When it comes to internships, you don’t ask for too much. All you’re looking for is something that works with your school schedule, adds strength to your degree, and, ideally, has an amazing snack bar. Coffee that doesn’t taste like mud would also be nice. If those key boxes are ticked off, then you’re all Gucci.
Oh, and there’s one more thing: It would be really, really great if you got paid for your labor.
Related: Do Interns Get Paid?
Whoa. Crazy idea, right? Except, not really. If you’re putting in the work and not just observing someone for a week (which is actually job shadowing, BTW), then you absolutely deserve to get paid for the work you do.
But the unfortunate truth is that not all internships are paid, and that can leave students like you in a pretty tough spot. Are unpaid internships worth it? Or should you pass on the opportunity?
We can’t answer that question for you. What we can do is lay out the pros and cons of unpaid internships to help you make a decision that’s right for your budding career.
Potential Drawbacks of an Unpaid Internship
So, are unpaid internships worth it or not? Here are some reasons why you may want to pump the brakes on your acceptance letter and rethink taking an unpaid internship:
- You may not have an income. One of the more obvious drawbacks of an unpaid internship is that you won’t have a steady income — at least, not from the internship itself. You may have a college side hustle that can help you earn some dough on the side, but even then, it’s tough to pay for food and rent from a side hustle alone. Some students just can’t afford to take an unpaid internship because they have no way to support themselves while they gain experience, which is why critics say that unpaid internships perpetuate inequality.
- Your internship might be illegal. Some employers unknowingly create illegal internships, while others knowingly take advantage of students who are desperate for the experience. Either way, you’re not getting paid when you should be getting paid, which is super lame. If your unpaid internship doesn’t meet the DOL’s criteria, be prepared to file a complaint.
- They can limit opportunity and earning potential. According to a NACE Foundation report, unpaid internships have a negative impact on a college graduate’s employment outcomes. The study found that unpaid interns made less than their paid counterparts and were less likely to be hired after completing the internship.
- You have fewer rights. Under FLSA laws, unpaid interns are technically not employees. That means you aren’t protected from workplace discrimination or harassment. At this point, it’s about more than just a paycheck. It’s about basic legal protections that everyone deserves — period.
The Benefits of an Unpaid Internship
Given all the drawbacks of unpaid internships, should you start applying for all the highest-paying internships you can find? Heck, yeah! Go get that money.
But let’s say that an unpaid internship opportunity comes knocking. What should you do?
Here are some valid reasons why you might want to take the internship, even if it doesn’t pay:
- It can help you land a job. In a tight job market, every experience and networking opportunity counts. The knowledge, skills, and contacts you gain from an unpaid internship could be the thing that helps set you apart from the competition. That alone could make an unpaid internship worth it.
- It can lead to better-paying internships. Want to get an internship at a more prestigious, better-paying company? The skills and experience you acquired from an unpaid internship could be the key to landing an interview — that, along with knowing how to write a cover letter for internships.
Related: How to Get an Internship
- Pay isn’t everything. Yes, this is an extremely privileged perspective, but it’s also not untrue. If you can afford to take an unpaid internship, it could be worth it for what you potentially get in return. In addition to experience and networking opportunities, some unpaid internships are willing to offer college credits, stipends, and work perks like transportation reimbursements and mentorships.
- You can potentially get funding for unpaid internships. Yes, funding for unpaid internships is a thing! Check with your college to see if they offer any financial aid to help you take an unpaid internship. For instance, Cornell University offers a Summer Experience Grant that makes unpaid internships accessible to all of their students, including those who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford them. Bottom line? It never hurts to ask!
So, are unpaid internships worth it? In truth, it depends on the opportunity and your unique situation. Some unpaid internships are nothing more than free labor and exploitation, while others can provide tremendous value for students.
As with any new role, be sure to do your research on the company. If it seems like the right fit for your career, look into potential funding before you take a hard pass on an unpaid internship.
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