my internship ended last week, but they’re still giving me work

A reader writes:

I just finished an internship last week and sent my last project to my supervisor. My supervisor e-mailed me and asked me to add information to the project that he hadn’t mentioned I needed to include before. It’d probably take me at least three hours to do it. The internship was unpaid, turned out to not be good experience/learning-wise, and I did all the hours I agreed to do, so I don’t think I “owe” them more time. I’m also starting a new internship this week, so I don’t exactly have a bunch of extra free time to be still doing work for them. They have 15 interns each semester, so it’d be easy for him to hand the work off to someone else in the spring since the work isn’t time sensitive.

Is it unreasonable for me to not do the extra work? Can I just remind my supervisor that I’ve finished my hours and say I’m starting another internship and don’t have time to do additional work? I don’t want to “burn bridges” but I really don’t want to have to force myself though another few hours of tedious free work while I’m busy starting another internship either.

What?!  This guy knows that your internship ended last week, right?

Yeah, just email him back and tell him that now that your internship is over and you’re starting a new position, you don’t have time to continue to do work for him. Thank him again for the experience, blah blah blah, but no, you don’t need to continue to do work now that the position is over.

{ 41 comments… read them below }

  1. Charlotte*

    In the interest of playing devil’s advocate, long-term it may behoove you to just complete the request and maintain the relationship. I know it’s hard to looks it right now and see the value in that, but if this supervisor is a potential employer in the future or a reference, you may be better off being seen as the intern who went the extra mile, rather than the intern who turned down the work because the position was over. After all, sometimes we have to pitch in to help companies out after we leave them, right?

    1. OP*

      I was actually working under another supervisor for the bulk of the internship, so I’d only ask the first supervisor for references (he already thanked me for my great work and said he’d be happy to be a reference).

    2. Mike C.*

      I’m getting a bit tired of advice that tells people to let themselves be exploited to maintain the image of “going the extra mile”.

      Also, there’s nothing wrong with “being the person who doesn’t do work for people they no longer work for”. That’s what normal people do.

      1. Unanimously Anonymous*

        Maybe it’s just me, but “After all, sometimes we have to pitch in to help companies out after we leave them, right?” absolutely reeked of sarcasm.

  2. Jamie*

    After all, sometimes we have to pitch in to help companies out after we leave them, right?

    I don’t think so. If you leave on good terms and you want to help them through the transition, that’s certainly nice…and if one is leaving a position where you were the solo person doing your job, there may be an emotional obligation (it would be for me), but with set parameters of what and how much. Anything beyond answering questions then a consulting rate needs to be discussed.

    I wouldn’t finish a project after I was no longer employed somewhere unless I was hired as a contractor.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Agreed — it’s reasonable to answer some questions after you leave (the password for this, where you stored that), but not to do an actual project/work.

    2. OP*

      I can totally see myself feeling emotionally obligated (good way to put it!) to do more work if I felt like I got more out of the internship myself, but I feel that they’ve benefited from the internship a lot more than me.

      Luckily there isn’t really a “transition”—it’s the type of work any of their interns could do.

  3. CW*

    While I don’t understand the ins and outs of internships in the US, still wonder if this might be a wee test or something.

    You’ve given up loads of your time for free already, so why not just do this couple of hours, ask for feedback and see if it might go somewhere?

    1. OP*

      I don’t see the internship going anywhere, unfortunately. They get 15 unpaid interns each semester, so I think they’d just keep using unpaid interns instead of hiring me.

      The work is tedious and boring, so I’d really have to force myself through it. It’d be kind of like if you’ve scrubbed floors for 160 hours and are all happy because you think you’re done, only to find out you need to do it for a few more hours.

      1. Anonymous*

        Oh. (I’m the anonymous below). Didn’t see your comment. In that case, yeah, if you’re not learning from it (which I assumed you were), and you really hate it, then maybe don’t do it.

    2. Anonymous*

      I agree with this. I mean, yes, you no longer have a commitment with that organization, but you weren’t being paid anyways, so what’s the difference now? I know it’s stressful, what’s with the new internship and all, and I’d personally advocate for paid positions (but that’s neither here nor there), but you might as well do it if you could and have a second reference.

      1. CW*

        I don’t know what you mean. I was simply pointing out that if someone has spent hours and hours per week getting prepared to do work for free, travelling to do work for free then working for free… what’s a couple of extra hours to round off a project at the end of it?

        1. Mike C.*

          I was referring mainly to your idea that “this might be some kind of test where if you just do a little more work you might ‘go somewhere'”. Games like this only lead to bad things, and we shouldn’t go around telling those new to the working world to hope for things that aren’t realistic to hope for.

          As for “what’s a couple extra hours”? Because their commitment is over. It’s as simple as that. To say that those few hours are nothing is to say that one’s own time is worth nothing, and that’s not how anyone should be valuing themselves.

            1. OP*

              They do them to get experience?

              In the internships I’ve been looking at, the ones that provide a good experience or that are paying are the ones that require you to have previous experience already, so I’m limited to what internships I can apply to. I honestly thought this internship would be a better experience than it turned out to be (a professor had told me a previous intern “learned a lot” and the description of the internship made me think it was going to be different than it actually was).

              1. BW*

                Exactly, they do them for the experience and learning, not so they can be exploited and give up what little free time they have. The point is the intern is also getting something valuable out of it, and if you feel like giving a few more hours of time you don’t owe them because you no longer work there doesn’t have any positive value and especially if you have started another internship/job you need to focus on, then I think it is totally reasonable to say no to the request.

        2. Not So NewReader*

          It sounds like the work was a bottomless pit, and the company has found a way to get it done for free. OP probably would not be ending the project.

          The thing I question here is that shouldn’t internships teach you something or give you a hands on opportunity to apply what you have learned? Wouldn’t anything less be quasi-ethical if not out right UNethical?
          I see internships up here that are on a par with OPs example of scrubbing floors. Unless my degree is in “environmental management” (building maintenance), I do not understand how these internships connect in a meaningful way to a student’s development as a professional.
          Bluntly stated: There were internships near me that I was advised not to take because the company was simply looking for free labor. The company had no interest in helping develop new professionals.

        3. Jamie*

          I would never work for an organization that employed these type of tests, either…if I was aware it was happening.

          Work is stressful enough without an employer deliberately playing mind games.

          And I wouldn’t put in additional time in this instance. The interniship is complete and the employer/intern relationship has dissolved. That’s like breaking up with someone and then still expecting them to go with you to your horrible cousins wedding. No, once the relationship ends you don’t have to do the awful boring stuff anymore. That’s the best breakup perk there is.

          Another way work is just like dating…

          1. BW*

            ” That’s like breaking up with someone and then still expecting them to go with you to your horrible cousins wedding.”

            Or drive a UHaul truck with them hundreds of miles to move to another state and then drive it back (alone) and return it for them.

            True story.

            1. Heather*

              If the U-Haul was in the ex’s name, I would be sorely tempted to just leave it somewhere random, rent a car, and drive myself home ;)

        4. Jenn*

          For me, I have a set amount of time I am willing to do “free” work; the time I spent at an unpaid internship is time away from my paid job. In my case, I took a unpaid internship while working part-time at another job unrelated to my field. Sometimes it’s the matter of paying the bills.

    3. BW*

      “You’ve given up loads of your time for free already, so why not just do this couple of hours”

      This is so a reason *not* to give up any more of your free time for someone you no longer work for.

  4. OP*

    @ Alison: Now that I think about it, it’s totally possible the supervisor has no idea my internship is over. They have so many interns, it must be hard to keep track of them.

    1. Anonymous*

      Were you working out of your personal email account the whole time? If you had a ‘work’ email, and now he’s sending it you personal account, then that’s a pretty clear indicator that he knew you’re not there anymore.

    2. The IT Manager*

      I wondered about this. Was it virtual internship the whole time because for interships, which I usually think of as in-person, they know you’re done because you stop showing up?

      If this is the case send him polite email and let him know that your no longer with the organization and don’t think about it again.

    3. AP*

      If there are 15 interns, and you’re all there on different combinations of days…he might just have blanked and forgot that you’re not working there anymore. I could see that happening.

      I do like it when interns turn in their final projects a few days before their last, just so you have an opportunity to go over it and add to it or edit if necessary, but it sounds like this supervisor isn’t really sitting around thinking of best practices.

    4. Ask a Manager* Post author

      If he doesn’t realize your internship is over (did you send a goodbye/wrap-up email?), that changes things. In that case, I’d reply with something like, “Steve, my internship actually came to its scheduled end last week! Thank you so much for the opportunity and (fill in with additional details about the value of your time there — BS if necessary). I’d love to stay in touch and wish you all the best with your work!”

      1. Anonymous*

        I sent a goodbye/wrap up e-mail to my first supervisor that I spent a lot of time communicating with, but with the second I just send him the work and wished him happy holidays. The only contact I’ve had with the second was him telling me to do a task, me sending him a sample and being told I was doing it wrong, then me calling him to get instructions/clarification on what he wanted me to do exactly (and he failed to mention he wanted me to include the info he asked me to go back and add). Since I barely had any contact with him, I didn’t think it was necessary to say more. I’ll make sure I’m more clear in this e-mail (and with future supervisors).

  5. JT*

    I think it’s a good idea for interns to send out a “goodbye” email on or just before their last day, thanking everyone for the experience, mentioning what they’ll be doing next and leaving some contact info. I think this is potentially helpful in terms of network. In some cases it might help with closure too.

  6. Bryan*

    Considering it was a virtual internship, I’m inclined to agree he probably wasn’t aware your time was up or forgot or whatever. Problem being, depending on the supervisor, even the way Alison put it gently “I don’t have time to finish this for you because I’ve moved on to a different job” can be interpreted as “OP left me in the lurch, he didn’t even tell me he was leaving and never finished his last project.” It sounds like you only had this 2nd supervisor for a short part of your internship but that doesn’t mean he won’t go to your first supervisor and say something like that, instantly turning your excellent reference into lukewarm at best.

    Also, while I’m sure another intern could do it in the spring, to the supervisor that means he has to wait 3 months, bring someone up to speed on this piece of the puzzle to finish it, then get them working on what should be their internship assignment. You may consider it not time-sensitive, but the supervisor may be looking to have it done just so he can have one less thing on his plate and have the next person pick up from a certain spot or may have committed to his management to have it done by a certain time or any number of reasons that as the employee rather than supervisor you may not be aware of.

    Considering it is only 3hrs (and not like you were getting paid anyways), I’d be inclined to send something like Alison’s suggestion but add in there an offer to complete this one little last task to wrap things up but stressing the time strain from the new job. If he has any class at all he will apologize for not realizing you were done, congratulate you on the new job and (if it isn’t actually time-sensitive) not have you finish the task. As a bonus, the offer to go the extra mile will probably turn him into a good reference as well. Worst case, he has you do the 3hrs work and you end up with 2 strong references from the internship instead of one for being the team player, above and beyond and all those other buzz words. In the unlikely event he tries to pile on more work after this one assignment, thats when I would put my foot down and say absolutely not.

    1. OP*

      The “project” was more like a “task.” It’s definitely not time-sensitive, and it’s simple so it’s not hard to pick up where I left off. He probably still has other interns now that could finish it now, and if not, the spring term starts in January.

      I don’t think someone who I barely spoke to for the two weeks I was working on something for them could be considered a “strong” reference, though the thought crossed my mind that he might bad mouth me to the other supervisor since I don’t know what he’s like at all.

  7. Timothy S. Koirtyohann*

    (Assuming you are in the US: )

    Have you talked to the internship leaders?

    The internship leaders should handle this. FLSA (and state laws) *may* prohibit them from doing this without paying you.

    FLSA sets out specific guidelines for what legally qualifies as an unpaid internship. *If* those terms are not being met under the facts of this issue, the internship leaders have an obligation to protect the company, the program and you.

    Failing that it is a real Catch-22.

    I don’t believe you should be asked to perform more work nor that you should accept responsibility to do so. However, you need to assess the risk that not doing so could end up costing you opportunities in the future.

    You say you are not depending on this person for a reference. Do not kid yourself you need all the references you can get. Be careful in making a decision based on “not needing” that person just because you do not foresee the need.

    As other posters state this is taking advantage of you. I totally agree but…sometimes you have to pick your battles.

    If you feel as strongly about the issue as you appear to:

    I would email them that this appears to be new information and given your current obligations you will not have the ability to focus fully on the project in the manner it deserves.

    I would also recommend you offer to provide the new interns insight into the work you have already done to make it easier for them to pick up on the project.

  8. Mike C.*

    I simply cannot believe how many people in this thread do not value their own time and are so scared that they’ll upset someone by not going out of their way to perform significant amounts of free work.

    You folks need to set boundaries! You need to have some self respect! Your time is valuable as are your skills and experience and outside of volunteer work should not be working for free. Nor should you set that expectation of others through fear of “not getting a good reference” or “not being seen as a team player” or whatever the arbitrary standard of “professionalism” is these days.

    The OP does not owe this business anything, nor should there be the slightest hint of expectation to “go above and beyond”. I’m getting sick and tired of the “above and beyond” of yesterday becoming the “expectation” of today.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I totally agree. You shouldn’t be doing work for an employer after a paid job ends, aside from answering a few questions (not without charging a contracting fee), and it shouldn’t be any different just because this job was unpaid.

  9. OP*


    I e-mailed the supervisor about how I wouldn’t be able to keep working on the project. He thanked me for my great work, mentioned the other supervisor had spoke well of me, and said to contact either of them if I ever need references in the future.

    That went better than I thought it would.

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