Should You Take That Unpaid Internship? Here’s How to Decide

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No one likes working for free. But sometimes the work experience unpaid internships provide can be valuable in building out your resume.

Looming student debt and daily financial needs can make unpaid internships seem like an opportunity for the privileged few. Yet even if you carry a large financial burden, there are ways to make an unpaid internship work if you need the experience to land your dream job.

Here are some ways to evaluate an unpaid internship opportunity and support yourself financially in the meantime.

How to evaluate an unpaid internship

“I get employers who say, ‘I want someone fresh out of college but kind of with the equivalent of two to three years of work experience,'” said Esther Freeman, director of the Odyssey Program at Elon University. “Where are you going to get that? The internship.”

Freeman, a first-generation college student, took an unpaid internship with a U.S. senator while getting her undergraduate degree. She said the experience helped shape her career — by ruling out a career in politics. She knows how formative such experiences can be.

Despite this, she encourages students to evaluate multiple aspects of an opportunity before jumping in.

1. Are there similar paid opportunities?

It may be exciting to stumble across the chance to work for a well-known company or in a position in your field. But you should keep an eye out for paid opportunities that offer the same experience.

“What I ask students if they have an opportunity is, ‘Is this finite? Is it a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing?'” said Freeman. “Opportunities come and go. Maybe it’s not the right internship at the moment.”

In general, Freeman recommends applying to paid internships first to help minimize the financial burden of your degree. “If you’re going to have internships, it’ll be wonderful to get the paid ones,” said Freeman.

But this best-case scenario doesn’t always work out. “There will be some amazing opportunities that aren’t paid,” she said.

2. Can you mitigate the cost of an unpaid internship?

Not all unpaid internships are created equal. If you’re looking for a summer internship, for example, you might find opportunities in pricey cities, where rent, food, and transportation could be more expensive.

Even if you find unpaid work during the school year, you might have to commute across town, driving up your costs. You might also end up working hours that make paid part-time work impossible.

Consider these questions to see if you can find an internship that will cost you less:

  • Are there internships in a cheaper area?

  • Can you find and take on paid part-time work while you complete your internship?
  • Is there a similar work-study program or another opportunity closer to school or home?
  • Is this something you can do for academic credit during the school year? On the flip side, if you do it for academic credit in the summer, will it cost you more money to pay for the credits?

Location and the time of year you take on an internship can affect its affordability. Look for internships near your home or school to reduce transportation costs, for example.

Double-check whether your internship will allow you to pick up paid part-time work on the side. Some internships might require you to work full time or be on call, making your schedule difficult to coordinate with another job.

How to afford an unpaid internship

If you decide an unpaid internship is right for you, there are a few ways you can make it work.

1. Plan ahead and save up to cover costs

Freeman stressed that planning is critical when trying to balance an unpaid internship with your financial needs.

“I try to get students to be strategic about when to do them and then prepare financially ahead of time,” said Freeman. “How much do you need to save so you can have the funds and not be stressed out about taking this opportunity?”

Use an online calculator to set a savings goal. Consider how much money you may need to save to live comfortably while taking on unpaid work. Then, use a money management tool such as Mint to help you stay on track to meet your savings goal.

2. Ask your family for support

Chances are, your family can’t cover your living expenses during an internship. But if you speak with them ahead of time, they may be able to support you in other ways.

For example, Freeman mentioned that your family may be able to pitch in for clothes. After all, if you’re working in an office, your wardrobe may need an upgrade.

“For the holidays, tell your family to get you gift cards to get the right clothing to take with you,” said Freeman. You can do the same to help you cover food or transportation costs.

3. Connect with resources at your school

Career development offices and faculty on campus may be able to help you.

Freeman said one student she worked with was able to get a scholarship that paid for her living expenses during an unpaid internship, a resource she would never had known was available if they hadn’t connected with career services.

Even if your school is small or doesn’t have a robust career development program, approach faculty members for help.

“Professors have connections in the industry they teach in,” said Freeman. “They’re going to know students who interned before.”

Professors can connect you with alumni who have made it through similar unpaid internships in the past and may have valuable knowledge that could help you out.

Take advantage of the right opportunities

Freeman said unpaid internships can be a hard sell, especially when you’re strapped for cash and have student loans. But, as she said, “You may need to sacrifice something now because the payoff in the future is going to be worth it.”

So weigh your options carefully. You may need to balance unpaid work with a part-time job and your coursework. Just be sure you’re picking up work opportunities that help you become marketable for jobs after graduation.

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Our team at Student Loan Hero works hard to find and recommend products and services that we believe are of high quality and will make a positive impact in your life. We sometimes earn a sales commission or advertising fee when recommending various products and services to you. Similar to when you are being sold any product or service, be sure to read the fine print understand what you are buying, and consult a licensed professional if you have any concerns. Student Loan Hero is not a lender or investment advisor. We are not involved in the loan approval or investment process, nor do we make credit or investment related decisions. The rates and terms listed on our website are estimates and are subject to change at any time. Please do your homework and let us know if you have any questions or concerns.