Unpaid Internships: How to Live With Them Until We Can Live Without Them

There has been a lot of media attention on the issue of unpaid internships recently. Articles from the New York Times and Wall Street Journal have contributed to the discussion.

This is an issue I’ve been passionate about since beginning as Internship Coordinator. Disclosure – I would like to see all internships be paid. But I’m not going to expand on my opinions here. Instead, I want to address ways that you can deal with unpaid internships – something that isn’t going away anytime soon.

Should you take an unpaid internship?

I can’t answer that for you. It is a decision you must make for yourself based on your resources. There are strategic ways to take on such an opportunity (which I discuss below), but it still may not be right for everyone. Perhaps after the recent news articles, some people might reject unpaid internships out of principle.

I believe that going after any opportunity – what college to attend, what career to pursue – requires some soul searching. Deciding on an internship is no different.

How can you evaluate whether or not a particular unpaid internship is worth the “cost”?

You should always evaluate the relative value of any internship, paid or unpaid. But what kinds of special considerations might you make for an unpaid opportunity?

  • What kind of work will you be doing? While this is a consideration for any internship, you want to be extra aware of the value of this work experience. You should be working on above-entry-level projects (with supervision and guidance, of course).
  • Where are former interns now? If this unpaid internship launched someone’s career, that could be a deal-maker. If the opportunity hasn’t done anything special for past interns, it probably won’t do anything special for you either.
  • What non-financial benefits might be available? You might get special training. You might get to attend a professional conference or workshop. Maybe the organization will pay you for mileage if you have to travel or at least cover parking if it’s not free.

How can you strategically take on an unpaid internship?

It is possible to be working an unpaid internship but not be broke. If considering unpaid internships, look for ones that are part-time or even a little less than part-time. If you’re only working your unpaid internship for 15-20 hours a week, it leaves time to take on another job that might not relate to your future career, but that does pay the bills.

There is so much that can be said about the unpaid internship issue and, if the recent news is any indication, we will probably be hearing more about it.

Readers – I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic. Leave a comment!

In case you haven’t read any of the recent articles about the legality of unpaid internships, here are some of them:

And finally, a humorous take on the issue:

2 thoughts on “Unpaid Internships: How to Live With Them Until We Can Live Without Them

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  2. From an employment perspective I always have a difficult time not compensating people for their efforts but I also forget the opportunity that is created for those without the experience. I know I feel unpaid internships are justified when hiring someone that you wouldn’t otherwise hire to help them gain experience.

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