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Advice / Career Paths / Career Change

Why I Took an Internship at Age 30

After spending nearly a decade in the working world, it wasn’t exactly my plan to take on an internship—and an unpaid one, no less. But at age 30, when I found myself jobless and thoroughly confused about my future, it became my reality.

I know what you’re thinking: A 30-year-old intern? And sure, while many internships are reserved for college students and new grads, they can actually help you get your foot in the door of a new industry, spark a decision about the career path you should pursue, or, if nothing else, provide a valuable learning experience—at any age.

If you’re considering an internship a little later in life, welcome to my world! To give you a taste of my experience, here’s my story of the year my career swerved off track—and the surprising way it helped me get where I am now.

The Situation

In 2009, my husband landed an amazing promotion—which (less amazingly) required us to pack up our home in Virginia and move to Georgia. As a result, I begrudgingly left a job I loved—creating internal communication materials for a company where I had real potential.

After the move, I spent several weeks glued to my laptop, searching for new opportunities. Finding a job became my job: I spent my days tweaking, tailoring, and sending off my resume to every position that seemed like a possible fit—and even a few that didn’t. Soon, desperation took over: I lowered my salary expectations and cover letters became the bane of my existence.

But the rejections kept coming. The economy was at rock bottom and I faced heavy competition for every position I applied to—even candidates with master’s degrees were applying for entry-level jobs, while I had merely a bachelor’s. When I did manage to get a response, it was grim: Hiring managers were receiving unusually high numbers of resumes for every opening they had. In short, competition was stiff and, despite my credentials, I wasn’t getting any nibbles.

The Decision

Then one day, I came across a posting for a part-time, three-month, unpaid editorial internship at a magazine. I hadn’t been actively looking for internships, but this one piqued my interest. As far back as high school, I had dreamed of writing for a magazine, but knew it was a difficult gig to land—especially living outside of a publishing mecca like New York. Since I never had a desire to relocate, I ended up pursuing a career in traditional marketing and communications—but always fantasized about the path I failed to follow.

I realized that this was a rare opportunity that could help me achieve several goals at once: I could get a taste for a job I’d idolized for so long, keep my mind sharp and my body busy, and still have time to search and go on interviews for a full-time job. I even played with the idea that once the magazine saw my true potential, they’d snatch me up as a permanent employee.

So, off went yet another resume—and this time, the response was different: I landed an interview! When I showed up and shook hands with the interviewer (who was a good five years younger than me), I sheepishly joked that I was probably her oldest applicant (I was). Luckily, she didn’t it count against me—in fact, my age and knowledge may have been what tipped the scale in my favor (who wouldn’t want free work from an experienced professional?). In the end, the magazine offered me the short-term gig, and I gladly accepted.

The Experience

In the beginning, I was excited about getting some great writing and editing experience—part of the internship’s appeal was the potential to add to my portfolio in hopes of one day becoming a full-time freelance writer.

Unfortunately, my main responsibilities turned out to be keeping spreadsheets updated and contacting vendors to procure samples. As you’d expect, I also ran a lot of errands (“Get the mail!” “Order lunch!”) and verified quotes for editors. Of course, all these things are common for an internship—but at this point in my career, I felt like I had already paid my dues by drudging through administrative tasks and fighting my way up the responsibility ladder—so I was pretty unsatisfied. I did end up getting a couple of articles published, but I’m still working on the whole full-time freelancing dream.

When I finished the internship three months later, I wasn’t asked—nor did I really want—to stay on permanently. In fact, I was glad it was over! It turned out that working for a magazine, at least that one, wasn’t everything I had built it up to be in my mind. But on the other hand, if I hadn’t completed the internship, I never would have figured that out.

Despite the fairly mindless work I did there, I’m really glad I did it. When I interviewed for full-time jobs both during and following my stint at the magazine, my interviewers praised my willingness to take on an unpaid internship rather than just sitting on the couch accepting unemployment checks. They told me it proved my dedication and gumption. And that gumption eventually landed me a job similar to what I had before the move—doing my standard (and beloved) marketing and communications thing.

Sure, it’s easy to dismiss the idea of an internship once you’re past those college and early post-grad years. It can seem like a step backward or even feel a bit embarrassing—believe me, I had those doubts, too. But given my experience, if your situation either permits (or dictates) the opportunity, seriously consider the benefits. It’s a chance to dip your toes into a field you’ve always wondered about, it can keep your skills fresh or expose you to new ones, and it could even open doors you never expected and start you on a whole new, exciting path.

Photo courtesy of Klaus Vedfelt / Getty Images.