Making the Most of an Unpaid Internship

After months of filling out applications, revising resumes, and drafting cover letters, you finally land that coveted internship. You can’t wait to practice what you’ve learned in your classes and couldn’t be more excited for the opportunities that lie ahead. But then, you remember your internship is unpaid and your excitement fades.

This is a reality that many college students face. Some see unpaid internships as “paying your dues” before you develop the skills that afford you a paid one. Others say that it’s not fair to work for free, no matter how much you gain from the experience. It can be difficult to work when you have such conflicting viewpoints in your head. So, here are some things to think about as you navigate an unpaid internship.

Acknowledge That Unpaid Isn’t Ideal

Most college students can’t afford to work an unpaid, full-time job when they’re not in school. And it’s not an unrealistic expectation to want to get paid for the work that you do. Some students are already working to cover their loans and need that money to survive. This especially deters those in minority groups from applying to unpaid internships. According to The American Prospect, people of color generally have less familial wealth to help support them, making unpaid internships even more out of reach. Social barriers like these show the need for more paid internships because it’s not just a desire to be paid; it’s a need to be paid.

Realize You’re Not Alone

As I talked with my friends about the arduous process of applying for internships, I discovered that many of them had done or would be doing an unpaid internship. And that’s not just college students in Ohio. According to the Guardian, around 50% of the 1.5 million internships available in 2016 were unpaid. That’s around 750,000 students! So, while it may seem like everyone around you has a paying internship, odds are, there are just as many with an unpaid one.

Identify Your Goals

Do you want to learn a new skill? Or shadow someone with a unique job? How about delving into an industry you never thought you would work in? Unpaid internships allow you to customize your experience and try new things because it’s relatively low risk for the company. In the short-term, you have more creative freedom and can take the lead on projects.

In my own unpaid internship, I got the chance to run my own social media campaign and explore community outreach in a not-for-profit, which is exactly what I wanted to do! But don’t forget; internships also help you discover what you don’t want to do. So, try everything to get a better sense of your long-term career goals.

Do the Work

It’s easy feel unmotivated when working at an unpaid internship because you don’t have an incentive for the work you’re doing. But it’s important to remember what you can get out of it: connections, reference letters, portfolio pieces, and maybe even a future job. Try treating your internship like a job. Ask to help your coworkers if they seemed swamped. Generate ideas in weekly staff meetings. Think critically but ask questions when you don’t understand. See if your supervisor will meet with you periodically to give you feedback.

You may not realize it, but your coworkers notice the effort, or lack thereof, you put into your work. And that will affect the things you get out of an unpaid internship

Embrace the Side Hustle

According to Bankrate, nearly 37% of Americans have a side hustle. And it’s not hard to see why; with the rising cost of living, growing student loan debt, and job saturation, more people need a supplemental income to survive, let alone save for the future. This goes for students completing unpaid internships as well.

If you manage your time effectively, you can try and work your side hustle around your internship schedule. For example, my employer wanted me to work full-time, but I explained that I needed time to work. We decided that I would intern 3 days a week, so I could babysit the other two. If you’re upfront about your needs and commit yourself to your work when you are in the office, employers will try to be flexible with you.

It’s true that internships are not ideal for today’s college students. But as the great Oprah Winfrey once said, “Do what you have to do, until you do what you want to do.” So, if you can find a way to make an unpaid internship work for you, do it! I’m certain you’ll have a worthwhile experience.


Olivia Ujlaki is a strategic communication major and can be found on Twitter @OliviaUjlaki.

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