This is a really good article on internships and an employer's obligations to interns (and the government) when taking them on. It's important to know the difference between offering opportunity vs. exploitation. I wouldn't be a photographer without the internships I was offered and I was fortunate enough to have fantastic on-the-job experience from amazing people. I worked alongside others who would tell me about horrible hours doing dry-cleaning pickup and fetching lattés only to get screamed at for zero applicable work experience. Of course, there's going to be a lot of bummers about starting off on the bottom rung and getting the unpleasant jobs, but try to see if your internship is a mutually beneficial experience for you and your new boss. Keep in mind that a really negative experience may be as important as a really positive one.
If it doesn't feel like a mutually beneficial experience why not ask yourself a few simple questions-
1) Are you learning anything?
-Even if your boss isn't spending hands-on time with you to show you the job, or if the boss doesn't talk to you at all, there are learning lessons all over the place. As an intern and an outsider you have the opportunity to peek in on a business or individual you admire and see how it works and how it doesn't-
-Is the business organized or not? How does that impact the business, the working environment, the product and the people that work in it? The handful of times I worked with a photographer I didn't like I learned something about what not to do when I would became my own boss someday down the road. The converse applied to the photographers I loved.
2) What were/are your expectations of the internship position?
-Did you expect to have a full-time paying job with benefits in six months with working expertise or were you looking for something to do for the summer while you applied to grad school? Knowing what you want and what your future boss expects of you in your internship and what the internship position is will be a big help in managing your disappointment. Simply asking honest questions about this on the outset can clear this up for you and manage expectations.
3) What do you hope to walk away with? If you don't know this already or aren't able to ask yourself this and get a (somewhat) clear answer you should move right to the next question...
4) Are you really right for the job to have a future in it?
-Maybe you always saw yourself as a photographer or a designer or whatever but it's a hard question to ask one's self if the dream and the reality don't align. Use the internship to find out what your strengths are and move towards that. It's a process of discovery. Average life span in the U.S. is 78. You've got a couple decades to screw up and start over a few times and no one except your credit rating agency is keeping score.
5) Are you getting a brand name with the internship?
- Some internships are totally abusive, meaningless, exploitative and/or a waste of time but the caliber of the name you're working for opens lots of doors. It's your call.
A lot of people will be getting out of school this May in a tough job market and will be tempted to take work that will be called an internship but may have the patina of "unpaid menial labor" instead...check out this article and learn about your rights and what you should expect.
Take care and have fun with it.
Oh- as an addendum I would add one more piece of advice...it might be wise to clean up your presence on the internet before you apply for internships. Don't think that just because it's an internship that your potential new employer won't google you to see what your work is like. I've had a few instances where I googled an internship applicant and in a 2 minute search saw that they posted writings or pictures of themselves naked, doing drugs, writing graffiti, having eating disorders, self-harming etc.
You're free to post whatever you want online but that also allows everyone else the freedom to judge a private life you've decided to make public. And posting proof of illegal activity just really isn't smart. Seems like common knowledge but I guess it isn't.