There are plenty of articles floating around about why unpaid internships are a waste of time, how they make students less employable or take advantage of illegal, free labor. However, there are also articles out there about why unpaid internships are totally worth your time, definitely worthwhile for several reasons and depend on the company and industry. That’s plenty of confusing information that may make a student think twice about their decision to complete an unpaid internship. While I’m not here to say that every unpaid internship is perfect, I would argue that my unpaid internships (yes, I did a few) were definitely valuable and I would do each of them over again if I had the chance! I was strategic when I chose companies to work for, positions to apply for, and the long term monetary value of what I would gain through each experience. Unpaid internships can be valuable, and sometimes they may be the only option a student has depending on their level of experience, industry of interest, and free time to dedicate to an internship in the first place.
The questions below are questions that you need to ask yourself if you’re considering an unpaid internship and whether it will truly be worth your time. Keep these puppies in mind, and you’ll be making an informed, strategic decision when it comes to these occasionally controversial career development boosters:
1. CAN YOU AFFORD TO SPEND TIME COMPLETING AN UNPAID INTERNSHIP?
Depending on the hours required, an unpaid internship may be financially impossible for some folks. I understand that, and if that’s your situation, you need to take care of yourself! It can be difficult to juggle schoolwork, a part time job and an internship when you have tuition to pay, rent costs for campus housing or even a cell phone bill. If you’ll be hurting yourself by taking on an unpaid internship, then don’t do it – but be sure to really work your booty off to network, build a portfolio, strengthen your skills and get your name out there. If you can afford an unpaid internship, then keep reading to see if it’s truly worth your time. Since I lived at home for free, had worked since high school and built up a savings, and was able to balance school, a part time job and an internship (and little to no social life, let’s be real) I was able to afford an unpaid internship. Plus, it helped that I was able to get college credit for one of my unpaid internships so it counted as a class, which lightened my course load a bit – which leads into the next question worth asking yourself!
2. CAN YOU RECEIVE COLLEGE CREDIT?
If you’re not getting paid for an internship, getting college credit is a pretty good alternative if your college offers that opportunity. I received college credit for one of my unpaid internships, and it was a great perk. Since it counted as a class, the time I otherwise would have dedicated to an on-campus course was freed up for me to be at my internship. However, I have heard of some instances of colleges charging tuition fees for students wishing to earn college credit for a summer internship. Check with your school to see what type of guidelines internships for credit involves and what fees might be attached. You also should double check on deadlines, since some colleges require very advance notice and you want to make sure you get your paperwork in and that your internship will actually fulfill course requirements (it is counting as a class, after all).
3. WHAT WORK SAMPLES WILL YOU OBTAIN THROUGH THIS INTERNSHIP, AND CAN YOU USE THEM IN YOUR PORTFOLIO?
One of the benefits of internships is getting professional working experience in an industry and actually completing job tasks. These types of portfolio and work samples typically carry more weight than what you produce in a classroom setting. If you’re aiming for a graphic design internship, or anything related to producing content for a company, be sure to check up on what you’re allowed to include in your portfolio. Some companies may claim legal rights over everything their interns produce, and you’ll have nothing to show for the internship in your portfolio at the end of the day.
4. WHO WILL YOU MEET THROUGH THIS INTERNSHIP?
You should know who you’ll be reporting to in a company during an internship, what coworkers and other professionals you’ll come in contact with and what potential clients you may interact with as well. If an internship requires you to sit by yourself in a cubicle and only report to your supervisor once a week, your networking opportunities are slim to none. If an internship has you sitting in on staff meetings, interacting with clients or attending company events, your networking opportunities are a lot more beneficial. I’d also recommend doing a quick internet search on who you’ll be working with – if your potential boss has come under fire for fraud more than a few times, that’s not exactly your ideal network contact.
5. WHAT HAVE PREVIOUS INTERNS FROM THIS COMPANY GONE ON TO DO?
You should always do your homework before applying for any type of position, with any company. For internships especially, however, it’s helpful to see how previous interns have advanced since their time with a company. Personally, I’ve looked up specific internship titles on LinkedIn to see what results pop up, and then I check out what they listed their internship job duties as, what their prior experiences were, what roles they’ve worked in since then, and where they are currently in their career. If you’re really unsure about a position, it also couldn’t hurt to reach out with a quick message asking how they felt about their internship experience with a company, and how it did (or didn’t) help them with their career development.
If you can’t seem to find any previous interns on LinkedIn, be aware that startup companies and small organizations sometimes post internships on an irregular basis or depending on their needs as they grow. In those instances, a lack of previous interns isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it also might mean you might end up as an intern guinea pig for a company struggling to figure out how to run a successful internship. Be sure to ask the hiring manager plenty of questions regarding the position before agreeing to anything.
6. HOW MUCH INTERNSHIP AND/OR JOB EXPERIENCE DO YOU HAVE ALREADY?
If this will be your first internship, the experience may outweigh the unpaid aspect of the role. For instance, I completed my first internship the summer after my first year of college before I had even declared a major or gained work experience, so the experience itself was my biggest concern. Your options are likely to be limited in these instances. If you’re nearing graduation, have completed most of your major coursework, or have prior work and/or internship experiences already, then you’re more likely to want to consider paid internship options. You have a lot more negotiating power and a lot more to offer companies, too.
This type of decision isn’t always black and white though, especially if you’re considering multiple internship positions. I actually chose an unpaid internship over a paid internship once because I thought the work samples, networking connections and work experience from the unpaid position would be more valuable to me in comparison to the work samples, networking connections and work experience of the paid internship. Figure out what you want to achieve from an internship and you’ll have an easier time deciding what positions will help you reach your goals. Thankfully, I made the right choice and actually landed my current job through a networking contact from that unpaid internship!
7. WHAT IS THE REPUTATION OF THE COMPANY OFFERING THE UNPAID INTERNSHIP?
Always make a point to do a quick internet search for any company you’re considering applying for so you’re not caught by surprise if it turns out having them on your resume could be more negative than positive. For instance, if you’re hoping to complete an editorial internship and gain published pieces, you don’t want to unintentionally work for a publication notorious for sloppy fact checking and mudslinging (yes, they do exist). Keep in mind though that It’s not always a bad thing if you’ve personally never heard of a company, and this may be the case for a startup or even boutique style firm. Do your homework and you’ll be fine – but never go into a situation blind.
Although this site isn’t 100% guaranteed to be accurate all the time, I’ve personally had luck finding information on Glassdoor about working conditions and company reviews. You can filter results based on city for larger companies with several offices, and even see reviews from specific job roles. Facebook reviews, Google+ reviews and possibly even Yelp are other ways of sizing up how a company is perceived. Again, these are subjective review sites, but they can still be valuable.
8. ARE THERE OPPORTUNITIES FOR MORE PERMANENT ROLES WITHIN THE COMPANY?
Some companies are proud to boast how they hire most of their interns, while others seem to transition interns in and out without ever actually adding to their permanent workforce. While this isn’t always a bad sign, you should keep in mind the goals you’re hoping to achieve through your internship. If you’re trying to get your foot in the door and see what type of specific job you’re most interested in, for instance, then this isn’t worth losing sleep over. However, if you’re graduating soon and are hoping to score a job with a company, you might want to look elsewhere. Two of my unpaid internships resulted in paid positions – it is possible, you just have to take the time to ask and find out what opportunities may, or may not, exist.
9. HOW ORGANIZED IS THE APPLICATION PROCESS?
Plain and simple, if a company isn’t organized when recruiting interns, interning with them probably won’t be smooth sailing. If they consistently had to reschedule your interview, took a long time to get back to you regarding your application, had difficulty describing the tasks for an internship or gave off a scattered vibe, those are all signs of an internship that’s likely to be problematic. Imagine asking someone from this company for a reference letter – if they weren’t even sure what types of things you’d be doing on a daily basis, they’re not the type of work contact you can depend on in the future.
10. HOW SPECIFIC IS THE DESCRIPTION FOR THIS INTERNSHIP?
I touched on this briefly a moment ago, but it’s worth repeating for the people in the back – if a company can’t describe what types of tasks you’ll be doing during an internship, run the other direction! This is a great way of weeding out the companies that are just looking for free clerical help or an errand runner. Most internship postings include skills you’ll need, specific work samples to provide and may even require references. If an internship sounds more like unstructured volunteer work, move on to your next option.
11. WILL YOU DEVELOP ANY NEW SKILLS THROUGH THIS INTERNSHIP?
While all internships are going to require that you have knowledge of certain skills, simply because they wouldn’t hire you in without knowing you’ll serve some purpose, not all internships are great learning experiences. If you can’t pinpoint any potential new skills you’ll learn through the experience, then it might not be worth your time. However, keep in mind that skills aren’t limited to stuff like computer programs, editing, writing, etc. Skills could include public speaking, writing for social media, interviewing clients or even working under tight publication deadlines. Some skills simply can’t be learned in a classroom setting, so if there’s potential for learning them in a professional work environment, that could benefit you in the long run.
12. IS THERE EXTENSIVE TRAVEL TIME REQUIRED, AND WILL THE COMPANY COVER YOUR GAS MILEAGE FEES?
All of my internships that have been unpaid did require some travel time, yet all of the companies I worked for were willing to reimburse gas money despite the positions themselves being unpaid. Even if a company doesn’t offer this up front, check and see if it’s an option if an internship sounds like it is going to involve traveling. If a company is expecting unpaid interns to drive back and forth to meet with clients, scout out new opportunities or even just run some office errands without even reimbursing gas money, that should be a red flag for you.