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Advice / Job Search / Finding a Job

Why to Think Twice About Bypassing Unpaid Internships

In a competitive job market, internships are a great way to beef up your resume with real-world experience. As an intern, you land a short-term opportunity to work in your field, and that experience can help define the direction of your career. Plus, an internship is a fast way to expand your knowledge and add new contacts to your professional network.

Put this all together, and internships equal one very important thing: getting a job.

But what they don’t always amount to is a paycheck, at least not right away. Depending on how an internship is structured, you might get paid, you might get college credit, or you might get, well, nada.

And as you review your credit card bill, tuition statements, and other expenses, the idea of not having an income might seem daunting. But before you write those unpaid opportunities off, read on for a few reasons why companies don’t pay—and what you could stand to gain from them anyway.

Supply and Demand

Some businesses don’t pay their interns because (gulp) they don't have to. If you’re seeking experience with a highly sought-after or prestigious organization (like MTV Networks or Clear Channel Communications), there’s likely a long list of people vying for the opportunity, and for good reason. The unpaid factor can be worth it in exchange for getting your foot in the door for a potential opening, accumulating great work samples, or gaining expertise that’s going to look awesome on your resume.

Non-Profit Means Non-Profit

If you’re seeking to intern with a non-profit organization, some may not pay you because, quite simply, it’s not in the budget. Same goes for startups. Organizations with limited funding can be in a tough spot when it comes to adding extra payroll—but that doesn’t mean it won’t be an awesome opportunity to get hands-on experience at places like the American Lung Association or Planned Parenthood.

Work Now, Pay Later

Some businesses use internships as a “trial period,” planning to hire most or all of their interns after a successful semester or summer. For them, it’s good—by the time you finish school and are ready to start working, you’re already trained and familiar with the company. And for you, it’s great—you get a job lined up pre-graduation. One example of where this occurs is Goldman Sachs: In 2011, almost 90% of new hires were former interns. (Also check out this list of top U.S. companies who hired interns in 2011.)

So before you dismiss an opportunity because it’s unpaid, consider what you might gain from it that will last a lot longer than money. Ask yourself:

  • Will you get good experience in your desired field?
  • Will you make contacts who can hire you or help you get hired elsewhere?
  • Will you have opportunities for hands-on experience that will strengthen your resume and portfolio?
  • Is there a good track record of interns going on to get jobs—with the company or elsewhere?
  • If the answer to most of these questions is “no,” then the unpaid gig probably isn’t worth your time—there are definitely companies out there that are just after free labor. But I participated in three unpaid internships in college, and all of them were good experiences that helped me make connections with people who I’m still in touch with—and who’ve helped me secure several jobs.

    It’s important to remember that we're in a tough job market, and when it comes to experience, knowledge, or contacts, every bit helps. As you make your choices, ask mentors, friends, or professors for guidance and support. Most importantly, enter any new role with an open mind and the awareness that it’s just one of many steps leading to your future.

    Photo courtesy of Ryan Resella.