The Internship: Should I settle for an unpaid internship?

Ah the experience paradox; many students think they can avoid this by interning but is it worth it to "sell" your services for free?

Ah the experience paradox; many students think they can avoid this by interning but is it worth it to “sell” your services for free?

Ah the internship, the new pseudo-apprenticeship system that everyone seems to subscribe to nowadays.  An internship is a temporary position that is supposed to offer on-the-job training in a particular field, a chance to not only learn about a particular future career path, but to also perhaps start to network and secure better, brighter jobs for the future. But horror stories of intern abuse abound, of an intern actually taking up the duties of an entry level job with no paid benefits, or of an internship spent being somebody’s go-for without learning anything except perhaps the Boss’s preferred cup of coffee.

Unfortunately, students will stand for unpaid internships due to that experience paradox — you know, the whole idea that you have no job because you have no experience, yet in order to get experience you must have some form of job. So an internship seems to be the best route when the job market isn’t quite the same, but should someone–especially an undergraduate college student–really sell themselves short and go for an unpaid position?

In my own experience, and especially in the field of study that I pursued (I wanted to be a museum educator/restorer for a long while), the unpaid internship was unfortunately the norm for me. I was interested in museum education, but also was aware of the harsh reality that museums  are not well-springs of cash, so I took unpaid internships because I didn’t expect much monetary compensation out of my work.

But that does not mean it should be the expected norm for everyone. Nor should that be the norm, at all; in an ideal world I would love to see only paid internship positions available to students, recent grads, and anyone else looking to try and network into the dream careers they really want in life. But sadly this is not an ideal world; how can one then navigate the world of paid vs. unpaid internships? Are they truly beneficial or a burden?

So I asked a rather simple question on my Facebook (For quick and immediate results, haha) and wound up with an interesting selection of responses to the internship debate. For instance, when choosing an internship, two students  had this to say about their criteria for selection:

  • It depends on the type. If it is neither a nonprofit or a new startup, they should be avoided.
  • Personally, I don’t think it’s valuable to work for free. Your time is worth something, you know?

Another, very thoughtful compatriot of mine, O, further adds:

  • From my experience, paid internships are the ones that actually teach you things, unpaid interns make up for administrative assistants. I have learned absolutely nothing from any of my unpaid internships. The reason that you learn things at paid vs unpaid is because they are making an investment in you by paying you, so they have an incentive to make sure that you can do the job 

However, with an unpaid intern:

  • With an unpaid intern, they’re not using up any resources, so whether or not they know what they’re doing is a lot less important.

 Of course, there are also students that found unpaid internships to be beneficial. Blair, a current grad-student at the Institute of Fine Arts (and fellow kendoka), argues that:

  • It really depends on the industry. I say yes because they do offer good practical experience, but be picky. If they tell you just to do clerical duties, pass on it.

Which is a point that the lovely Joy, who graduated with a degree in Digital Media and Communications expands on with her experience:

  • From personal experience, an internship can be invaluable. When I was job searching before my internship, I was constantly told that my lack of experience kept them from hiring me, but I couldn’t get any experience without being hired. I worked at my internship for two years, unpaid, but I learned more from them than any class. Eventually, they gave me a bonus and an offer to work there full-time; when I told them I was moving back to AZ, they gave me a freelance position to work through summer until I found something more stable. They’re also the main reason I currently have a job, because it was both in my field and related industry (both eco-friendly). I’d happily do it all again, it was some of the best experience I ever had.

Jen, a Film and Animation graduate who runs, has found in the animation industry that:

  • If you can learn something, think of it as getting a class for free. If it’s just grunt work, then no. You aren’t being valued. Also for networking. Also make sure you watch the time you spend there. Any longer than a semester you should talk to them about a job.

And then there is  Caitlin, a friend of mine committed to the pursuit of museum education, has this to say about the debate:

  • Whenever I talk about my internships with my family, they’re always shocked when I tell them that the majority are unpaid in the museum field. My dad’s roommate said it’s unheard of in her work but she works in the banking and stocks industry. I’m currently doing an internship getting school credit so it’s something.I think some of my fellow students explain it a bit better.

Besides her own field expectations, she also credits her university for helping her not only find work but to help weed out unpaid internships:

  • The program at GWU, they’re well known for fielding people/students out to internships. They also have a list of vetted and well established internships that guarantee you legitimate experience, even if they’re unpaid. They keep a database of them and the internships are evaluated from the students perspective at the end of the session. They’re able to tell a later student if the internship they’re considering applying for is worth it in regards to experience or if it’s just a group looking for an administrative assistant that they don’t have to pay.

Finally, my friend Brett, also known by his pen-name Silverwolf from, offered a fitting analogy that perhaps explains the main crux of the issue:

  • If the experience will aid your resume and skill set, then yes. For instance, if you majored in Motorcycle Maintenance, but an unpaid internship in Car Maintenance is offered, might as well take it since it’s related (but probably better to avoid something like Shovel Maintenance since it wouldn’t help).

So what can I ultimately say to undergrads and floundering recent grads who don’t know what exactly to do as of right now? Besides the fact that the summer internship season is fast closing, I think based on this fielding of opinion you can look at an unpaid internship with this critical eye:

  • Will this experience aid my resume and my skill set?
  • Am I going to be stuck in clerical labor? Am I signed up for a grunt job without any beneficial training?
  • Can I afford an unpaid internship? Is a summer’s worth of “free” experience worth a summer’s worth of expense?

I personally find these three above considerations are what should be going through your head immediately when an unpaid internship is looking good. If you can personally and comfortably justify lending your services for unpaid work, then go for an unpaid internship! But if you have reservations, even if you don’t think you have enough “experience”, then exclusively go for paid internships, or even try to find an actual job.

Either way, I think it all boils down to you and your own understanding of the industry you want to work for; whether paid or unpaid the point of the internship is to gain experience.  I hope this brief discussion about the pros/cons of internships helped you decide whether they are a good idea or not–because it does boil down to your own personal thoughts and expectations–but I do hope that this is helpful in some way, shape, or form in deciding whether an unpaid internship is worth it or not!

Also, dear readers, what do you think? Should a student settle for an unpaid internship, or should they fight to be paid?


8 thoughts on “The Internship: Should I settle for an unpaid internship?

  1. Pingback: Internship Opportunity: Summer Internship with the Asian American Theatre Alliance | For Those Who Wander Lost

    • =) Thanks! I feel like no matter what we do, it’s a tough situation that all depends on where you want to go in life — I vouch for paid internships but alas, if it doesn’t go your way an unpaid one isn’t too bad.

      • Yeah. Totally agree. My view point on unpaid internships and the hopeful outlook of a good and well paid job at the end of it is that you just have to work the system. Whoever decided the job market should consist of unpaid work to be gained by profiting businesses in this respect, I will never know. But this is the situation. If you carry on sticking to your guns, standing your ground and only applying for the paid jobs in your profession, then all that time that you don’t get accepted, a hole is growing on your CV. During that time, you have no record of experience which doesn’t help you at all and leaves you even worse off than when you begun.
        I think it is wise to apply for those jobs when you see them, grab them with both hands and give every interview your best shot. During that time that employers keep you waiting, you can be racking up on the experience with internships, paid or unpaid. That was my motto and now I have a job! Paid, and in my chosen profession. Good luck. xx

  2. Pingback: Use of an Unpaid Internship — it’s all in Your Hands | Those Who Wander Lost

  3. Pingback: Internship/Volunteer Opportunity: OneReasonRecordings lookin’ for Graphic Designers, PR, and Campus Reps! | Those Who Wander Lost

  4. Hi, I think the label ‘experience paradox’ is a great way to describe the situation. After taking one unpaid internship and doing a whole lot of reading online, I’ve come to believe that unpaid internships are rather insulting and would likely be illegal in most circumstances (apart from vocational placements).

    There are plenty of proactive organisations out there to support youth unemployment: The Creative Society is one, and intern aware is another. I myself am part of intern Magazine, which aims to open up the debate about this issue through engaging with industry leaders.

    • The experience paradox is such a strange, and sad system that I find cheats a lot of us out of potential jobs, in a way. Like, when you’re in undergraduate, what do you focus on then? Should you join as many clubs as possible, do what you love for the “college” experience? Or ignore all that to gain “experience, experience” by looking for every internship and entry level job out there? It’s a tough choice, in a way, and it’s kind of sad that it has to be a choice

      I personally salute you for going out to raise awareness! While in my experience I kind of let myself be swayed by unpaid internships (That museum wants me but doesn’t want to pay me? That’s okay! EXPERIENCE!) because I believed, as a wee undergraduate, that was how it just was — and while I do think that if there’s no other option to take an unpaid one… I really do wish (and hope) that future undergrads and post-grads won’t have to scurry around for unpaid work and instead be compensated for the hard work they put into these projects.

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