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Ask the Experts: Should I apply to only paid internships or also unpaid internships?

Posted January 25, 2020 by

First Answer:

If you can afford to take an unpaid internship, I would definitely apply to both paid and unpaid. With an internship, the primary criterion you should look for is the experience it offers you. Will that experience translate into a shinier resume for you, or even better, a job down the road? Secondly, look for an internship that can help you build skills. These skills will be transferable to other jobs down the line. At this point, you should be seeking internships that will help position you for your first job.

If the internship relates to either your current area of study or your career aspirations, apply! It’s always better to get an offer and turn it down if something more lucrative comes along.
Don’t discount perks, such as free lunches or help with transportation. If you live at home during the time of your internship, your out-of-pocket costs hopefully won’t be too severe.

All that said, only you can decide what you can live with — and without. 

— Vicky Oliver, author, 301 Smart Answers to Tough Interview Questions (Sourcebooks 2005) and Bad Bosses, Crazy Coworkers & Other Office Idiots (Sourcebooks, 2008)

Second Answer:

Students should consider applying to any internships, paid or unpaid, that will give them the opportunity to expand their skills/knowledge or make a contribution. Either will add a lot of weight on a resume.

— Jeff Dunn, Campus Relations Manager, Intel Corporation

Third Answer:

This depends. Are you in an industry that mostly offers unpaid opportunities? Do you need the money to support yourself, and if so, would it be possible to work another job at the same time as the internship? You also want to ensure an unpaid internship is fair and legal, because ideally an internship  is a gateway into the full-time job that will launch your career, and engaging with a company that isn’t doing right by its interns is probably not the best idea. One additional thing you might try? Ask your school about grants that support students pursuing unpaid internships.

— Alexandra Levit, author of They Don’t Teach Corporate in College. 

Fourth Answer:

Skipping past internships, I can only begin to describe the elation and excitement you will have when you sign your employment contract for your first full-time role after graduation. Furthermore, that excitement will only increase after you successfully leverage your experience and outcomes for a raise the following year. Finally, if and when you leave your first role and successfully negotiate a higher salary (according to Bloomberg those who switched jobs on average enjoyed compensation growth of 5.3%), you will know you have made it. 

The above describes stepping stones to career management and growth. If you look at the stepping stones before that first full-time role you will find internships. For me, my internships stepping stones were landing an unpaid internship my sophomore year, that I leveraged for an internship with a monthly stipend, and then my senior year, I used my previous experience to edge out the competition and land an internship that was paying much more than my average peer’s internship. These stepping stones were crucial to my career management, and if I had never taken my first unpaid internship, I may never have landed the next role. 

That said, unpaid internships can be a contentious topic, with some wanting nothing to do with them, and others questioning their quality. At the end of the day, the end goal of an internship is to walk away with tangible first-hand work experience, industry and professional knowledge, and a set of transferable skills that you can apply to any future career path, not a specific amount of money in the bank. 

When reviewing internship opportunities, I would first look at the experience offered, the projects and tasks you will tackle, and the supervision and mentorship that will be available to you. If the opportunity offers strong experience aligned to your studies and career management, with clearly defined tasks and a strong supervisor, then you can go to the second review of paid or unpaid. 

If the opportunity is unpaid but still offering a high-quality experience look into why it is unpaid. Perhaps it is for a non-profit or small start-up, who absolutely needs the support, will offer you killer access to meetings, leadership, and networks, but couldn’t possibly find the budget to pay. Conversely, if looking internationally, many international internships are unable to offer pay, as no visa supports this, but nevertheless you will get great access to global connections and cross-cultural understanding.

If there is a valid reason for the unpaid status, and you have vetted the opportunity for quality, I would say that you are doing yourself a disservice by not applying. During the application process you can also find opportunities to see if there are other ways they can financially support you such as offering: coffee, breakfast or lunch at the workplace, covered or discounted transit, a small stipend, or an end of internship bonus. 

Finally, remember that when applying work experience to your resume, it does not matter if it was volunteer, unpaid, or paid, it is still important work experience that should be clearly noted with three to four strong bullet points explaining your role and key outcomes with quantifiable examples (ex. Supported customer support and retention through increased touchpoints and external communications, increasing contract renewals by 10% over six months).

— Jillian Low, Director of University Partnerships, CRCC Asia

Fifth Answer:

You should not do any internship. It puts you in a position where people assume you know nothing. 

Instead, launch a company, or a marketing campaign for someone else’s company. Spend three weeks selling services you will pay someone else to deliver. You Learn fastest by taking on big projects you have no idea how to do. Guess. Make mistakes. Try again. It’s ok because no one is paying you or firing you or telling you to do small jobs that are too easy to make errors. 
After you do this for two summers, you won’t be entry-level. You will have lots of experience. You might have some wins. You’ll have lots of failures.

You are middle management now. Because you can guide someone else through a high learning curve and fear of failure. 

You could never achieve that so fast in an internship. 

— Penelope Trunk, CEO, Quistic

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