The Benefits of Unpaid Internships & How They Can Turn Into a Full-Time paid Job

Posted September 17, 2013 by
A happy intern who is smiling

A happy intern who is smiling. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

The primary goal of any internship program is to give students a short-term, first-hand work experience while simultaneously offering employers a chance to evaluate a prospect for a future position.

That two-fold purpose is getting lost, or at least diluted, in the increasingly antagonistic debate over whether an internship is useful, if it’s not preceded by the adjective “paid.”

Everyone wants to get paid for work, but when you’re ready to apply for a full-time position, most employers hire based on job experience. An internship provides that.

The good news about unpaid internships is that they are readily available. According to Intern Bridge, a consulting firm that researches the industry, there are more than 1 million internships offered every year, approximately 20 percent of them are unpaid.

Further research shows that applications for paid internships far outnumber those for unpaid internships. In other words, unpaid internships are there for the taking, if you can handle the necessary arrangements to make it happen.

So what do you get if you’re working for nothing? Plenty!

Some of the obvious takeaways include:

  • Instant improvement of your resume. Whether you’re headed to graduate school or straight into the workforce after graduation, nothing enhances a resume more than work experience.
  • A better idea of whether you’ve chosen the right profession. Being an accountant sounded like a great job, until you spent 40 hours a week making up spreadsheets and punching numbers in a calculator. On the other hand, you weren’t sure about being a sports writer until you filed the story about last night’s game and people called to say they saw it and loved it. First-hand experience is irreplaceable.
  • It’s the perfect forum for making contacts. Everyone notices the new person when you come in the office. Be responsible with your work, respectful and friendly to your co-workers and you will have a room full of people willing to help you when you apply for a full-time job. This is a difference maker in job interviews.
  • You confidence will improve. It’s hard to be confident about swimming, if you never get in the water. Throw yourself into your internship. Take advantage of any opportunity to gain experience. You’ll get feedback that should clear up any doubts you might have had about your skills. The confidence you gain should send you back to school optimistic and enthusiastic about your future and that could have a significant impact on your grades.
  • You might discover hidden talents. The well-kept secret about internships is there are often a lot of areas that need help in a company. You may, for example, discover that you were pretty good at making graphic designs when the marketing department asked to borrow you for their big event. Accepting challenges outside your designated skill area is always viewed favorably by management.

The trick then is to add up all the experiences and turn them into a full-time job, whether it’s in the same company where you interned or somewhere else.

It helps if you are talented, but the overriding factor for nearly every office manager is attitude.  A good attitude is welcome in any workplace.

That can sometimes be difficult for a person who is not getting paid. Too often the unpaid intern allows the chatter outside the office – “They’re taking advantage of you!” — to affect their attitude in the office.

Be careful. You’re getting a three-month tryout that puts you ahead of those who did all their learning in the classroom and closes the gap between you and someone in your industry with a year or two of experience.

Show up with a great attitude, communicate with a smile, take on challenges, and you’ll leave a very positive impression.

And no one will ask if you got paid for that.

Bill Fay is a writer for, focused mainly on news stories about the spending habits of families and government. Bill also contributes regularly to our blog. He spent 21 years in the newspaper business and eight more in television and radio, dealing with college and professional sports, then seven forgettable years writing speeches and marketing materials for a government agency.

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