Intern in office

Should you work
for free?

Though you won't be earning any cash with an unpaid internship, that doesn't mean you won't be gaining anything. Internships have numerous benefits that can help you get ahead. An unpaid internship can be seen as an investment in your own future.

Though it makes sense to look for a paid job first, the job market is tough — especially for a college student with no experience. You could take an entry-level position outside your career field or a fast food or retail job just to make some money, but it may make sense for you to take an unpaid internship instead.

You can improve your resume

Securing employment directly out of college without practical work experience can be difficult. To get a job in your career field, you'll need some experience. An unpaid internship is an easy way to get your foot in the door and start gaining the experience you need. When you graduate, your internship can be a highlight on your resume that shows you did a lot more with your summers than party at the beach.

You can learn about the work environment

By working in an unpaid internship, you can learn about everything from teamwork to office politics to humility and accepting authority. Though without compensation, you'll be able to reap the numerous benefits (and learn about the pitfalls) of being in an office environment.

You can make connections

With so much emphasis on online networking these days, sometimes we forget about the value of face-to-face connections. An internship allows you to make real-life connections with your boss, clients and co-workers that can benefit you in the future.

You can shop around

Though you might think you have an idea about your career direction, an internship can allow you to test the waters and find out for sure. Taking a few short-term internships lets you check out various careers before getting stuck in just one.

You can find a mentor

As an intern, you can make connections with people in your career field and even find a mentor. A mentor can prove invaluable when pursuing paid employment down the line. A good mentor can also teach you the tricks of the trade, share insight about the company and industry and introduce you to other people who can help you along the way.

Chasing the Dream: Why you need a mentor — and how to find one >>

You can earn academic credit

Many unpaid internships offer college students the opportunity to earn academic credit. Talk with your college or university to find out more about the educational standards necessary for an internship to receive credit. When looking for an internship, avoid companies that aren't offering college credit or don't allow interns to do anything more than fetch coffee and other menial tasks. Some companies use interns as cheap labor and nothing more. If you aren't going to get paid, you, at least, need to be doing something valuable — for yourself and your future.

Keep in Mind

Some companies do pay their interns. Check out this recent Huffington Post article about the 20 highest rated companies hiring interns and paying them big bucks.

More career tips

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Tags: internships

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Comments on "How an unpaid internship will get you ahead"

Michelle March 16, 2013 | 3:36 PM

I think it's a good idea to take an unpaid internship if you can afford to not get paid for awhile, which I do feel is quite rare nowadays.

Megan January 21, 2013 | 12:23 PM

Unpaid internships are GREAT in getting your foot in the door. Unfortunately for me I couldn't do this now, but I wish I would have taken a few of these opportunities that came my way when I was younger.

Erica June 27, 2012 | 11:56 AM

I couldn't agree more with this article! I'm currently working at my first unpaid, summer internship. It doesn't even matter to me that I'm not getting a paycheck. I'm getting actual, real-world experience in the field that I would like to pursue for my career and for the first time I'm learning what it's like to be in an office environment! Experiences like this are so much more valuable to me than money will ever be.

Jenna June 27, 2012 | 10:53 AM

You have a point, Theresa. Sometimes you need to prioritize and put your immediate needs before everything else. Julie, that is excellent that your journalism certificate REQUIRED an internship. In this case you didn’t have a choice, and you were better off as a result of the experience.

Elise June 26, 2012 | 5:01 PM

I would not be where I am today if I had not participated in two unpaid internships. Also, some colleges offer internships while studying abroad which is definitely something to look into!

Theresa June 26, 2012 | 3:36 PM

If you're able to not get paid, then an unpaid internship is a GREAT way to meet people and get experience, just like the article states. Unfortunately for most of us, not getting paid is just not an option. If you're a new grad and still living at home, I would definitely consider it. But if you have bills and/or children, it probably is not realistic.

julie June 26, 2012 | 1:22 PM

I am so grateful my journalism certificate required an internship; I can't imagine changing careers (after going back to college) without this stepping stone. The benefits are immeasurable and the experience worth its weight in gold. Happily, I just concluded a class that was the perfect springboard for my internship. I'm actively using what I learned in class.

Jenna June 26, 2012 | 8:58 AM

These are all perfect reasons for young people to accept unpaid internships! When thinking about your professional future, it is important to consider what kind of work experience is going to look good on a resume. Working in fast food or retail can sometimes be a step backwards, whereas an unpaid internship will show employers that you desire to put your skills to use in your chosen field, even if it means not getting paid for it. A supervisor or a mentor at an unpaid internship can also become a personal reference. Having a professional reference that can vouch for you will be invaluable when you are applying for paid positions later on down the road.

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