advice for new managers

Should You Accept an Unpaid Internship?

If you landed an unpaid internship, you may be confused about whether or not you should accept, and with good reason. Some argue that they are a waste of time while others claim that the hands-on experience they provide is invaluable.

At the end of the day, the decision is personal and the factors that go into your decision are highly individualized. Your financial stability, career goals and even your personality could play a part.

If you’re still struggling with your decision, here are a few things you should consider:

Can you afford it?

It’s ironic and frustrating that unpaid internships are common in expensive, metropolitan cities. Between sky-rocketing rent costs, food, transportation and other extraneous costs, Time estimates that an unpaid summer internship can cost up to $6,000. Some internship programs require tuition which, in addition to relocation expenses, can result in a pretty high upfront cost.

Some unpaid interns are able to cut costs by living at home for the summer or, if the position coincides with the school year, housing and food may already be covered. However, if you’re already working a part-time job to supplement college expenses, adding an unpaid internship to your schedule may not be feasible.

The reality is that many unpaid interns rely on their parents for assistance, a fact that creates a bigger discrepancy in opportunity between students of different socioeconomic status. However, there are scholarships and resources available to help soften the monetary blow. For example, universities often offer stipends for unpaid interns. Check with your career center or student website for applications and scholarship availability.

If your internship is part-time it is possible to take on a paying job. If you have a full-time internship, you could inquire about a flexible work schedule. However, before taking on two jobs it’s critical that you are honest with yourself about your budget as well as your ability to manage your time. To avoid over-working yourself, write out a detailed budget for the year as well as a schedule to see if you can balance school work and expenses with an unpaid internship.

Are unpaid internships common or critical in your industry?

In some industries, unpaid internships are a rite of passage. In particularly competitive fields, college students and graduates are often expected to accept zero pay in exchange for a foot in the door.

Depending on the field, some unpaid internships provide critical hands-on experience and learning opportunities that cannot be replicated in a college environment. And in some networking-based fields like television, you will have affair amount of trouble finding a job postgrad without taking that unpaid position in Los Angeles.

But before you accept an unpaid internship, do some research on into your industry of choice. Check out employment sites like Glassdoor to see how other interns in your field are compensated. If you notice that a lot of interns in similar positions are paid, there’s a chance that the company in question is exploiting college students or recent graduates.

Even if working for free is common, it may not be necessary. Check job posts for post grads to see how much experience is required and whether or not your academic work and degree counts toward yearly experience.

Is it legal?

The increasing prevalence of unpaid internships in the last few years has prompted debate and controversy over the legality of unpaid labor. With competition increasing for uncompensated positions, most college students are so relieved to land a summer internship that they don’t question the legitimacy of the job.

If the employer is being unclear about whether or not the position is unpaid, that’s one sign that the job is not legitimate. But The Fair Labor Standards Act enforced by the Labor Department establishes further distinction between the treatment of employees and unpaid interns. According to the Act, if you are an unpaid intern you should not perform the same duties as paid employees and, if you’re a student, the position should probably complement and accommodate your academic commitments.

Additionally, your unpaid internship should not only provide you with experience that is critical to your career development, but also with education and training that will supplement your college education. To find out if your internship abides by the rules, ask the interviewee about training and networking opportunities throughout the internship and inquire about flexible hours that accommodate your college schedule.

Can you accept working for free?

It’s common and reasonable to feel frustrated when you’re working for free, but the reality is that some people are simply not built for unpaid work. If you are already resentful of the lack of pay, that’s reason enough to turn down an unpaid internship, because it is unlikely that you will feel differently once the position begins. If you’re unhappy with your lack of pay, you probably won’t take full advantage of the experience and education the internship offers and there’s a change your performance will suffer as well.

Take some time to check in with yourself before accepting the internship. How excited are you about the company or the work itself? Is this a company that you can see yourself working for in the future? If you are passionate about the work and are certain that this is the right career path for you, an unpaid internship may be worth it after all.


For more reading about millennials in public service, check out this weekly GovLoop series, First 5: Advice from millennial to millennial.

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Beth Payne

The U.S. State Department has a lot of unpaid interns. In addition to learning important skills that prepares our interns for a work environment, many also receive a Secret clearance. The clearance is invaluable for interns hoping to work in the DC area after graduation. Many manpower companies who supply entry level assistants to government agencies will only hire people who already have clearance, which gives our former interns a significant advantage when looking for work. Some universities provides grants that help defray the costs, which can help students who don’t have financial support.

Joe Antoshak

Seems reasonable to think government agencies would have an easier time replenishing their workforces if they invested more money in young and potential employees. Across-the-board paid internships might be the perfect place to start. Great article!