As more schools in the U.S. make internships a graduation requirement, many students are coming to terms with taking unpaid positions. Some even have to pay the school for the course credits received for the internship.
This arrangement may not strike you as ideal, but paid internships may not always be available or easy to find. And unpaid internships can offer valuable experience and inside contacts.
A proper unpaid internship can be a boon to your early career. In college classrooms, you can get theories and principals and vocabulary words galore, but internships offer you hands-on experience. Employers love to see real-world experience on a résumé, and that’s why so many schools are now making internships a requirement. In a job interview, you can either talk about chapters you read or papers you wrote in school, or you can talk about a real project you completed for a real company and the real results you achieved.
The hands you shake
Internships also offer another opportunity that you can’t get in the classroom: the opportunity to network. In many fields, knowing people in the industry can be almost as important as having experience. Oftentimes they know about open positions that may not be listed, or they may be able to get your name to the top of the application pile. Plus, a good letter of recommendation from someone in your desired industry never hurts.
Not all unpaid internships are going to help you. There are some that consist exclusively of doing busywork, getting coffee and organizing closets. Not only can they be a time-waster, but some may technically break the law. The Department of Labor stipulates that an unpaid internship with a for-profit company must be beneficial to the intern, can’t use the intern as a substitute for a regular employee and must be similar to training given in an educational environment. Before you accept an internship offer, make sure that you will benefit from the experience and gain a better understanding of your desired field. People talk of young professionals needing to “pay their dues” before moving on to higher positions, but those dues shouldn’t include driving your boss’s kids around or picking up his dry cleaning.
But what is the cost?
The prospect of going three months without a steady income isn’t exactly attractive, and for many students, it isn’t doable. However, there are methods to ease the cost of spending a summer working for free. Many unpaid internships are also part-time arrangements, with students working three or four days a week. That extra time could allow students to take part-time jobs with flexible schedules. Many schools also offer stipends to cover unpaid internships.