8 Ways Unpaid Internships Can Help (or Hurt) You After College

unpaid internships

We’ve made it out of the Great Recession, but it’s still tough for lots of college graduates to find jobs. In recent years, more and more grads have worked unpaid internships in the hopes of breaking into their field.

Some new grads may jump at the opportunity to intern at their dream company. Others may wonder why anyone would work as an unpaid intern.

Whatever your perspective, read on to learn the pros and cons of unpaid internships, plus some insight into unpaid internship laws.

Pros of working unpaid internships

1. You get real-world experience

The purpose of an internship is to give you real-world experience. Whether you’re interning at a magazine, a tech company, a farm, or a Wall Street firm, you’ll get first-hand insight into that industry.

You’ll see what the day-to-day is like for employees, and hopefully, you’ll get in on the action too. The best internships give you a real taste of a profession and teach you essential skills in the process.

2. You get to sample an industry

Unpaid internships let you feel out a career path. Reading about an industry is one thing. Being a part of it is another.

Even if it’s a dead end, it’s better to know sooner rather than later. Before committing to a job you don’t enjoy, you can test the waters with an internship to make sure it’s the right path for you.

3. You can network with working professionals

One of the major benefits of an internship is the connections it allows you to make. You can forge meaningful relationships, build a professional community, and find support among your peers.

Reaching out to colleagues should be one of your main goals as an intern. Ideally, you’ll find a mentor who can guide you through your career journey. You may even meet someone who helps you find your next job.

4. You can build up your resume

Finally, an internship adds experience to your resume.

If you’re just graduating from college, you might not have much work experience. But with an internship, you can show that you’ve worked in the field.

According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), internship experience on a resume is positively correlated with getting a full-time job offer.

Cons of working unpaid internships

1. You’re not getting paid for your work

Those who ask why would anyone work as an unpaid intern have good reason to wonder.

Many interns don’t get paid a dime for their work. Not only does this feel unfair, but it also means internships aren’t accessible to everyone.

Lots of people can’t afford to work for free, especially after graduating college. How are you going to pay back your student loans or monthly rent without an income?

That same survey from NACE further upends the value of the unpaid internship. It shows that people who took unpaid internships actually ended up in lower-paying positions than those who worked paid internships or no internship at all.

Of course, this survey may also reflect the fact that unpaid internships are most prevalent in lower-paying fields. Whereas paid internships are more common in lucrative fields, like finance and engineering.

Before working an unpaid internship, you should consider the return on your investment.

Is it worth spending your time now without compensation to get a well-paying job in the future? Can you get a part-time job or set up a side hustle? Or will taking an unpaid internship mean you go further into debt?

Let your answers to these questions guide your decision-making before committing to an unpaid internship.

2. You could get stuck doing meaningless work

Internships should be designed to give you a meaningful experience and help you develop marketable skills. They shouldn’t be about fetching people coffee, taking out the garbage, or walking your boss’s Pekingese.

If you find yourself in a Devil Wears Prada-esque scenario, then that internship probably isn’t worth your time.

3. Your internship might be legally questionable

Why do so many companies get away with not paying interns? Well, the unpaid internship falls in a legal gray area.

Recently, interns sued the makers of Black Swan for not paying them for their work on the film. They initially won the suit, but it was overturned in an appeals court.

According to the Fair Labor Standards Act, everyone must get paid for their work. Some laws, however, make unpaid internships exempt as long as they’re designed as learning experiences.

At the end of the day, the unpaid internship must be purely for your benefit. If a company starts relying on you for menial tasks, then it isn’t following the unpaid internship laws.

4. You could get stuck in an “intern cycle”

Unfortunately, even the most coveted internships won’t necessarily lead to a job.

In fact, some interns get stuck in an “intern cycle.” Their job applications go unanswered, but they keep getting internship offers.

Instead of propelling your career, an unpaid internship could make you feel stuck.

So, should you take unpaid internships after college?

Before taking on an unpaid internship, you should do a cost-benefit analysis. Will the experience truly be valuable enough to make up for the time and work you contribute without compensation?

While you can’t predict the future, you can do your research.

Try to gauge whether the internship could lead to a job. Is the company hiring? Do they help interns with the job search?

If possible, speak with former interns about their experiences. Did the internship help them along the path to gainful employment?

Or, if you’re still deciding on a career, you might prioritize industries that offer paid internships, like transportation, manufacturing, tech, and engineering. You’re less likely to get paid in fields like fashion, journalism, entertainment, or film.

And, if you decide to pursue an unpaid internship, do your best to make the most of the experience. Learn as much as you can, network with colleagues, and stay active on the job hunt. Above all, make sure that you’re enjoying yourself!

Whether or not you take an internship, it can be tough to make ends meet after graduation. Check out this guide to learn how to turn your talents into income. Or, if you’re looking for side hustles that pay up to $50 an hour, we have a list of them here.

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