Internships are a wonderful extension of classroom learning where you can put what you’ve learned into use or learn something new entirely.
However, not all internships are paid, which can put you in a pickle. There’s no guarantee an internship will land you a job in the future, so should you take up an unpaid internship that comes your way or hold out for something else?
Here are some considerations to mull over before making your decision:
Reasons to say “yes” to an unpaid internship
You are financially stable
If you are financially sound or have parents or family members who can support you financially, an unpaid internship would be a good thing for you to consider.
An experience of a lifetime
Last year, the BBC reported that the World Health Organization (WHO) had, in the past 50 years, expected their interns to “move to their headquarters in Geneva, or one of its six regional offices, and work unpaid without travel expenses for up to six months, costing each person around £5,000 ([US]$6,540)”.
That’s a staggering amount of money for students, especially if they don’t have financial support available. While WHO has since made a U-turn and started to pay their interns, it’s worth highlighting that some internships are an opportunity of a lifetime even if they don’t offer payment, so you may want to consider biting the bullet if the experience is worth the financial hit.
It can help you decide whether a job is right for you
Internships can help you get a feel of a particular career before deciding whether you should commit to it, or choose a different path upon graduation. For example, is journalism right for you? While the thought of having your byline appear on a renowned news website or newspaper may sound great, the novelty can wear off and certain things about the job might get to you.
This could be the pressure to meet your deadlines, how hard it can be to chase your sources for a comment or the need to multitask when out on an assignment (i.e. write the story, take pictures and videos in addition to updating social media accounts all at once). These things can make you think twice about the mental toll of the job.
Reasons to say “no” to an unpaid internship
You need the cash
I had to turn down an internship of a lifetime at the World Health Organization because it was unpaid, and there was no way I could support myself for 6 months in Copenhagen without getting paid, or at least some sort of housing compensation from @WHO
— Ana (@anna_chernykh) July 7, 2018
If you don’t think you can support yourself by working full-time without getting paid in exchange, an unpaid internship is unlikely to be suitable for you. Taking up an internship can cost money – there are transportation expenses for getting to work, new clothes to buy if you need office attire for the company you work for, while depending on the location of your workplace, your meals could be pricier than you’re used to, all of which will hit you hard financially.
It might negatively impact your future earning potential
— Study International (@Study_INTNL) July 31, 2017
A Newsweek report said: “According to the 2011 Student Survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, paid interns spent more of their time on professional duties, while unpaid interns were given clerical ones. Sixty-one percent of paid interns working at for-profit companies received a job offer; only 38 percent of unpaid interns working at for-profit companies did. And paid interns netted higher starting salaries. ‘The unpaid internship offers no advantage to the job-seeking student,’ NACE concludes.”
This was echoed by another study from the Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Essex, which found that almost every graduate taking an unpaid internship can expect to be worse off three years later than if they had gone straight into work.
The work is too mundane
There’s no such thing as the perfect internship, and the truth is, you may not always be doing the work you thought you would be doing during your tenure (e.g. photocopying papers, fetching coffee, etc.).
However, if you’re going to be stuck doing menial tasks for the duration of your internship, and the work isn’t helping you learn relevant skills or gain an experience that was discussed during your interview, you may want to reassess whether the experience will be worth your time and effort.
For instance, you may be doing mundane work, but if the job allowed you to network and learn from your superiors, there’s still something to be gained. Conversely, whether or not you’re paid can affect your motivation to stick to a job, especially if it’s one that’s particularly uninspiring.
Just take Charlotte Cowles, who shared her experience as an intern at a news organisation in The Cut, as an example:
“Another time, I had written something for the website, and the editor I worked with had inserted a sentence with an error in it. When one of the higher-up editors pointed it out, the guy blamed it on me, and scolded me in front of everyone at an edit meeting. I’d had some really bad jobs before, and definitely been treated like shit, but it’s different when you’re getting a paycheck.”
Ask more questions during your interview process about the types of tasks you can expect, should you get the internship. If you suspect the tasks are overly administrative and don’t align with your professional goals, your free labour may not be worth the time and effort.