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When Do Unpaid Internships Pay-Off in a Student-Debt World?

July 28, 2016
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College tuition rates have skyrocketed while wages have remained nearly stagnant, leaving 71% of student graduates with debt.

Unfortunately for students, unpaid internships have also dramatically increased. This explosive combination often means that during the critical summers that can determine where you end up, students are faced with the decision to either take a job that does not further their career or struggle to compete for the paid internships.

So why would you bother taking an unpaid internship?

While it is very tempting to choose an internship or a job that provides immediate cash, this can be very limiting in the long run. Early on, it is more important to focus on learning, rather than earning. By taking on internships that provide growth opportunities, students will build the skills and network that will eventually allow the money to follow. An unpaid internship is equivalent to an investment into your future, but only if you do it right. How do you know?

You Learn Specific Skills Relevant To An Industry

Earning potential in the long term increases as you gain more experience. Because of this, your unpaid internships should provide hands on experience that is relevant to the career you want to pursue. An easy way to think about it is to ask yourself, “What three bullets could I put in my resume from this internship?” Then, you should look up the skills you need for the job you want to work at, and compare the two. This is an easy way to figure out if your internship can actually push you forward towards your goal.


It is also important to note that unpaid internships require virtually no experience, seeing as it is less competitive to get them. Because of this, you can take this opportunity to try new fields and “cross off” things that you tried but realized you don’t want to do. Use this internship to think about whether this is the work you can see yourself doing everyday for the foreseeable future. If it’s not, at least you spent a summer rather than a lifetime figuring that out.

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You Have Mentors Who Help You Be The Best, Even If It Means You Leaving

Mentors are people who constantly work with you in aligning your day-to-day tasks with your end goals. In an unpaid internship, it is especially important to know how to be vocal about what you hope to gain, or else you are at risk of being forgotten. Your immediate boss should have a “teach-first” mentality, where they welcome questions and understand mistakes. This shows that they value you as a person, rather than consider you as a replaceable part of the company.

While I make an effort to first do the job I’m given really well, I also stay really curious about the work that other people do, whether they be in my department or not. When you ask questions and show deeper-level understanding of new material, you show that you want to be coached. This makes your boss more willing to give you new and complex tasks. Ironically, once you master them, the mentor who wants what’s best for you will not expect you to stay with them. They are the ones who can objectively tell you when you are valuable some place else and do not try to limit you for their own gain. A red flag for me is when I work with someone who does not take advantage of my strengths, and I continue to do the same thing for weeks.

You Can Network With Individuals Who Can Help You After The Internship

While it is important to do good work, it is arguably more important to find good people. The truth is, your network is your net worth. It is estimated that 80% of jobs are found through networking, yet people only focus 20% of their time on it. When taking an unpaid internship, you should remember that, by knowing someone, you essentially can know all of their connections. I recommend doing your due diligence and looking up everyone you will most likely meet, on LinkedIn.

Every single person didn’t just start out at their current company, and you can learn a lot from how they got there. That way, when you come across them, you can talk to them about other career paths they have taken or other experience they may have had. This shows you taking initiative as well as really taking advantage of the fact that this is a people-first world. The people you come into contact with will be the ones who can help you long after the internship, from being a resource for more information to being a reference in your job searches to connecting you to people that they know if you want to work some place else.

Parting Thoughts

Being an unpaid intern actually puts you in a unique position of power. Interns who hate their work but are being paid often feel pressured to stay because of the money. An unpaid internship is the only opportunity where you have the right to decide whether they are doing enough for you and your goals. You can now constantly assess whether it provides you enough value for your work, your time, and your gas money for you to stay. Otherwise, you are simply just free labor.

Whenever you take an unpaid internship, or do anything for that matter, you should be thinking about the opportunity cost: could I be doing something better with my time? I frequently use that as a metric because you should quit anything that doesn’t help you, immediately. Here are a few tips for making sure your summer is not wasted if that is the case:

  • Take classes for your major through your school or community college
  • Learn new skills online through sites like Coursera or Lynda
  • Network through coffee chats with people in an industry you’re curious about

No matter what you choose to do, it is important to constantly be critical of the consequences of how you are spending your time. To learn more about student debt loan statistics, check out this interesting study.

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