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Unpaid Internships: How to Know If They’re Worth It

Should you even consider an unpaid internship?

If you had asked me about taking an unpaid internship a few months ago, I would have said no.

Why?

Because I believe that, in general, people deserve to be paid for their work.

Unpaid internships are also disproportionately inaccessible and exclusionary to low-income students. Everyone’s time is limited and if you rely entirely on your own income because your family cannot support you – an unpaid internship is simply not an option.

While I do believe that all internships should be paid, realistically, they are not.

I think it’s completely inexcusable for a large corporation to not pay their interns, but I know that this can often be a lot more difficult for smaller companies.

So when should you consider an unpaid internship?

When I was looking for an internship this past summer, I didn’t even look at unpaid positions. The summer before senior year is generally the big “internship” summer and I really wanted to aim high with a bigger company. Working for smaller companies can come with so many benefits (you usually get closer with the team, get to be more hands-on, and are involved in more decisions/processes) but I felt like I could find time to work with a smaller company during the school year and should spend this free summer in an experience that I most likely could not do during the school year.

I ended up landing a full-time Editorial internship with CNN for the summer only to have it cancelled in early May. Womp womp.

Instead, I spent the summer taking 4 online classes in the hope of having time for an internship in the fall.

As we all know, the job (and thus internship) market shrank like a balloon letting out air over the summer. Internship positions were all of a sudden quite difficult to come by. Paid ones were even harder to come by. To top it off, all the good virtual positions I found were incredibly competitive.

So what did I decide?

Having subleased my apartment for the summer, I did not have any bills or expenses (yay for moving back home), but I knew that wasn’t a permanent situation. I was increasingly worried about getting enough experience before I graduated to secure a job in a precarious job market.

Ultimately, I decided to broaden my search. The way I saw it, I was at no real risk of not being able to house or feed myself. This is crucial. I am incredibly lucky to be able to consider an unpaid internship. We all like money but for some of us, it’s non-negotiable.

I felt that if I got a part-time, unpaid internship that really piqued my interest and would help me improve my skills, I could slum it with a part-time position in a job that was less exciting.

I ended up taking an un-paid internship with the local radio station in Athens for several reasons. On the side, I’m working at the student center on campus to make some mula and still looking for other potential part-time virtual positions to bring in some more money.

Okay. So, I’ve detailed my experience and decision but how should you decide?

Here are some things to consider:

Decide on your level of financial need

This is the most important one. Your financial needs come first. I’m not talking about money for buying new clothes every week or getting drinks (in non-Corona times) with friends. If you only need money for recreational purposes – perhaps you can cut back a little in order to get a great experience. Especially now, when we’re staying home more than we used to, it might be the best time to cut down. Whatever your situation, it’s important

Find out the level of time commitment

This was also a super important one for me! I don’t think working a full-time, or very intense internship position for free is worth it. Yes, you might get some great experience out of it and learn a lot, but taking on a heavy load really limits you. It’s also seriously undervaluing you and your time. I can understand working part-time for a smaller business that can’t really afford to pay an intern. However, if they are expecting a heavy level of dedication and hours put into the internship, they should show their dedication to you by paying you for your work.

Think of it in terms of opportunity cost. Opportunity cost is different than real cost. The opportunity cost of having a full-time unpaid internship is the money that you could be making in another job. Your opportunity cost is lower with a part-time internship that leaves time for another job.

Make sure that your level of commitment is being matched by the company’s concern for and dedication to you.

Follow your passion

This is ultimately why I took my unpaid internship.

I had already determined that I could afford to take a part-time internship. My internship is also very flexible and not very taxing. The more I learned about the position, the more I liked it. I got the sense that I would learn a lot and enjoy it. The only thing that was holding me back was the fact that it was unpaid. Everything else about the position was fantastic. The satisfaction I would get from this job versus the stress and unhappiness from a paid job I didn’t like was ultimately worth it.

Meet the team

The very last thing that sent me over the edge was meeting the team. This is important even if the position is paid. Knowing who you’re working for and the work environment that they create is crucial. You can have drastically different experiences under different managers.

When I met the team that I would be working with, I was sold. They were conversational, funny, and understanding. They made sure to mention that school came first and they would be flexible with me. On a Zoom call, they asked me questions about my resume but also asked my opinion about various topics and spoke with me for an hour to get to know me. I knew that these were people I would enjoy working with. It was clear that they would be invested in helping me learn and giving me opportunities.

If you can afford it, and find a part-time position in a field you like with a great team – I say go for it. Especially right now when things are tough.

As I’ve said, it’s a very personal decision and quite honestly, a privileged one to be able to make. I sincerely hope that all of you can find fantastic paid experiences, but if not, there are a lot of great experiences out there that are not paid.

The moral of the story is: never say never (á la Justin Bieber). Sometimes, things you didn’t consider a month or a year ago, actually turn out to be what’s right for you later.

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