How to Earn Income and Work Experience as a Student

Working while you’re in school has many benefits personally, professionally and financially. It gives you the chance to network, stay productive and build your skill sets. Most importantly, you can earn some money and pay off your student loan debt early.

Students should pick the work they pursue as carefully as they choose their major in school. You don’t want to sell yourself short taking any job just for a convenient paycheck, especially if it won’t give you the experience you need. Some of your options for the upcoming fall semester could include:

  • A work-study position on campus related to your field of study
  • An off-campus part-time job
  • An internship or externship which may offer paid compensation

You’ll want to pick an employment opportunity that works with your schedule and won’t affect class attendance, study time or homework. Consider some of the pros and cons of each opportunity below.

Work-study pros

Positions are usually on-campus

Work-study positions are easy to find right on campus through your school’s career center. Some may be based off-campus as well.

A work-study job can save you money on gas, travel expenses or commute time since you’ll likely be on-campus or nearby. You can use that time instead attending class and earning academic credits.

Tuition assistance (and sometimes pay)

Unlike an outside part-time job, a work-study position is a school-sponsored position. It is a form of financial aid that may reimburse some of your tuition costs in lieu of loans.

Work-study positions may also offer a small hourly rate you can earn. During my time as an undergrad journalism major, the work-study position I held was writing and editing for a local arts newsletter. The position provided tuition assistance and part-time pay at the same time.

They provide some career experience

Work-study is essentially like an internship. I was lucky to find one that was related to my major, gave me relevant experience, and paid modestly all at once.

Find a work-study that complements what you’re studying in school and it becomes more than a job; it enhances your curriculum.

Work-study cons

Positions may be competitive or scarce

Unlike part-time job opportunities which are numerous, there may be a shortage of options for the work-study program you’re interested in.

If you’re attending a smaller college, there may also be less work-study opportunities. On a larger campus, competition from other students may mean the position you want gets filled and won’t be available until the next academic semester or quarter.

Compensation may be low

Work-study isn’t like a job where you can request a desired wage or salary. Depending on the award, your financial aid assistance (or pay) is set by the school.

If the pay is low, your work-study program may feel like volunteer work at times.

Part-time job pros

Greater variety of opportunities

An off-campus job isn’t tied to a school in any way, so you’re free to look for any type of work you like, wherever you choose. Ultimately, there are more job opportunities available to you.

Additionally, you’re not limited in a number of hours you seek or how much money you can potentially earn. Unlike work-study, which is restricted to financial aid and school budget requirements, you may find an off-campus job that pays far higher than you’d expect.

It places you in a real-world environment

Finding a part-time position off campus may open the door to social and professional networking opportunities with people outside of the college community.

If you’re seeking a more professional position, it also gives you the chance to hone your resume, cover letter, and interviewing skills. A part-time job will offer you real-world, career experience that could serve you well after graduation when you hit the job market.

Part-time job cons

Wage/work inflexibility

Unless your part-time job is under the table, your pay is taxable income. The amount you earn with your job could affect the amount you receive in financial aid, whereas a work-study job is financial aid.

Although a work-study position on campus may establish specific hours for you to work, a part-time job places your employment at the discretion of your employer. They’re free to increase or decrease your pay or hours as they wish, which may interfere with your class schedule.

Outside employment is also at-will in most states, so your job can be terminated at any time.

Commuting costs

Gas, bus or train fare to commute off campus to a part-time job can cut into the wages you earn. If you’re only able to work a few hours a week, these expenses can drastically minimize what you may earn.

Internship pros

Internships give you vital career exposure

An internship in your chosen career field can give you the hands-on experience and exposure you need to land your first job post-graduation.

Internships also allow students to learn more about the workings of their job industry, meet future colleagues, and build skills. An internship on your resume and positive reference from your mentor/supervisor are key assets to getting hired in the future.

You might get hired

Make a positive impression, and the company or organization you intern with off-campus might just end up becoming your first full-time job after graduation. Many internships segue into part-time or full-time positions.

Your foot is already in the door with an internship, giving you a competitive edge over other job applicants who don’t have previous internship experience with the organization.

Internship cons

Most internships aren’t paid

The price many students pay for an internship slot is no pay at all. Internships are usually unpaid, volunteer opportunities designed to impart career experience as compensation.

If you have expenses and student loans to pay, you may find yourself struggling to pay your bills, attend classes and fulfill your internship.

You may not like it

Your internship may teach you that you don’t like working in the career path you’ve picked. Or worse, you’ve been delegated to menial job tasks that nobody else will take.

While an internship can be a great opportunity for you to discover your strengths and weaknesses, it can also mean that you might need to change majors, or reassess your educational or career goals.

Aim for a mixture of experiences

Your class schedule permitting, look for a mixture of opportunities that impart the experience and income you need while still in school.

Instead of choosing between an internship or an off-campus job, think about splitting time between a part-time, unpaid internship and a paid, part-time position. This could be a good compromise that will earn you some money and give you some resume-building skills.

If you’re limited to a work-study, check with your school about how much it will reimburse you for financial aid and if workers get paid. If the work-study program is only one semester long, you can search for a paid internship or part-time job for the following semester.

Most of all, assess your own personal and educational preferences. Everyone’s situation — academic, financial and otherwise — is different.

At the end of the day, pursuing paid employment of any kind as a student will help you pay off your student loans and college costs in the long-run.

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