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Should You Take That Unpaid Internship?

The key to benefiting from an internship is to make sure that you are getting something valuable out of it. If you aren’t getting paid, then you need to be getting something else. Resume worthy experience, college credits, or maybe a scholarship or grant, something to make it worth your time. Also, do them early in your college career so that you can get a paid gig when you are closer to graduating.

Should You Take That Unpaid InternshipAh, spring on a college campus. It’s finally warm, friends are grilling and playing Frisbee on the quad … and EVERYONE asks what you’re doing for the summer.

That’s an annoying question if you don’t know what you’re up to yet.

Every year of college, I’ve struggled with the decision of whether to take an unpaid internship or not. In some industries, it just seems unavoidable.

Unpaid internships have been criticized for benefiting already-wealthy families; not only are you not getting paid when you take these internships, but there’s the added opportunity cost of not spending that time working a summer job.

I’m one of the critics. I hate the idea that, in some industries, there’s pressure to work unpaid before securing a full-time job.

But I’ve also benefitted from biting the bullet and working unpaid for a while.

That’s why I won’t say you should never take an unpaid internship. I’ve come up with a few guidelines for deciding if taking an unpaid internship is worth it. As we like to say at Money Under 30, personal finance is personal, so they may not work for everyone. But it’s how I’ve reasoned it out over the past few years.

It might be OK to take an unpaid internship if:

You just completed your freshman or sophomore year of college.

Paid internships are extremely competitive. In my experience, it’s hard to land one without having some unpaid internship experience first. You have to start your résumé somewhere.

Of course, there are other ways to make yourself a strong competitor (taking leadership positions in campus organizations, research projects, course work, even volunteering), but the most desirable paid internships require – you guessed it –  previous internship experience.

So if you must do an internship, try to make it early on in your college years to get a leg up.

You can work a paid job at the same time.

After my freshman and sophomore years of college, I did unpaid journalism internships. But I decided to only do them three days a week.

On my off days and on weekends I worked as a lifeguard and at a restaurant. Don’t get me wrong: it was kind of rough. I was tired and sunburned. But I couldn’t afford to only do the internship without making cash on the side.

See if your unpaid internship can be flexible, and if you will be able to hold a paying job at the same time. That makes the unpaid time a little less painful.

You can limit your living expenses.

It’s especially difficult to take an unpaid internship if it involves moving and paying rent.

For the unpaid internships I’ve done, I stayed at home in the Indianapolis area (even though it’s not exactly a hotbed for media).

Will your unpaid internship involve a lot of driving? Are there any perks, like at least getting lunches paid for? Try to keep living expenses as low as possible when you’re on such a tight budget.

You can get academic credit for your time.

Unfortunately, at my school internships done outside class don’t count for academic credit. But at some schools they do — even if you’re getting paid at the same time.

Talk with an advisor to be sure you know your school’s policy. It may end up that getting credit this way can help you graduate early, or take fewer credits, saving you some tuition dollars.

You can get financial support from your school (or a private donor).

Sometimes, it’s possible to get a scholarship or grant while you do an unpaid internship. More universities are realizing that unpaid internships are beneficial but financially difficult for students, and they’re stepping in to offer some help when possible. See if your school has put together resources like these from Columbia University.

In some industries, it’s also possible to find funding from private donors who believe your work is important. Do your research, and start early so you can apply for the scholarship with enough time to decide if you’d accept an unpaid internship offer.

If you follow these guidelines and decide you do want to take an unpaid internship, the decisions aren’t over. You have to be your own advocate and not allow yourself to be taken advantage of while you’re working.

Try to keep these tips in mind:

Think specifically about your résumé.

It’s not enough to say you went to an office every day and took up space. You must complete a project, write published work or gain a specific skill to make an unpaid internship (or any internship or job) worthwhile.

If you’re going to take a financial hit, you might as well knock it out of the park.

The point is short-term pain for long-term gain, so focus on what you could gain — a later job offer, or glowing references, at the very least.

Be specific about expectations before you commit.

In other words, make sure you have your responsibilities — and the employer’s responsibilities to you — written down in a contract. How many hours will you be working? What happens if you work overtime? Can you be called in when you weren’t planning to work? What experiences or skills will you obtain while on the job?

One of my best friends interned at a major news network last summer, and I couldn’t believe how much she was working. We’re talking late nights, weekends … for no pay at all.

She says she wishes she could have said “No” without feeling guilty. She suggests getting a written agreement beforehand because it protects you from being overworked and overwhelmed.

Know how much your work is worth.

This is a big one.

As I said before, when you’re first starting out in your career, you just have less bargaining power. Without experience, your work is worth less to a potential employer.

But that changes at some point, and it’s up to you to figure out when. Apply for a mix of paid and unpaid positions, and see who’s interested.

I decided that after my junior year, I wasn’t going to take any more unpaid positions. At that point, I had two internships under my belt, as well as a lot of experience on campus. I figured that was as much as most people who were working full-time, and my work was worth as much as theirs.

No matter how prestigious an unpaid internship was, I didn’t even consider it.

That puts the pressure on to land something paid, which can be a great thing! Embrace it. Unpaid internships can help kick-start your résumé, but once you’re ready, don’t take unpaid for an answer.

Published or updated on April 26, 2013

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About Maria LaMagna

Maria LaMagna is a recent graduate of Northwestern University where she served as editor-in-chief of the university’s award-winning daily newspaper and studied for five months in Argentina. Before joining Money Under 30, Maria worked as a reporter for CNN and the Indianapolis Business Journal. Follow Maria on Twitter @MCLaMagna.


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  1. Kevin says:

    I am surprised by the lack of comments in this thread. One thing that was not touched on in the article but should absolutely be understood is that most unpaid internships are illegal. If you work for a for-profit company doing work that brings that company profit then you are entitled to a wage. At the very least it should be minimum wage.

    Another thing that college students should be wary of is the offer of college credits. While in college I interviewed for an internship at a company that informed me that the position is unpaid but I would get college credit. I just finished a rotation in a CO-OP program and knew that my university did not offer credits for internships or CO-OPs.

    The fact is these companies are bottom-feeders looking to replace low-cost labor with unpaid interns. If you work in a skilled field do not devalue your work by taking an unpaid position.

  2. I appreciate this post and think there’s one more point to add regarding the responsibility of the companies hiring unpaid interns.

    As a graphic design major in college, our professors warned us about pro bono work. Especially as students – tons of businesses and individuals would come to the university seeking free work from the art majors. It was creative on their end, and it gave us valuable experience. After graduating, many of us started to receive more requests for free work and then it got tricky.

    ‘I understand that I need experience, but how am I ever going to market myself as valuable if I do free work?’

    Also, how will this company know how to value the work of other artists when they get my work for free? Particularly at a religious college that got a lot of requests from local churches for help, we learned that offering free work just to get started, whether as an intern or a free lancer, has the potential to diminish the value of other artists.

    It sounds dramatic – but it makes sense! At the very least if I help out a church with a project, I bill them for the total it WOULD cost if I were asking for fair wages – just so they understand the real cost of a graphic designer and know how much they can expect to pay next time someone works on their design needs.

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