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Ask an Ethicist: Should I accept a job from an internship that didn't seem like the right fit?

In preparation for Fall Career Days at Penn State, we are publishing questions over the next week that will discuss internships, interviewing, résumés, and reference writing. This question centers around a job offer from an internship that didn't seem like the right fit. There are ethical implications in deciding whether to accept a job offer after completing an internship or co-op. Today, we discover what some of those issues might be and how to approach them.

In partnership with the Rock Ethics Institute, Penn State Today’s feature column, "Ask an Ethicist," aims to shed light on ethical questions from our readers. Each article in this column will feature a different ethical question answered by a Penn State ethicist. We invite you to ask a question by filling out and submitting this form. An archive of the columns can be found on the Rock Ethics Institute website.

Question: My internship didn’t live up to expectations; I didn’t have an opportunity to do the work I thought I was going to be doing. Now that I’ve been offered a full-time position, I’m not sure I want it, although I had indicated to my employer throughout my internship that I was interested in full-time employment with them. I acknowledge that the company invested time in my hiring and training and want to be respectful of that. How do I determine if the offer is right for me and how do I communicate my decision to my employer without destroying a potential future relationship?

Ashley RippeyAn ethicist responds: This isn’t uncommon. We know that recruitment is very selective and that companies are looking for the best students to hire. If you’re the best, you should be doing the best, most-high-level work, right? Maybe not. Internships and co-ops are such short experiences that by the time you are “trained,” it’s time to leave!

First, and perhaps too late, don’t overpromise. If something isn’t quite right during your internship or co-op, speak up! Ask for more work, question processes, and do so respectfully. Do not promise to take a full-time position at the end of an internship unless you are absolutely certain that you are ready to commit as this is unethical. A verbal commitment, or even the illusion of one, can be extremely misleading and can steer you right into the path of an ethical dilemma. If, for example, you’ve been praising your internship openly all summer and are vocal about how much you’re loving it, it can come as quite a shock to an employer when you turn down their offer or ask for more time to consider it. If you’ve past this critical point, read on.

Secondly, speak with other interns within and outside of your department after hours. It’s also a good idea to connect with interns who worked at other companies within your industry or service line. Try to discover if your experience was an anomaly without disclosing any confidential information or completely throwing your employer under the bus. Conduct informational interviews to gather more insight and ensure that your view isn’t one-sided and incomplete. As an intern, you may not be able to dig as deeply into the work you would be doing as a full-time employee due to simple time constraints. If others had similar experiences and feelings following their internships, it’s a safe bet that your feelings of doubt stem from the standard limitations of internships. If your experience was an anomaly, however, it’s worth questioning further. Use your Career Services team to discuss the experience and determine if the company is the right fit.

Third, think about the transferrable skills you’ve learned during your internship. How have these skills prepared you to work in your field full-time? Did you learn the skills that you thought you would during your internship even if you didn’t implement them as expected? If all else fails, have a frank conversation with your recruiting contact to verify the responsibilities of your full-time job. It is okay to express your reservation based on your internship experience, but be fair. Gather your information from others, reflect, and never blame. The offer may not be right for you, but do you really know that without digging further? (accessible through is a great resource to get more employer insight about a company. If you are not a Smeal student or a DUS student tracking Smeal, you may access at

Should you choose to reject the job offer after doing your research, be sure to be professional and grateful in all of your communications to your internship employer. Never burn a bridge, but do be honest about your reasons for pursuing other options. When speaking with alternative employers, always put your internship in a positive light by focusing on the transferrable skills you gained and the relationships you built. It’s a great idea to share that you were offered a full-time position since that indicates you worked hard and did enough quality work to have an offer extended to you, but don’t flaunt your offer like a prize, either. Be humble. Use the experience you had to enable you to define the ideal working environment for you moving forward.

Students looking to discuss career decision making and ethical decision making models further can contact their college career services unit or the Bank of America Career Center. Smeal Students may schedule an appointment with Career & Corporate Connections or with Jennifer Eury, Smeal Director of Honor & Integrity. As a Smeal student, be sure to personalize your career alerts on our website to receive information related to careers and ethical decision making along with other career events and content. Smeal students should plan to be at the following career fairs. Additional information can be found at           

  •             Corporate Partners Fair (all Smeal majors), 9/12, 11-4pm, Business Building Atrium
  •             Fall Career Days (all majors), 9/13-9/15, 11-4pm, Bryce Jordan Center
  •             Act Sci Fair, 9/19, 4-7:30pm, Business Building Atrium
  •             NEW! #MegaFair (all Smeal majors), 12-5pm, Nittany Lion Inn

Ashley Rippey is the Managing Director of Smeal Career & Corporate Connections, the career services team that coaches Smeal undergraduate students to get involved, network with employers, develop professionally, and secure internships and co-ops. Ashley has a Bachelor of Arts in Advertising/Public Relations from Penn State (’07) and a Master of Science in School Counseling from The University of Scranton (’10).

Have a question? Submit it here.

Note: The "Ask an Ethicist" column is a forum to promote ethical awareness and inquiry across the Penn State community. These articles represent the interests and judgments of each author as an individual scholar and are neither official positions of the Rock Ethics Institute nor Penn State University. They are designed to offer a possible approach to a subject and are not intended as definitive statements on what is or is not ethical in any given situation. Read the full disclaimer.