I’m not a recent grad — can I still intern?

A reader writes:

I completed college about seven years ago and, after a few months of fruitless applying, I said “screw it” and moved to a major city to pursue a niche talent unrelated to my degree. I think it was worth the adventure and while the interest wasn’t well-paying, it did take me around the world. I also worked in the service industry at the same time and have been very happy dedicating my time to one awesome company for four years.

Now I’m interested in pursuing careers related to my degree again. I’ve worked on small, often unpaid or student projects over the years just to keep my portfolio relevant. In my field, an internship would be really helpful for landing a full-time gig. However, most listings state you must be in your last semester or a recent graduate.

Is it inappropriate for me to be applying to these internships? I feel it is not, as I have roughly the same experience as a graduate — in other words, no actual “create designs in an office under a company name” experience. If it’s fine to apply for these positions, how do I tactfully address the years in another field and highlight them as a strength? I feel that these years have developed my soft skills and maturity and exposed me to a variety of people.

There is also another a wrinkle in that these internships and jobs probably want references from school but I’m concerned that my professors don’t remember me clearly, and one key reference has even passed away. Are my managers in another field who speak highly of me an appropriate reference?

So, the deal with internships is this:

Unpaid internships at for-profit companies are only legal if they comply with a bunch of rules that you can read here; the gist is that the intern needs to be the primary beneficiary of the arrangement, not the employer. The law looks at things like whether the internship provides significant educational benefits and whether you’re doing work that displaces paid employees. One of the factors they look at is “the extent to which the internship is tied to the intern’s formal education program by integrated coursework or the receipt of academic credit.”

So a lot of companies that offer unpaid internships confine them to students or recent grads to help them comply with that law. If that’s their reasoning, you’re unlikely to get them to waive that requirement.

But other companies include that stipulation in their ad out of habit or because they assume that’s generally the right candidate profile to target or because someone put it in the job description boilerplate 10 years ago and no one ever took it out. In reality, they might be more flexible.

You can’t know which of these categories any given company falls into ahead of time, so you might as well go ahead and apply. There’s no harm in applying! You’re not doing anything outrageous or inappropriate by giving it a shot and seeing what happens.

You’ll increase your chances if you note in your cover letter that you saw their requirement but you’re interested because of (reasons) and you’re hoping they might consider you. That way it doesn’t look like you missed it or ignored it entirely, and it gives you an opening to explain why you’re interested in an internship at this stage in your career, which is a good thing to do anyway.

As for how to portray your experience in another field as a strength: Talk about what you learned/what skills you developed/what accomplishments you’ve had and how those would help you excel in the role, while giving you the chance to get hands-on, recent experience in the field you always intended to return to.

This all means you’re going to need to write a really good cover letter. You always should do that, but it’s going to be especially important here because you need to (a) explain why you’re interested in an internship right now and (b) impress them enough that they don’t care that you’re not the student or recent grad they’d been picturing.

And don’t worry about references! Internships often accept professors as references because those are the only references many candidates have at that stage — but they’ll likely be quite happy to talk with actual managers. Managers are almost always better equipped to speak to the sort of things reference-checkers want to know than professors are anyway.

Good luck!

{ 43 comments… read them below }

  1. Holly*

    It depends on the field but there may also be “fellowships” which acknowledge people from other fields that want to switch (this is common in public service but maybe not in private sector, I’m not sure).

  2. Starbuck*

    I will also say as someone who does a lot of hiring for internships and ‘entry level’ positions (in the non-profit field) that we usually see very recent college grads apply for – be prepared to make you case for why you really want it and how it’ll help you, like Allison mentioned. My worry/wonder when someone with way more experience or further advanced degrees applies is that they’ll be bored and frustrated with the entry level work that we really need done and want to take on higher level stuff than we really have the capacity to give them.

    1. InternOp*

      Hello Starbuck!

      I am definitely prepared to make my case with the help of Alison’s killer advice. The internship is in the production/animation field. I am confident I won’t be bored as I don’t hold an advanced degree or experience in my field. My experience is on par with a recent graduate, so I am more concerned they will see my portfolio and see that I am underprepared for some of the intern challenges they will throw at me. (I’ve been using these months laid off to take online courses in all my weak points!)

      1. JJ*

        If you’re just looking to build up a better portfolio – you could volunteer at a nonprofit to avoid the intern requirements. I often have recent grads who come on as volunteers at the nonprofit I work at, because in order to do an internship, they would have to enroll in college that semester to receive course credit for it to be legal. Volunteering allows them to gain the same skills/build up their resume without the cost of the university credit.

    2. pleaset AKA cheap rolls*

      At the age of 45 I was both an intern (in a university library system and in another library) and also hosting interns at my main job. I was in/recently graduated from a grad school program at the time and my interns were either in school or just out. This was in a nonprofit organization. And in the internships I was doing, I had a mix of moderately high-level stuff based on my mid-career job skills plus more entry-level stuff related to my recent grad school.

      Also, one of my interns at a different time was, though young, a pretty accomplished graphic designer. So in the internship she mixed graphic design work (which was not actually that useful to her in terms of learning) with more entry-level stuff in the field she wanted to learn from us. It was a good mix.

  3. MissDisplaced*

    OP, I’m not sure what your degree/career is in, but if you’re not having luck with getting internships, try going the temp employee route in a very entry level role. I know some internships are tempting though, because they might be with a more prestigious company or lead to other good things.

    I was an older student (in my 40’s) when I completed my undergrad and was between that and graduate school. There were so many internships and programs that would’ve helped me transition to a new career, but I was too old for every single one of them! Most had a maximum age of 25 years old. But you can still look! Not all companies have an age limit, but do look for it before you take the (usually pretty extensive) time to apply.

    1. InternOp*


      My field is in arts and design, I focus on the production of animated media.

      So I will look into temp work however my understanding of the industry is that it’s almost the opposite, as in you work for a company to get a snazzy portfolio then you can be a freelancer and strike out on your own. (At least that is what girlfriends of mine are excelling in!)

      You’re right that internships are the unfair gatekeepers to some industries. I should have been clear in my letter that I am applying to jobs in my field (I primarily paint backgrounds) but the jobs are on the other coast. I am laid off from my service job, I’ve been frugal, so I saw this internship in my city for a company I’ve always wanted to work at and thought “hey even if I get hired back I’ll just be sitting around the next few months anyway while business returns to normal!”
      The internship is for a company that’s more about producing ads so they require a jack of all trades, while the other jobs would be more specialized. I feel I am more a jack of all trades and I like doing different projects everyday so the internship seemed like a better fit for my skills than any other I’ve seen. I am hoping to have my cake and eat it too by staying in my current city so I can pursue niche talent but I might need to face the music post COVID and give up niche talent.

      I love hearing the unique perspectives here on Ask A Manager. Just hearing that you changed paths gives me a little bit of courage, though it’s unfair that internships would have age requirements, seems detrimental to people interested in a new field or even a lateral move!

      1. MissDisplaced*

        Ah yes, I see that in this area, a temp job would probably want someone seasoned who can hit the ground running. I’m not sure about entry-level, but yeah, might be same thing. Which sucks, because a job is not “entry level” if they want 3 years experience.
        I used to manage graphics/creative departments, and would often hire (and pay) very entry-level, part-timers to help do the graphic production work, with their understanding it wasn’t really “design” but mostly the boring repetitive stuff. I wouldn’t have called it an “internship,” though as I didn’t have time to nurture them. But I did always try to give them at least some actual smaller design projects if they were working out well. So, jobs like that might still exist. Or maybe they just call it paid internship now? IDK.

        I saw downthread your reason for this particular job and company, which sounds like a good fit for an internship for you, so I see why you’d want it at this stage. You should definitely apply for it! Best of luck and I hope you get it!

  4. Lynn*

    Is this something you would consider going to community college for? Lots of schools have night or online classes and then you would get some structured curriculum and also technically be a “student”.

    1. InternOp*

      Hello Lynn! I’ve considered going this route because my sister secured a very competitive internship by returning to school. The field I want to work in is arts and design so needless to say, the debt I’ve already paid off has been hefty, if I can get in without returning to school that would be ideal, but I am totally open to it as well!

  5. Lil*

    It’s kind of crappy that in order to break into some industries, you have to accept the lowest of the low jobs and internships to get your foot in the door. So many entry level jobs with paltry pay almost favor those who are young, inexperienced, and with fewer responsibilities.

    It’s much easier at 22 to live with multiple roommates in a crappy apartment and work a second job if your pay is that low and you have no other choice. But if you’re older trying to make a switch with kids and a mortgage? No chance

    I don’t have any advice OP, just that this is a really crappy part of the system for so many industries.

    1. Mama Jo*

      My pet peeve is student teaching. You have pay the college for the privilege of working. You ‘lol have a hard time convincing me that this would be happening if teaching was a male dominated field.

      1. Elizabeth West*

        Yes, it’s a major reason I dropped out of my graduate education program. I had to work full-time to live; I couldn’t take a semester off from paying a mortgage.

    2. InternOP*

      Hi Lil, OP here. I agree the unwritten requirement of an internship can make them gatekeepers to some industries. I only considered this internship a few months into COVID. I am applying to jobs in my field, but they would require me to move across the country. I am laid off from my service job and it probably won’t bounce back soon, so I figured, I’m not doing much, if an internship for a few months where I am already living allows me to buff up skills and stay safe I’ll give it a try. But I am glad the comments here and Alison’s advice are reminding me this might not be financially a good idea even if I’ve been frugal.

    3. Fake Old Converse Shoes (not in the US)*

      Seconding. My first job in my field barely covered food and transportation costs, and my “team” checked every sexist cliché possible. The layoff was certainly a blessing in desguise.

    4. Phil*

      Sorry, but starting at the bottom is the traditional way in for many jobs. It’s called apprenticeship. In my uncommon profession the person with the 4 year college degree and the high school dropout start in exactly the same place: the bottom. In fact the high school dropout with talent may have the advantage because she knows she doesn’t know anything whereas the college grad thinks she knows everything and says so.

      1. BRR*

        Yeah, while there are several caveats, I can’t exactly support people being able to transition industries and not start at the bottom when they have no experience. It should definitely be easier to change industries and entry level jobs need to pay a living wage, internships can be extremely problematic, and so much more; but there’s a not bad reason you sometimes have to start at the bottom

        1. AnotherAlison*

          I think people should keep in mind, though, that there are ways to zigzag and get to another industry without jumping off your current ladder and climbing another one. I think if you want to be the key operations technical talent, yup, you’re probably starting at the bottom. But, if you want to be in management or an auxiliary business function, you may be able to step through some roles in your own industry until you get closer, then move to a new industry. As an example, I have a coworker who was an onsite construction safety manager, then moved into sales at that company, then moved into sales at my company, and is now doing social media marketing at my company. Presumably he could move into some social media marketing roles outside of our industry at some point, but he couldn’t have done that from his first position.

    5. Mimmy*

      This is something I worry about as someone approaching their late 40s and going to school for a career change.

    6. marmalade*

      I sympathise, but this seems a bit misdirected. “Entry level” work is, by definition, for those who are inexperienced professionally in that type of work …
      I’d rather “entry level” be actual entry level, instead of than the ‘we actually want X advanced qualification and 2 years experience’ type of nonsense that I used to see a lot.

      1. marmalade*

        Also, if you are not skilled/experienced in that job or field, it seems reasonable that you wouldn’t have the job/wage of someone who is skilled and/or experienced?

    7. FriendlyCanadian*

      I mean on the other hand why should someone who is young and inexperienced be commanding high salaries in the beginning. I find that internships can be very helpful because they are more willing to teach and develop in a way traditional entry level jobs don’t.

  6. InternOP*

    OP here. I am so grateful Alison took the time to answer my question! If anyone has specific questions or insight you can reply to me and I’ll be checking this thread throughout the day while I buff up my cover letter!

    Maybe in the letter I should have specified I will be applying to jobs in the area of my major, but there are very few jobs in my field in my city, and the jobs want you to be very specialized in one skill. When I saw an internship opening at this company in my city, a place I’ve toured, and with portfolio requirements that are seeking someone who can do a dab of everything, I thought this was a great opportunity for someone who likes to do a little of everything! Hoping I can have my cake and eat it too by staying in this city and being able to pursue *niche talent* a little further.

    1. Lynn*

      For sure pursue that opportunity! And like others have said, mention this all in your cover letter.

      If you are looking for something back in the field you graduated from but aren’t set on interning, could you join any professional groups in that area, or reach out to old college friends who also studied that area and may be able to provide good leads based on their industry knowledge?

      1. InternOP*

        Absolutely Lynn! I have my list of good college girlfriends in the relevant fields that I need to reach out to and say I’m on the lookout and I am a member of my college’s alumni job groups. Your comment reminded me though I should reach out to the school’s career services staff member in my city to see if she has any leads.

    2. Dagny*

      I’m really good at being a wet blanket, so take this accordingly.

      In many fields that ‘require’ unpaid internships, the field itself is not a great place to work even once you get into it. The fact that they can make people jump through all those hoops and still get talent means that it is oversaturated.

      1. Roeslein*

        This! Public policy in the city where I used to live is like this. Full of privileged folks who did unpaid or barely paid internships for years before getting a “real”, if underpaid job. Then they wonder why the field isn’t more diverse. I like to believe that minorities are smarter, look around and realise the conditions in this field are such that it’s not worth the opportunity cost of breaking in.

    3. MissGirl*

      Make sure you mention why you’re pursuing this career now and not when you graduated. A company doesn’t want to feel like you’re choosing them as the last resort.

    4. Bloopmaster*

      Another thought: Might there be alternate avenues to getting the experience you want without participating in an internship specifically? I majored and now work in a field where taking internships in order to land entry-level jobs is expected. I did several internships, but my most beneficial experience (and most impressive resume items) came from a long-term volunteer position at a mostly volunteer-run non-profit. Despite the fact that I was volunteering at the non-profit for fewer hours a week (5-10 max) than an average internship, the fact that I worked there for several years and had been “promoted” (in title and duties, not salary, which remained $0) several times looked really impressive in my industry. And the lower weekly commitment allowed me to continue working full time for pay. There were lots of my fellow volunteers who were building experience in new areas to transition jobs or to get back into the workforce after an absence. While this might not be something with parallels in your industry, a formal volunteer gig is another good way to get the experience associated with an internship without the “resent graduate” expectations. Volunteer work also tends to be less competitive in my experience.

  7. Person of Interest*

    Seconding Alison’s comment about references. When I was a 40-year-old grad student applying to internships I used my normal professional references, which were way stronger than any of my grad school professors would have been. Bonus if they can speak to that specific type of org or work, so maybe some of your portfolio project managers would be helpful here.

  8. Ocean*

    My company has specific internships for people who have taken a break from the industry for a few years. I think it was developed for parents who choose to take a few years off to stay home with kids, but it’s explicitly open to anyone who has been out of the industry for a while. We hired someone who had been in the military for a few years and had the educational background, but not the specific work experience we normally look for. It included a lot of the items we offer to interns like training and networking, but also had a process at the end of the period where we decided whether or not to offer a full-time position to the intern.

    1. MissDisplaced*

      That is truly awesome Ocean. I wish more companies would consider intern programs that weren’t just for the young students, but had options for older students, returning military, career changers, etc. Even if it’s part-time, these can make all the difference in success.

  9. Bella*

    it’s a hard Q to answer without knowing the industry specifics, IMO, because I’m just not sure whether my advice would be applicable or not depending on how specific the roles are!

    If you’re not focused on getting paid for your work, is there a relevant certificate or something you could get for your field in the meantime?

    I also wonder whether these places may prefer candidates who are students because of commitment? I guess this depends on the length of the internship, but say it’s 3 months – they can’t guarantee you’re not applying for paying jobs, as a reasonable person who already has a degree finished might do, and if you don’t need this for class credit or whatever there’s really nothing stopping you from bouncing.

    1. InternOp*

      Bella you bring up some good points. I’d be able to know if I am investing too much time in this application if I knew more about compensation and length of commitment! I should probably reach out and see if they are even letting people apply or if the posting is just left over from the pre-COVID days when life was normal.

      My major was similar to illustration, I apply to jobs in the production of backgrounds, while the internship is for a company that provides clients with commercials or games so every project is different and you have to know a little dab of everything.

  10. Nicole*

    Years ago I really want to move to [big city] and was finding no luck applying to entry-level, full time jobs there. I didn’t have much experience in my field yet, so I applied to internships as well. I was 25 interning with 19/20 year olds still in school. That’s not too much older, but while all the interns were gaining college credit, I (at the time it was legal) was only getting a $50 a week stipend (I was lucky enough to have saved money to live off of during my internship). I found it very beneficial because once I was in [big city] and working in the field I wanted to be in, networking and applying to full-time positions was easier and gave me the experience I needed to get my foot in the door.

    1. Beth Jacobs*

      Well, all the interns who were getting college credit were paying for that college credit. Sounds like you got the better deal :)

  11. Amethystmoon*

    I did a paid internship years ago after getting a 2 year degree in a field I really wanted as opposed to the 4 year degree I got to pay the bills. It was in web development. I had a couple of jobs in that industry, and then the housing bubble burst. Needless to say, I no longer get paid to do that, but it was fun while it lasted. It will help you get experience and references. But be sure you will be able to survive financially doing it if something really bad happens to the economy.

  12. H*

    I supervised an intern a couple of years ago who was in her forties and switching careers (I’m in my early thirties). She was heading back to school that fall to pursue the new career and wanted to get some experience ahead of time. Worked out really well on both ends! So it’s not necessarily a non-starter.

    (Caveat- I do work for a nonprofit, and am very cognizant of the teaching aspect of having interns. Most of mine are college students and it’s very much a mentoring relationship.)

  13. babblemouth*

    I’ve hired and managed interns in a few different workplaces and countries, so I can give some advice.

    First, make sure you understand the legal boundaries that the hiring manager is dealing with. The framework I dealt with on Vulcan was different from the framework on Betazed.
    On Vulcan, I could hire anyone for an internship, no matter how recently they graduated. I mostly hired people fresh out of school, or taking a semester off, but sometimes hired older people – for instance a woman who had taken a 10 year break from work raising her children but wanted to step back in the workplace.
    On Betazed, I can’t do that – the legal framework clearly states internships are only for current student who needs them as part of their coursework. I highlight that in my hiring ads, but still get applicants who don’t fit the “student” criteria because they hope they can prove they’re still worth it. Unfortunately, they’re wasting their time – no matter how good they are, I’m not about to break labor laws.

    I will stretch my criteria pretty wide for the right person – for instance I’ll hire someone studying warp mechanics for an astrophysics internship if they show the proper motivation, and prove a genuine interest. I’ll hire undergrads for a graduate internships if they demonstrate the proper maturity. But some things are inflexible, and you should be aware that in a well run company, labor laws are not something they’d break. If you find they’d be willing to break them to hire you, you’ll find they’d be willing to break them in other ways that will not benefit you.

  14. Bookworm*

    I’m someone who did probably too many internships in the hopes it would turn into something, anything. It can depend on the industry, but I have found that yes, it is possible both ways (interning in both a related field and something far afield). Some places just want help and will take you. Some will require a heavier lift and you’ll have to write a good cover letter as to why.

    But don’t be surprised: there will be places who will find your story interesting. You just also may have to be prepared to explain it and understand that this isn’t turning into a paid job, etc.

    Good luck! Been there, done similar.

  15. Louisa*

    I did three internships as an adult, working toward a career change. Got some experience, built up my network and even eventually got some paid contract work. The places I applied did not seem to care about my age. Hope that is a bit of inspiration. Good luck!

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