Why Interning in My Mid-40s Was An Invaluable Career Move

By Annamarie Houlis via Fairygodboss

Internships aren’t only for college students and recent grads. The fact is that many people of all ages and experience take internships or even entry-level positions for a myriad of reasons. Many of them are changing careers or are simply looking to dabble in something new — something in which they’ve always been interested.

If one could financially afford it, taking an internship or an entry-level job is not necessarily a bad idea. Here are six women who’ve done it at different times in their lives, and their honest advice to those considering it.

1. It could kickstart your career.

“I was 26 when I landed my first internship, as a ux/ui design intern at a development agency — it was a fantastic learning experience and a great way to get my foot in the door in a very competitive industry,” says Rachel Carroll, the senior head of user experience at Studysoup. “Being an intern can be very challenging at any age, particularly so if you choose to intern later in life. Internships consist of working long and hard hours, meeting difficult expectations with little to no pay, and often many sacrifices must be made. Being able to intern without without having to carry a financial burden was a luxury that most do not have later in life, and this can make pursuing an internship exceptionally challenging.

“The internships I pursued, although they were extremely challenging, were the starting point to my career, and I will always be thankful. I would always encourage anyone interested in gaining experience in a new career to intern if they are financially able to do so. I would also encourage it even if it may seem impossible to pursue. Often times the most challenging part of beginning a new career is the beginning itself.”

2. Be aware that it might help andhurt you.

“I decided to take an internship in human resources at the corporate headquarters for a large international company,” says Nikki Larchar, SHRM-CP. “I was 28 years old. The job entailed a lot of entry-level tasks like inputting data, faxing, organizing their large file cabinet, etc. All the things one can imagine an intern would be responsible for.

“Pros: I was able to gain experience at a large firm, where all of my previous experience was at a small business level. I gained many connections within the organization while I was there for three months. I was provided the opportunity for full-time employment at the end of my internship. I learned how to corporate HR departments function.

“Cons: I didn’t gain any tangible skills. They offered me an entry-level position at the company, which I was overqualified for. I was also overqualified for the internship as I already had years of experience in human resources. Ultimately, they could not match the salary amount that I was previously at with the entry-level position.

“I would both encourage and discourage. I would encourage those that are looking to go into a new field to try out an internship position. It’s a great way to get your foot in the door, learn new skills, show the organization how amazing you are and network with people within the industry you are hoping to get into. I would discourage individuals from accepting an internship in a field where they already have experience. Following the internship, during the interview process, I had to remind the interviewers that I had previous experience before the internship. It felt as though I had to keep stating that I had work experience outside of the internship, and that I was at a level higher than intern or entry-level. Who knows how many of my applications or resume submissions never made it to the next round in the recruiting process simply because I had the title ‘intern’ as my most recent position.”

3. Internships provide a lot of value.

“I changed careers when I was in my late 40s,” says Laura MacLeod, HR expert, consultant and therapist. “I had a relatively successful career as a professional actress, but roles were scarce and I wanted/needed to find something else. I went back to school in New York City to get a Masters in social work (MSW) — the program included unpaid internshisp for two years. Year one: internship at supported housing/residence for mentally ill. Year two: internship in a high-needs high school. Both experiences were invaluable for a few reasons.

“1. I had no experience in these settings or in the role of social worker/counselor. As an intern, that was fine — clearly the expectation. No pressure to prove myself. 2. Learning by doing is the norm. Mistakes will happen and the on-the-job experience shows you the real world right away. 3. Networking, professional behavior — these were things I knew I could bring to the internship. They helped me get the most out of the experience. Not being 22 was an asset. I had no problem fitting into the culture and using my people skills to excel and connect.”

4. An internship can be the right step forward.

“I am 34, and I will be starting an internship in two weeks at a PR firm and, looking at the photos of the other interns, I feel like Robert DeNiro — like I will be the Intern Mother,” says Jordanna Stephen. “I felt like it was something I owed to myself. While in college, I had a very brief PR intern experience at a very well-known PR firm. But after that, I didn’t gain any more experience in my field. I was pretty much self-taught, with the exception of the basics I learned in college. I took other jobs and, at the age of 34, I want to re-enter the PR world, and can’t do it without the current know-how.

“My dad always said, ‘You have to pay your dues,” and when the opportunity presented itself, I just thought, ‘If not now, then when?’ I start in two weeks and I am nervscited (nervous + excited), but, if I want to move forward, I have to take a brief step back. I get hands on learning experience from experienced PoweR women who are genuinely interested in my development, regardless of age. I get to meet other young women who I would probably never get a chance to connect with.

Cons include feelings of inadequacy, having to learn or re-learn things, taking a dip in salary and being the oldest intern there. [But] I would totally encourage someone to do it. You should always go for your dreams no matter the age. And you never know how your example might encourage someone else to step outside of their comfort zone. There’s a quote: ‘Great things never came from inside your comfort zone.’ And it’s true. We could always learn more and there is nothing shameful really about being an older intern or taking an entry-level position. It just shows determination and drive. And, even in failure (as in if you didn’t like it or it just didn’t work out), there is success because now you know.”

5. Internships are new opportunities, and they don’t have to be for the long haul. 

“After shuttering a business I founded and ran for 20 years in Atlanta, it was necessary that I downsize from two houses in Georgia and move to an apartment in Arlington, Virginia, where my husband had started a business,” says    Patty Lundy, writer and editor. “I was at a loss as to the path I needed to follow to find my ‘new life.’ I made friends easily and enjoyed most of the networking, but I did not find a good place to land. I picked up the occasional gig developing content for clients’ websites or corporate stories, but it was slow going. I needed more.

“Cleaning up my desk one day, I ran across a recruiter‘s business card, got on the website, and nonchalantly entered ‘writer’ into the ‘positions available’ search tab. Voila! Recruiter called in 20 minutes, Three days later, I met with the recruiter, was fully vetted in a couple of days, then met with the employer and, within a week of my first inquiry, was offered and accepted a six-month gig with Navy Federal Credit Union. It was a complete 180 from what I had ever known. I was 60! I had been my own boss for 30 years. The work was way beneath my abilities (writing email and text messaging, brochure copy, and other marketing communications), but it was a wonderful experience.

“I could not see myself transitioning to full-time job, so when the offer was made to shift to real employee status, I bolted out the door. Happy to be free, but happy to have gone through the experience. Pros were meeting so many interesting people (some interesting in a wonderful way, some interesting in an awful way!), experiencing first-hand how large organizations with lots of ‘teams’ work together, having a well-defined set of tasks every day and carrying out what was required, being paid every two weeks, making a couple of friends I will have for life, and knowing that at the ripe old age of 60, I was still ’employable.'”

“I would encourage anyone to explore options offered. Even if the work is not precisely what the job seeker is capable of, and even if the environment isn’t a good fit for the long haul, people should always be open to new experiences. One never knows what might result from being exposed to opportunities that arise in unusual places. That said, however, there is the ‘lost opportunity cost’ that one must consider while they’re engaged in something that’s beneath their abilities. ‘What else could I and should I be doing with my time to deliver me to some place more suited to my abilities?’ is a common refrain.”

6. An internship could lead to something greater.

“After 16 years in the Air Force (eight years on active duty and eight years in the Air Force Reserves), and even with a Masters degree, I had a hard time finding a full-time job when my husband and I moved to Georgia,” says Carol Gee, Author Atlanta. “While I had held adjunct faculty positions at a couple colleges and several temp positions, interviews for full-time positions didn’t pan out. One day a woman at my temp job at a college approached me. [She was the] secretary in the development department (fundraising) at the school; she was leaving to accept an out-of-state job and thought for a number of reasons her boss and I would be a good match. Although over-qualified according to HR, my goal was to get my foot in the door and advance. I was 39 years old at the time. And 14 months later, I applied for a higher position (my supervisor had also been promoted and moved to another position) and got it. Six years ago, I retired from the college after close to 22 years there and a number of professional positions. So, yes, I would recommend an internship or entry-level position if your interest or personal goals are met.”

A version of this post previously appeared on Fairygodboss, a leading career community that helps women get the inside scoop on pay, corporate culture, benefits, and work flexibility. Founded in 2015, Fairygodboss offers company ratings, job listings, discussion boards, and career advice.