Should You Take an Unpaid Internship?

When is it worth it to take an internship that doesn’t pay? Read on for information about which factors to consider and how to negotiate a potential salary.

Are unpaid internships even legal? The short answer: Kind of.

Many unpaid internships stray from the Department of Labor guidelines, which stipulate that they be "similar to training which would be given in an educational environment" and that the experience benefit the intern rather the employer. These guidelines also state that interns may not displace regular employees, and that there must be a clear agreement between the intern and the employer that the position is unpaid and does not guarantee a paid position when completed.

There is a difference, however, between how the law is written on paper and how it is applied by courts. Today, unpaid internships frequently vary from the Department of Labor's characterization. Education is often a secondary concern for employers, and interns routinely perform tasks that would once have constituted paid work before the proliferation of internships.

Negotiations

If you believe your work will help your employer make more money, consider negotiating for your share. Though it's more common among traditional employees, interns can negotiate, too. Truly qualified potential hires should use that fact to their advantage.

If you are offered an unpaid internship and are considering another opportunity, there's nothing wrong with politely saying so. This may cause the employer to reconsider and offer you wages or benefits. Alternatively, the employer may offer you — or you may request — a stipend. Stipends are sometimes offered in place of wages for an internship or apprenticeship. They are meant to cover certain parts of your living expenses, such as rent or transportation. If you have a long commute to work, or need to find a new place to live in order to take the internship, make sure to bring this up in your negotiation. This may translate into the employer offering you a benefit, such as a commuter pass or opportunity to carpool. You will then need to decide if the benefits being offered are workable for you.

The best time to negotiate is after you are offered the position. If you are unsure if someone has made an official offer, it's OK to ask, "Am I being offered the position?" or, "Is this a firm job offer?"

Keep in mind that negotiation carries risk. This option is less likely to work if the employer has received many strong applications or if you lack significant experience. But if you have what an employer needs and are willing to risk or forego the position if your conditions aren't met, then ask for what you think your time is worth — or even for what would keep you from accruing debt. Employers may even view your willingness to negotiate as a sign of strength.

Another Possible Source of Funding: Your School

Even if you are unable to negotiate for a salary or stipend, you may have another source of funding. If you are still in school, check whether your university offers some type of financial support for unpaid internships. Many colleges, aware of the importance of their ROI, are invested in their students’ professional department, and so they remove the financial hindrance of unpaid internships by offering stipends themselves.

For example, George Washington University created the Knowledge in Action Career Internship Fund for its undergraduate and graduate students. This program will pay up to $3,000 for housing, food, and transportation expenses accrued during an unpaid internship.

Academic departments, also concerned about job placements of their graduates, may similarly offer programs to support unpaid internships. This can be especially useful in fields in which unpaid internships have typically been a normal or expected part of the career ladder. For example, the political science department at the University of Notre Dame has an endowed scholarship for sophomores and juniors needing support during their summer internships.

Most of these funding opportunities require an application and have highly specific requirements, so make sure that you plan far in advance. If you know the field you’re interested in doesn’t offer many paid opportunities for college students, then schedule a meeting with your academic advisor or a career counselor to discuss your options. She should be able to direct you to the right sources.

The Other Benefits

Regardless of whether you are able to secure funding from your prospective employer or school, you likely do not stand to do more than break even in an unpaid internship. That said, one doesn't take an unpaid internship for the money. Internships can be a great deal if you learn useful skills, meet interesting or helpful people, or get your foot in the door of a place you love. Taking an unpaid internship can be worth it if it puts you on the career path you want to make for yourself.

Some internship opportunities may offer compensatory benefits in place of stipends or wages. For instance, if your college gives you school credit for undertaking an internship, then the opportunity could translate into an earlier graduation, and thus savings on tuition. The opportunity could also offer other perks, such as free tickets to events that your organization is hosting, free professional development seminars, or free use of their facilities, such as an office gym or cafeteria.

The other reason to consider an unpaid internship is that it may look good on your resume, even if the position itself can be terrible. Maybe you spent your time at that prestigious theater fetching coffee and breaking down cardboard, but you need not frame your experience that way. Think about how you can present your experience in a marketable way. Did you learn about how the industry works by watching others? Did it give you information about what kind of work environment you would thrive in?

A dreary name-brand internship may get you a better reaction in a job interview than one at an inspiring yet unknown company, depending on how you present yourself and what the interviewer's preexisting beliefs are. On the other hand, an inspiring opportunity (wherever it may be) can also give you the tools to succeed in a future interview and eventual full-time position.

The Alternatives

Perhaps the prospect of working at an unpaid internship seems unfair. Often, it is. In 2015, those who cannot afford to begin their careers with a job that pays less than a living wage face a distinct disadvantage in the job market.

Some people will work a paying job in tandem with a part-time, unpaid internship. While it is a lot to juggle, this situation allows you to get the work experience you need while allowing you to cover your expenses. If you are unable to negotiate having wages as part of your internship, you can try to negotiate your work hours so you have time to make money elsewhere.

If an unpaid internship is crucial work experience that will pay dividends in the future, you can consider taking a loan to do it. This situation is highly undesirable and certainly unfair, but it is a possibility to consider if you find an internship that would play an essential role in your future.

If you can't or won't participate in this system and can't find a paying job that ties into your chosen career, there are other productive ways to spend your time during or after your education: Start your own business. Volunteer. Make art. Take classes through local organizations, colleges, and online. Pursue grants or fellowships.

You could even consider a job with no direct relationship to your desired career path. Retail and service-industry jobs teach you how to work and how to deal with the public. They also show future employers you can hold down a paying job, and they’ll help cover your expenses.

But don't be afraid of the world of unpaid internships. If you enter with your eyes open, an unpaid internship may be the perfect transition from your education to your profession.

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