the article, I don’t even know you, but I’m proud of you!

    • Kimberly Maul
    • February 6, 2013

    Thank you all for your comments and sharing your own stories! It’s really inspiring!

    • Vince W.
    • February 6, 2013

    Quick question. What is the difference between an unpaid internship and volunteering? Can I volunteer and keep my paid job?

      • Jay Haapala
      • February 6, 2013

      Good question Vince. An unpaid internship is a form of volunteerism, and yes there’s no reason you shouldn’t be able to volunteer and keep your job. Legally and ethically, it’s important that employers don’t have employees volunteering to do the same duties they do when they’re on the clock, but other than that it’s legal and ethical.

      An internship has specific characteristics – here’s one definition: “An academic internship is a form of experiential education that integrates knowledge and theory learned in the classroom with practical application and skill development in a professional setting. Students earn academic credit, or there is some other connection to a degree-granting, educational institution. This work/learning arrangement is overseen by a faculty or staff member of an educational institution and by a designated employee of an organization. The internship is usually the length or equivalent of an academic term, may be part-time or full-time, paid or unpaid. An integral component of the experience that distinguishes it from other types of work is one or more forms of structured and deliberate reflection contained within learning agendas or objectives.” Developed in 2002 by Mike True (of Messiah College) in collaboration with other professionals

      At my organization, all internships are not necessarily academic. They do however include 1) a project as opposed to day-to-day work, 2) mutual goal-setting, 3) mutual evaluation and 4) a commitment of time in-line with academic expectations for time spent per credit – about 10 hours per week for 10-12 weeks.

      The litmus test for the Fair Labor Standards Act is that the intern feels they got more out of the experience than they gave. See http://www.dol.gov/whd/regs/compliance/whdfs71.htm

      Another good resource with best practices for internship programs is the Minnesota Association For Experiential Learning – http://www.macalester.edu/mafel

      • Rumana
      • February 6, 2013

      I’m taking a course in social media marketing and if I had the time, I’d apply to be an intern for the hands-on experience. Age is a non-issue. Honestly! What better way to pick up free skills and experience, and meet exciting new people. Anytime it works for you, is the right time to intern. Congrats.

    • Eric Mount
    • February 6, 2013

    Great Article. It’s nice to see there are others in the same boat. After working in mental health as a therapist for four or five years, It was becoming very clear it wasn’t the path for me. I’m pursing a career in nonprofit communications, and have been interning to get experience (at age 32).

    It was tough leaving a steady paycheck and taking a step back, as I certainly thought the intern days were over, and I definitely felt a little self conscious about it all. But as they say, it’s better to be at the bottom of a ladder you want to climb, than halfway up one that you don’t.

    I recently met up with some old college friends, some of whom overtly expressed dissatisfaction with their jobs, but at the same time felt it was too late and that they had a mortgage and were stuck and so on and so forth…

    But in the grand scheme of things, I think it’s going to be well worth the temporary sacrifice. Good luck to everybody and keep at it!

    • Dean Maul
    • February 6, 2013

    I am proud of people who take a risk and go out on a limb. The unpaid part worries me at times but fortune favors the bold. As I look back on my career, (I am retired now.) the best decisions involved the unknown and taking a path many others could not understand. I would listen to advice from a chosen few, ignored the accepted route and many times chose the road less traveled. It was more fun and a lot less crowded.

    • Leo Balboni
    • February 7, 2013

    I took an internship at the age of 36 just after graduating from University in Australia. I did a 3 months one at the Australian Embassy here in Madrid. I think it was great, even though i sometimes thought I was just doing the managers dirty work. It also will look good on your CV as it shows you are keeping yourself active. Don’t give up hope, internships are a keystone in getting to where you want to be.

    • Diana
    • February 7, 2013

    I found an unpaid internship (here on Idealist!) after being laid off three years ago at 27 and taking it was the best thing I ever did for my career. I’d wanted to leave my field anyway, and it was the best way to get “real world” experience the field I was switching to.

    My thoughts:

    1. Even if you do need to earn money, taking an unpaid internship while you’re looking is a fantastic way to show employers you weren’t just sitting at home watching the Today Show because “there are no jobs out there.” You’re not going to be earning money until you find a job either way, so you might as well do something to build new skills, make contacts and show employers your work ethic in the meantime.

    On “can I commit?” Totally agree. Treat it like a paid job (and then some). It’s so easy to say/think “well, it’s not like they’re paying me so I don’t really have to ______” I saw plenty of other interns rotate through my company and then drop off the radar because they didn’t follow through. My contacts at my internship basically think I’m a rockstar for acting like a paid employee, and their recommendations of me to other employers reflect that.

    On “do I care about the title?” You might not even have to call yourself an intern. Unless the company specifically wants to use the intern label, they’ll probably be perfectly happy to let you come up with a job title that suits your role. As far as contacts outside the organization knew, I was a staff member according my email signature. My resume doesn’t say intern anywhere either 🙂

    Thanks for bringing attention to this career path, Kimberly!

    • Marchette
    • February 7, 2013

    This positing completely relates to me. I am in the exact same stage in my career, and in life. It’s nice to hearing about someone going through the same thing, who shares the exact same doubts, fears, and optimism!

    • OZlem
    • February 8, 2013

    Thank you for the article!!! It completely relates to me. I won a Green Card from the lottery and I moved to NY 4 months ago. I speak three languages. I have very solid educational and professional background in marketing. At the begining I was optimistic. I was looking for the jobs which are suitable for mid-level pro. However as months past, I have lost my hope. I have been going through the same thoughts lately.

  4. This article came at the right time for me. I’m 27 and recently emigrated to the USA and have applied for internships because I need to adjust my skills to the US. I’ve been applying for jobs too but sometimes feel the need to explain that YES I can do the work, I don’t have the relevant experience within a US organization.

    I get the feeling that my age group (the older end of the millennial generation) are quite open to doing internships if we want to shift from our first job to another position or another field.

    I also volunteer part-time (and work part-time because we all need money) I agree that the two are quite different concepts, but both can be great to fill in gaps/keep skills honed/learn new skills.

    • Rachael
    • February 20, 2013

    I just did a 12-week unpaid internship last year. Left an industry I’d worked my way up in and could make a ton more money in…. But I hated every second of it. Thankfully I got a job about a month after the internship ended. I think the unpaid part was the hardest thing to overcome (that and the fear that I would be forever broke and destitute and that I was stupid for leaving a “sure thing” at my other job). I should mention I was 30 when I did this internship so I’m in that boat with you!

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    • susana
    • May 5, 2013

    OMG! Im sitting on my bed taking a break from studying….googled “internship after 30” and holy inspiration I found this site!!!!!!! I would like to start off by saying THANK YOU to each of you for sharing your stories. INSPIRED is an understatement …I am a 32 yr old mother who returned to school to get my bachelors degree in Communications and have been looking into internships because you need one to graduate. Can I just say, I was like huh!??? As if sitting in a room full of 20 yrs olds isnt odd enough, (and waiting tables with the same age group!)…but you know what, everyday day that passes & I feel closer to finishing school makes me feel so good! Thank god for my husband who is also so supportive, but its not easy. NOT AT ALL. Just wanted to share my story and say that although I dont know you all, you have inspired me so much to keep my eyes on the prize and continue in the path I decided to take! My best friend said something to me that stuck…..she said.. “sus, you can be in the same exact position years from now and be mad at yourself for letting time go or you can be one step closer to your goal in the same amount of time” SO TRUE! Dont give up people! I think we over 30 yr olds have such an advantage which is that we NOW KNOW what we want or at least what we DONT WANT! Good luck to you all and thank you so much for the inspiration!!!!!!!!!!!!!! YAY US!!!!!!! TEAM 30 !!!!!!!!!!!!!

    1. Susana, thanks so much for your passionate comment and for sharing your story! And keep going – you’re definitely an inspiration!

      1. Hi, very interesting article, i am on the verge of doing an internship abroad in the US(i am from Norway), but leaving a stable pay in the job for an unpaid internship just sounds wrong, but then again, i guess we sometimes have to take a chance. I am however allready working within this field,i just want to experience and live in the US and i feel i am finished with my studies(only 23 turning 24 soon) ,i am just so confused , why on earth couldn’t they have this position paid and i would have done it no questions asked 🙁

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    • Stephanie
    • May 16, 2013

    Thank you so much for this article; it’s heartening to read about similar experiences, especially when everyone around you seems to have found their calling at 22 while you’re still figuring yourself out at 30. When I moved back to the States last year (I lived abroad for a number of years), I had few stateside contacts who could vouch for recent work experience. I wasn’t sure if I could get an internship after being out of school, and honestly my self-confidence was very shaken. I eventually found volunteering for causes I cared about (art, childhood education, literacy, etc.) as a viable alternative, and they’re a wonderful way for me to get involved in my community and share my passions with others. I’m looking for a part-time internship now to segue back into my field, but fortunately my current job (while unrelated degree-wise) affords me the flexibility to volunteer as much as I can.

    • Eboni
    • May 31, 2013

    I just googled “interning in your 30s” as I sent a resume for a 2nd internship. I just turned 33 last month and just completed an internship in event planning, a field I have been wanting to work in for many years. It was a casual internship with a sole proprieter but I gained a lot of knowledge from her. I left the field I had been working in because I hated it. I had worked in hotels part time of and on for many years and decided I would use that experience to get my foot in the door. I obtained a degree in Hospitality and had been working in a full service hotel but still found it very difficult to obtain a position in event planning due to the competitive nature. I, like so many others, think of my favorite character Chandler from my favorite show “Friends” as a way to keep pushing. Thank you all for your inspiring stories and thank goodness for Google!

      • Dug
      • April 26, 2014

      Dear Ebony!
      Reading your post, made me not only to respond but has given me hope that I’m not alone. I’m 34, and switched over to Hospitality from Health Care. I was making very good $, great benefits, and had the chance to travel with business perks. It appeared to look like a dream job for many, however, if your passion is not there for the product and service, your happiness is crushed and your career growth is stagnated. I was doing events on the side, which led to realizing my happiness —to serve people and give them memorable experiences. I made the switch 100% by pursuing a fast track MBA in Hospitality. From there, as a career switcher, I became a 30+ intern. Did it for 6 months with a smaller company, wearing multiple hats. I’m now being pursued by 3 of the biggest luxury hotel brands in the world. Regardless of your age, it what you do with your experience. You’ll be surprised what value we bring to the company and with a little patience and hope, great things come your way. Best of luck to everyone on this blog! Each of you are my heroes!

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    • Liz
    • December 7, 2013

    I studied theater arts in college then went on to film school with the hopes of starting at the bottom of the totem pole in the film business. I started interning then had to go home to help take care of my ailing dad. Within those 5 years of caregiving I worked for a huge coffee company (I’m sure you can guess which one) then a mortgage company for three years. Working in the film business seemed like a fading dream. I eventually worked up the nerve to apply to entertainment jobs and was offered an internship for a production company. I left a paying job and entered my 30th year taking a huge chance with this internship. I’m hoping for the best! I’m so glad to see I’m not the only one willing to risk a little for a dream.

      • LC
      • February 14, 2014

      Thank you for posting this article. I am 36 years old and trying to break into marketing. I just finished a course with the Chartered Institute of Marketing. I have no experience and was thinking that maybe I was too old to enter the world of Media Agencies. This articles and all of the replies have made me feel more confident in applying for internships and entry level roles.

        • cs
        • July 11, 2014

        Thank you so much for posting- all of you!! I am 30 years old and I am just now getting (enrolled) in a University for a degree in Marketing. And have started thinking about being an intern, but was scared to even try, thinking that I would just be laughed at because of my age. I am so glad that I searched the phrase of “too old for an internship” and came across these replies.
        Best of luck to all of you!

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    • ThatItFactor
    • October 1, 2014

    Wow, the article was good, but the comment section is great! I found this article after been offered an opportunity as a social media volunteer for a huge nonprofit organization. I had my reservations about accepting the position as I also have a FULL TIME paid position as a social media specialist.

    But this volunteer position opens me up to an industry outside of my current job and due to their vast social media presence, I felt like I couldn’t miss this opportunity. My goal is to become an independent social media contractor, but it would be hard to sell my services when I have only worked for one employer. What I’m saying, is I don’t have much of a portfolio outside of one particular industry. I’m going to accept the volunteer position.

    On a side note, I hope to expand my network and make some valuable connections.

      • snap
      • October 22, 2014

      I am 42 years old and I am a marketing intern at a pharmaceutical company. I graduated with a BSN from a Big Ten school in the Midwest. After a couple of years in the nursing field I realized I made a huge mistake and was fortunate to get hired by a fortune 500 pharmaceutical company. After 6 SUCCESSFUL years I decided to be a mom. After a decade out of the workforce, but ready to return I could only get a staff nursing job…NO WAY!! So I did what any sane mother of 5 would do, enroll in an accelerated MBA and snag a marketing intern ship during the last 6 months. I will keep u posted with how things turn out.

        • Hope
        • November 13, 2014

        I just wanted to chime in on the comments section because it has helped me a lot and want to throw in my 2 cents. I’m 33 years old and after a tumultuous personal life I now find myself with a Bachelor’s degree and a very spotty resume with not much to offer. I too am furthering my education and doing volunteer work in the field of grant writing to be able to follow my two long-time passions of the nonprofit sector as well as writing. I guess all these comments show that with lots of effort, hope and a positive attitude, good things can come!

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