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Is an Unpaid Internship Worth the Effort?

Unpaid internships are controversial. Research has shown that employers want their new graduates to have soft skills and professional experience, making internships a great option for most students. Completing a summer internship is a perfect chance to make some connections, dip your toe into the world of work, and learn more about the sort of roles that will suit you upon graduation.

But what if the industry you’re interested in doesn’t offer a wealth of paid intern opportunities? Should you take an unpaid, voluntary role instead?

Here are some pros and cons.


Unpaid internships - the issues

There are some big, high level arguments about the rights and wrongs of unpaid internships. For one, many students can not afford to work for free, making unpaid intern opportunities by definition elitist.

Some also take the argument a step further - by hiring unpaid interns, businesses are taking free labour instead of offering someone else a paid job. Effectively this limits the paid opportunities that are out there for everyone.

And depending on the nature of the working relationship, and your location, unpaid internships might not be strictly legal. If you’re in an area covered by minimum wage legislation, then companies do have to be careful about how intern programs are structured to ensure they do not fall foul of the law.

However, these are arguments which will doubtless continue to rage in a broad sense. It’s useful to understand these views, but you have to make a personal choice about whether an unpaid internship is right for you.

One thing to consider if you’re facing this decision, is why there are unpaid internships available. In some industries, such as journalism and fashion, unpaid internships are the norm. However, this is because these are hugely competitive sectors, in which finding paid work is very difficult. If this is the route you want to take, you should enter with your eyes open to this fact, and know that finding your dream role will take hard work, determination, and a sprinkling of luck, too.

On the other hand, the internship you’re looking at might be with a charity or nonprofit organisation. In which case, the reasons for offering the opportunity on an unpaid basis are far more understandable.

If you’re considering an unpaid internship, you should be very clear on what you personally stand to gain from the relationship. There may be very clear perks which are not financial, for example. Or the networking opportunity might just be too good to miss. Or maybe, it is just an area of work you have always wanted to see for yourself. Don’t let the potential pitfalls put you off - just use them as a reason to examine your options thoroughly.


Unpaid internships - the benefits

There is little doubt that internships - of any type - can provide great benefits to students and new grads. You do need to scrutinise what you're being offered, but most businesses taking in interns recognise the value they can bring the business, and look to create a mutually beneficial relationship. Paid or not, an internship can be valuable in a whole host of ways.

For a start, you will get great experience of a professional environment. This is a great selling point for all employers. Make the experience most useful by articulating your tasks and successes on your resume, so that recruiters can really see how you impacted the business you interned with.

If the internship is in a sector that you're passionate about, then you might be able to turn your internship into a full time job. Or, if you’re not graduating just yet, negotiate a paid opportunity for the next holiday period.

Even if this is not a possibility, the connections you make during your unpaid internship could well be your foot in the door with other businesses too. Do not be afraid to ask for help. People you’re working alongside could help you connect with others to make your dream come true.


How to make the most of an unpaid internship

If you’re taking an unpaid internship, then make sure you get what you want from the experience. Here are some simple tips to make sure you spend your summer wisely:

  • Understand what your employer needs and expects from you. Make sure that the experience you will get is going to build your skillset, and be prepared to negotiate about your duties if it does not.
  • Ask your boss what he can do for you. This might be in offering specific development opportunities, such as training courses, or helping you to build your network directly in the industry. Don’t be afraid to develop and push your own agenda.
  • Record what you’ve done, as you do it. Keeping a record of your actions and successes makes them far easier to reflect upon and talk about later. You will be called upon to talk about your internships in interviews, so prepare as you go!
  • Think about the questions your internship can answer for you. You might want to find out if this is the type of industry or role you’re suited to, or the team dynamic that you like to work in, for example. Internships are about developing knowledge and self awareness, as well as experience and business skills.

Landing the best possible job out of university means being proactive while you're at uni so you finish up presenting employers with a resume which is packed with experience. Internships are a great way of getting exposure, and building the soft skills that employers want. While unpaid internships are controversial for some, they can be a valuable tool if you find the right one.

Be clear on what you’re getting from your unpaid internship. Your boss might not pay you, but the experience and knowledge you can develop in a good intern opportunity, is priceless.

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