Unpaid Internships: Asset or Liability?

About a week ago, Allison Morris of OnlineCollegeCourses.com passed an infographic along to me. I thought it would be pretty neat to write about, since it includes valid statistics about unpaid internships.

Internships were not required at my college, but because I wanted a job related to publishing or editing in some way, I figured an internship would be my best bet to get me some experience for a job. (Editing and publishing are “trade” occupations, which means they can’t really be learned from courses in school, but from real-world experience.)

I got an internship and it was unpaid (but for academic credit). Paid internships are very hard to come by, and if you are lucky enough to find one, it will likely only pay a small stipend or minimum wage. Of course, payment all depends on your field or industry, too. For the publishing fields, you will be very lucky to make just minimum wage.

However, contrary to the statistics in the following graphic, my unpaid internship was very beneficial to me. I never had to do menial tasks like answer the phone, get coffee, make copies, send faxes, etc. I wrote and edited articles, which were posted online and in print. I sometimes took pictures to go along with those articles (although those times were few and far between because I’m an awful photographer). I learned quite a lot from my unpaid internship experience, mainly that I absolutely did not want to become a journalist.

But the articles I wrote during my internship became part of my portfolio that I showed around to employers when I went on interviews after graduation. I got useful feedback on my work during my internship that helped me to become a better writer.

After graduation, I got another internship that started off unpaid, but later became a paid, part-time position. This internship was also beneficial; I learned that I loved editing, I didn’t have to do any menial work, and I gained some network contacts.

Because I had good experiences with unpaid internships, I would argue that they can be beneficial. However, as with any other job, be sure you do your research before saying yes to an unpaid internship. Research the company. Talk to people who’ve had internships at that company before. Talk to your professors/career counselors at college; they can really help you weed out the good companies from the sketchy ones.

And, as with everything in life, an internship is what you make it. You can choose to learn from your experience, or you can slack off and be lazy. If you feel like all you’re doing in your internship is fetching coffee and making copies, speak up! Let your employer know that you’re there to learn.

DISCLAIMER: The following infographic is not mine. It is property of OnlineCollegeCourses.com and was used on my blog with permission.

Internships Infographic


14 thoughts on “Unpaid Internships: Asset or Liability?”

  1. I think you’re right. You can stay positive and absorb everything possible, but you still have to assert yourself to some degree, even in a fully paid position. There’s a balance that has to be maintained, it can’t be all one-way in either direction, but it’s still doable. Getting tougher, I fear, but still doable.


  2. I’m no fan of unpaid internships, but people learn a lot from them. And if both the company and the intern are okay with no money changing hands, I doubt it’s anyone else’s business.
    Also, regarding the employability of paid interns v. unpaid interns in the job market, I believe you’re confusing correlation with causation. It’s possible that the students who took unpaid internships weren’t as qualified or as hungry as the students who took paid internships. In that case, the internship remuneration is more a sign than a cause of the student’s future employability.
    Some of the sweeping generalizations about the differences in the quality of work done by paid and unpaid interns lack supporting data.
    Also, by making unpaid internships illegal, the government is punishing the students more than the company. They’re the ones who lose out on learning and improving their skills.


    1. All true. I definitely believe the government shouldn’t make unpaid internships illegal. As you say, “if both the company and the intern are okay with no money changing hands, I doubt it’s anyone else’s business.”


  3. I think unpaid internships show a lot to future employers, you are whilling to put the hours in, learn and be committed to something which is unpaid. I’m from England and unpaid internships are becoming common with graduates, full-time paid work is rare so a lot of graduates, balance between part-time paid work and unpaid internships, I am fine with this because you have to put yourself out there, go further.


    1. Right. There are so many people competing for the same types of jobs that you have to show that you’re willing to, as you say, “go further.” Employers like to see that.


  4. I have a friend who owns a small recording studio. He has unpaid interns (he doesn’t have the money to pay them), and he talks about how much they learned from im and how many of them have gone on to have good paying gigs elsewhere. It’s the same as many trades in previous centuries, where people started as apprentices.


  5. I believe this is a very important topic. A lot of students even after graduating have no choice but to take unpaid internships just to get job experience. As an older worker, I feel this is wrong and it is a case of companies taking advantage of people and the bad economy. The only way young people can do this is if they are still living at home or getting financial help. Try being an older worker who wants to change careers and has a mortgage to pay; unpaid internships to gain experience in the field is not an option!


    1. That’s the only reason I don’t think unpaid internships are fair; as you say, they are designed for students — not professionals who want to switch careers.


  6. I’d say that although an unpaid internship is unpaid, you can still learn a lot about and for yourself. You understand what you love doing and why you love it. In Britain they call it work experience or volunteering and I know that employers are highly grateful if you have done this and would usually choose you over a candidate who hasn’t done it.


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