The usefulness of an internship has more to do with your goals and the nature of the position than whether or not it’s paid. But some of us just can't afford an unpaid internship. Here's my experience.

The unpaid internship is a source of constant debate in the professional world. On one hand, these positions can allow young professionals to gain experience in industries where a paid gig just isn’t feasible. On the other hand, they can be easily exploited by greedy companies looking for free labor.

The usefulness of an internship has more to do with your goals and the nature of the position than whether or not it’s paid. No internship is created equally. An unpaid position could easily yield countless benefits where a paid one just nets you a paycheck. The trick is figuring out which you’ve signed up for before it’s too late.

I’ve worked both paid and unpaid internships. My experiences have been largely positive, but not without their drawbacks. Here’s what I learned through each, and what you need to look out for.

My unpaid internships

In college I majored in journalism, an industry struggling to sustain profits and create jobs. I knew that if I wanted to secure a gig after college, I had to rack up internships during the summer. What I didn’t realize is that most of the media internship opportunities were unpaid.

I got lucky my first summer and found an internship at my hometown newspaper that paid a $1,000 stipend, which I immediately put toward my tuition. Since I was living at home, I didn’t have any other expenses to worry about. I left that summer with a new item on my resume, dozens of clips and a new understanding of journalism.

The next summer, I signed up for a university-sponsored, six-week study abroad and internship program in London. The program placed students with a newspaper, magazine, or PR firm where they would work three days a week.

Not only was this an unpaid internship, but I would have to pay thousands of dollars for housing, transportation, and groceries. My parents paid for part of the cost, but I was on the hook for the rest. The whole experience cost me a significant amount, but it’s more than paid for itself as an item on my resume. Potential employers have always perked up at seeing that I worked in London.

Two years later, I had the opportunity for another unpaid internship, this time for a local magazine in Indianapolis. While I already had lots of newspaper experience, I had none at a magazine, which are harder to break into. I took the gig, working 20 hours a week at the publication and 10 hours a week at a call center to make ends meet.

This unpaid internship gave me great local contacts, and I still freelance for that publication. It helped that they were flexible and worked around my other job, so I could earn money and get valuable experience.

Pros of unpaid internships

Unpaid internships remain a viable option for employers because for many students, it’s the only chance to get work experience before they graduate. Paid internships are rare in fields like journalism, entertainment, art, and fashion. Getting an internship is the only inroad for many students without a personal tie to the industry.

Expectations are often looser for unpaid internships, so they can be a great way to get experience without the stress of a paid position. Most employers are wary about driving unpaid interns too hard and running afoul of labor laws.

A friend of mine had an unpaid internship at a national magazine in New York City. She was a journalism student, like I was, and took the gig realizing it would be huge for her career. But because it was unpaid, she had to live like a poor college student.

I didn’t realize what it was like until she published a story talking about how she lived in a hostel in Brooklyn and spent $40 a week on groceries.

But a few months later, she landed her first real job at another national magazine. Without that hard summer, she might not have gotten her next gig.

Thinking about her story always reminds me of the power of internships, paid or unpaid. Meeting the right people at the right time can lead to the greatest opportunities. Even in our social media-obsessed society, face-to-face contact is key for making real connections.

Cons of unpaid internships

The obvious con to unpaid internships is that, well, they’re unpaid. That’s not so bad if you can live at home or if you only work part-time. But if you have no savings and your folks can’t help you out, you might have to take out a credit card or loans to finance your internship (which we don’t recommend).

Research from the National Association of Colleges and Employers found that people who had unpaid internships on their resume received average starting salaries of $34,375 compared to $53,521 for those who had paid summer jobs. Part of that could be attributed to the fact that industries with unpaid internships are generally lower-paying, but it’s an important consideration. If you have an interview, don’t mention that your internship was unpaid or an employer may use it against you in negotiations.

An interesting aspect of unpaid internships is that many require you to receive school credit in exchange for work. When I interned at a magazine in Indianapolis, I had to tell them I was getting at least three credit hours. Otherwise, I learned, they could be violating labor laws.

However, my student loans didn’t cover summer classes and paying $2,400 for three credit hours was not in my budget. A fellow intern told me the magazine never asked for proof that you were taking those credit hours. “Just lie,” she told me.

So that’s what I did. I completed the summer without HR ever finding out.

If you find an unpaid internship that also requires you to take a class, see if you can get it covered by your college. Paying someone to work for free is a crappy deal, and should be avoided at all costs.

Summary

Most of us just can’t afford unpaid internships. But, those who can afford to live on their own, or at home for a summer can gain an incredibly valuable experience that may land you a job in the future.

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About the author

Zina Kumok
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