I’m known for being an intern-junky—I take advantage of as many opportunities as I can, racking up on field experience in hopes of landing a decent job upon graduation. I’ve managed to complete four internships, three of which were unpaid.
I used to think college students who don’t take unpaid internships were crazy, especially in the media and journalism fields where paid internships are scarce. “How can you gain experience if you don’t accept whatever you can get?” But after knocking out a few unpaid internships of my own, I soon realized how silly this sounds.
I was right, in a sense, because it really is significantly (and I mean significantly) harder to build your résumé as a media major without taking on unpaid internships. And after giving out free labor, I quickly understood why most of these companies are handing out internships without forking over money—they aren’t making any.
To make matters worse, the employers’ gracious internship opportunities aren’t to give you experience, but to take a load off of their own duties. I have seen media companies of absolutely no prestige offer “internships” that require the work of a full-time employee. Their brands are completely unheard of, but they want you to market them to all your college friends—without paying you a dime.
Not only is this illegal, but in order to make it legal, a student must pay for college credit. So essentially, the company gains an extra working hand while the student may gain experience, but at the expense of hundreds of dollars. And while not opting for college credit may be more beneficial, it’s as equally naive.
So what do you do when you need work experience but there’s no paid internships available? Figure out what will actually assist you in receiving a job in the future and what simply won’t. Big-name companies are a start, but aren’t always the answer. Sometimes it boils down to the experience you’re actually gaining—fetching coffee gives you none.
Paid internships are always the safest route, but if you simply can’t get one and would still like a few more bullet points on your résumé, proceed with caution. When dealing with unpaid internships, make sure you’re getting more out of the experience than the employers are. Don’t file papers, fact-check others’ work, or offer ideas for articles someone else is going to write. Get your own real experience.
Take on an internship where you’re editing or shooting footage that you can use in a portfolio, or write for an advice column on a popular website where your work can gain recognition. Actually build your résumé; if employers aren’t going to let you show your stuff, they’d better look elsewhere.
Unpaid internships can be beneficial, but they come at a huge cost, and most just aren’t of much benefit at all. The moment you feel like it’s more work than it is experience, never feel hesitant to leave. As much as you want to improve your skills, you never want to sell yourself short. Companies will aim to squeeze as much out of you as they possibly can to take a load off their hands and slap “internship” atop the job description.
What you take on is up to you. But your time is a valuable thing—don’t let anyone waste it.