Whether unpaid internships are worth pursuing is a matter of debate.
Companies can get free labor from students, leaving the interns scrambling to find ways to make ends meet. Low-income students — and others with heavy debt from school — are often disproportionately affected, since they can’t afford to take work at an unpaid job.
However, unpaid internships are still prevalent, especially in certain industries. In fact, the National Association of College and Employers reported that about 40% of internships are unpaid. Because they’re so common, it may be necessary to complete one to create a stronger resume.
If you’re thinking of applying for an unpaid internship, here are the benefits and drawbacks you should keep in mind:
While unpaid internships can be controversial, they do have their advantages. Here are five ways an unpaid internship can help you:
1. You’ll gain real work experience
Melanie Denny, a career coach with Resume-Evolution, says one of the biggest perks of unpaid internships is being able to see what your future job would entail.
“Because of the nature of the terms of an unpaid internship, interns must have an educational experience [during the internship] and gain hands-on training in a specific job function,” Denny said.
“This enables them to not only learn valuable skills in their intended career field without risk, but also gain exposure to the day-to-day life of someone in the role they want,” she said.
During your internship, you’ll get to see what daily tasks you’d be expected to complete. It allows you to figure out what kind of work you enjoy, and what work you’d rather avoid.
2. You could earn college credit
While the internship may not come with a wage, it might help reduce your education costs if you’re allowed to count the internship toward your required college course credits.
“Sometimes companies offer college credit in exchange for an intern’s time,” Denny said. “This could replace a classroom course with real-world experience, which could be much more valuable, engaging and eye-opening.”
In other cases, your college could require you to complete an internship, and an unpaid position would allow you to meet this requirement this just as a paid internship would.
3. You can build a portfolio
During your time as an intern, you’ll get to work on projects for your employer. For some professions — such as graphic designer, writer or software programmer — this can give the opportunity to build a portfolio that you can share with your future prospective employers.
Having a solid portfolio could be worth the lack of pay if it helps you land a full-time position later on.
4. You can establish a professional network
As an intern, you’ll have the opportunity to work with professionals in your desired field. If you do good work and handle yourself professionally, those connections can be invaluable throughout your career.
By making contacts with people in the industry, you can get a heads up about new job listings and development experiences. Your new network can also serve as references when you apply for jobs down the road.
“Make sure to build authentic relationships with colleagues and mentors,” Denny said. “These relationships go a long way throughout your career.”
5. You may secure a full-time position
Completing an internship with a company could help you get a full-time job with that organization once you graduate. In fact, the nonprofit National Association of Colleges and Employers found the offer rate for interns in 2018 was 59%, showing just how valuable internships can be.
“Unpaid internships often lead to full-time employment with the company,” Denny said. “Interns that perform well and take initiative may be offered a paid position, so it could be a promising way to get their foot in the door.”
Working for free seems unfair, and some might even wonder if unpaid internships are legal. While the law does allow this arrangement, there are some significant downsides to unpaid internships to keep in mind:
1. You may struggle to pay your bills
If you have to complete an unpaid internship, it may be difficult to make ends meet. You’ll be doing work and spending a big chunk of time without earning any wages. As a result, finding the money to pay your rent, student loan payments and other expenses can be challenging.
You might need to take on another job to earn actual income. Unfortunately, working a part-time job on top of an internship could lead you to feel exhausted and burned out, as well as dissatisfied with the internship.
2. It can hurt your morale
According to Denny, unpaid internships can damage more than your bank account. When the rest of your coworkers are getting paid and you’re not, it can be easy to feel out of place.
“Working for no money may seem demeaning and create feelings of resentment, especially if the work isn’t fulfilling, rewarding or enriching,” she said.
3. There is no guarantee of a full-time job
While completing an internship can help you secure a full-time position, there’s no guarantee that will happen. Even if you are a stellar intern and deliver top-notch work, the company may simply not have the budget to hire you.
Unfortunately, this is relatively common — many companies use unpaid interns even when they do not have the capacity to hire full-time staff members.
Even though unpaid internships are common in certain fields, such as marketing and public relations, it is possible to avoid them and find paid opportunities instead. Follow these steps to seek a paid internship in your field:
- Start your search early: If you’re looking for a summer internship, you may think you don’t have to worry about it until the spring semester. But some plum opportunities have early deadlines, so you may need to submit your application by November or December to be considered.
- Talk to your professors and career services counselors: Contact your professors and your school’s career services department to see if they know of any opportunities that would be a good match for you. They may have contacts that are hiring, in which case they can make an introduction for you.
- Polish your application materials: As a college student, you still need a polished resume and cover letter. Work with your school’s career services department to prepare these. You could also consider asking an outside professional working in your chosen industry to review your materials.
- Search online: You may be able to find paid internships with tools like Internships.com and WayUp.com.
Whether your internship is paid or unpaid, serving as an intern is a great way to gain valuable experience. To get the most from your experience, Denny recommended that you be proactive.
“Don’t simply wait around to be told what to do,” she said. “Take the initiative to share ideas and go above and beyond to find solutions to company problems. This is your chance to shine and really show your leadership qualities.”
Even with a paid internship, you might not be making a lot of money. Give yourself some breathing room in your budget by reducing your monthly student loan payments. By coming up with a plan for your finances, you can lower your stress and maximize your internship experience.
Dori Zinn contributed to this report.
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