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Study your objectives carefully before accepting an unpaid internship

Posted on 18 November 2008

Interning–otherwise known as the modern equivalent to slave labor–can be the most rewarding way for young students or recent grads to gain experience in a particular field. At least, that’s what the experts say. But these experts aren’t the ones sorting, collating, or filing. At what point does your intern experience fail to become its only payment?

The argument is ancient. Should interns be paid for services rendered? Should the lessons they take away from their time with a company be compensation enough? Most industries realize that we don’t live in a world where you can get something for nothing. But some archaic fields still believe that youngsters should work hard and, in return, see no reward for it. Often, in the politically correct lingo of the day, it’s called “paying your dues.” So, if the issue comes up, should you take an internship that doesn’t pay any money? Consider some of the following points.

Is It Worth It?
What can you gain from taking an internship that doesn’t pay? That depends on what you’re looking for. If you’re taking a position at a big company that is well known in its field, sometimes just having a name to add to your resume is reason enough. If you’re a journalism major, an unpaid internship at a major magazine–which are notorious for pillaging interns for free work–could reap dividends when you start mailing out cover letters. In the small world of publishing and other industries, a job offer will often hinge on a strong reference from a recognized name–which you can easily secure with an internship.

For every 10 internships that exploit students and recent grads, there are one or two positions that fork over some dough.

The flipside of working with a bigger company is that often interns don’t get the experience they are searching for. Many bemoan the fact that they were treated like another piece of office equipment. Discuss your role and duties when you interview for the position. Also, stress to your supervisor that you’re eager to get involved. Enthusiasm is difficult to overlook.

When you consider a pay-free position, also quietly look into the hiring history of the company. This may be tough, but try to find out if the company has a trend of hiring folks when their internship ends. Ask some of the younger employees or other interns that are there. If the answer is yes, seriously factor this into your decision. If you can suck it up and get by for a few months, you might just skip the torturous task of job searching after graduation.

Think Outside the Bank
While it’s not easy to rationalize paying your monthly bills, think about the other benefits that may come from interning. Depending on the industry, perks may flow like cheap wine. Stories abound in the intern universe of free dinners and concert tickets landing on interns’ desks. Also, if you end up somewhere in the entertainment or publishing industry, expect your social schedule to include some expensed hobnobbing. This facet of the internship may not apply well to those interested in the business or finance world, but you’ll be making money faster than you can spend it anyway.

Digging Deeper
If you are so strapped that a few hours every week interning for free would bury you, just look a little harder. For every 10 internships that exploit students and recent grads, there are one or two positions that fork over some dough. You won’t be celebrating at the Palm, but at least you can splurge on more than Top Ramen.

In the long run, an unpaid internship will come back to benefit you tenfold. As they say, you reap what you sow. When you go the internship route, however, the reaping just takes a little longer when you sow for free.

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4 Comments For This Post

  1. Resume Tips says:

    It’s true, internships offer benefits that you just can’t put a price on. Name recognition, a possible job offer, invaluable contacts, and experience are just a few of the major benefits internships offer. If you absolutely cannot spare a few hours week for an unpaid internship, Khan is right — paid internships do exist, so keep searching and eventually you will find one.

    Resume to Referral
    Resume and Career Services

  2. ResumeRevisions says:

    These days internships(/slave labor (lol)) are required for college students to even obtain a chance to interview for a job. I interned for a stipend which allowed me to travel up and down Manhattan NY delivering shoes for this company. It was suppose to be a marketing intern but I ended uo delivering shoes to Magazine editors and other people of that nature 1/2 of the time.

    Overall it was a good experience putting what ever I learned on my resumes and enjoying the ride. Despite not being paid and walking around delivering shoes not all internships are like this, there are many which they do actually give you everyday work which you can relate to a real position

  3. Emily says:

    I definitely agree that the value of an unpaid internship is crucial to building future career prospects. This was actually a late epiphany for me, now a senior finishing up my undergraduate degree. I’ve only had one internship in my college career, but it was incredibly instructive. Interning in Udaipur, India put a lot in perspective and raised some important questions for me about what it takes to contribute meaningfully to social justice movement outside of your country of origin.

    Keeping in mind what internships tend toward longer-term job offers is a useful tip–though, I think a lot of whether that offer materializes will vary from individual to individual.

    Thanks for the insight!

  4. internship resume says:

    Internships paid or unpaid are the easy way to get in to a Job.

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