6 Students On Whether Or Not Their Unpaid Internship Was Worth The Financial Hit

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Working in exchange for no money is something that most students these days have to deal with, whether or not it is a requirement for completing their degree. Unpaid internships have been discussed a few times on TFD, and Chelsea even touched upon some of the particularly shitty truths about companies not paying their interns in point two of her (freaking brilliant) post about entrepreneur myths last week. TFD is (thankfully) very pro-paid internships, which not only bodes well for me and the interns who will follow me, but also is, in my opinion, a truly aspirational business practice.

I’m regretfully aware that not all interns are as lucky as me. Many students and recent post-grads have no other choice than to take an unpaid job to either pad their résumé, to fulfill a credit requirement for their degree program, or fill their spare time as they search for a job that, you know, actually compensates them for their labor.

Because of the nature of unpaid internships (or at least the ethical dilemma surrounding them), I had kind of assumed that they essentially all sucked. Based off of that assumption, I went seeking horror stories of students working shitty jobs with insane bosses performing ridiculous tasks in exchange for no money. I imagine being entirely miserable about even just the idea of giving up precious hours of time where you could be making actual money, and working like a dog in exchange for absolutely nothing.

However, what I found was that interestingly enough, a lot of students found their unpaid internships to be somehow worth it, offering them various non-money things that helped sweeten the deal. With that, I tweaked my research question, and went on to find out if these six students found their unpaid internship to be truly “worth it” (whatever that means for them), and why. Some of them seemed to hands-down love their unpaid jobs, and appreciate them wholeheartedly for the experience alone. Others seemed slightly unsure, and yet to be convinced that the trouble was worth it. A few even shocked me. (Paying to take an unpaid internship might just be one of the most infuriating concepts I’ve ever heard of.)

This is what my lovely, hardworking, and evidently non-money-obsessed pals had to say.

1. “I think my unpaid internship was worth it because I learned the realities of working in my profession that I wouldn’t have been able to fully grasp in the classroom. And because at the end they hired me to work in the summer, and now I have a year’s worth of experience in my field that will help me find jobs after graduation.” – Katricia, 22

2. “I did an unpaid PR internship in NYC. It was pretty good work experience overall, but I spent well over $800 over the span of the summer paying for train tickets, the metro, and lunches, since I got back late and left early. Also, since the boss’ son was heading to college in the fall, there was one day we had to go through the entire Bed Bath and Beyond college check list to check off what was most important for him to take to school.” – Lizzy, 22

3. “I’ve had three unpaid internships. Of the three, I’d say they were all worth it in a very general way, meaning they instilled in me the unique labor values of the entertainment industry just by being around it, but only one felt worth it in terms of the specific experience. Even a shitty internship is worth the effort because, at the end of the day, you’ve got a notch on your résumé and you have a far better idea of what you do and don’t want to do at a job.” – Ryan, 23

4. “I did an unpaid internship with the Humane Society of the United States. I did it because I wasn’t really working for them, but they taught me about a lot of stuff and I was able to do it from home. It was more like I took a class. if I had to do a traditional unpaid internship I wouldn’t have done it. I don’t think it would have been worth it, because I’m devoting several hours a week to something and I’m not receiving compensation, yet it’s like a traditional job where I have to get dressed up, work shifts, etc. Why shouldn’t I get paid? I loved my internship because I got to do it, mostly, from the comfort of my home and at my own pace” – Carlin, 21

5. “No horror stories, but I do think it’s important to go into with enthusiasm. Do I think unpaid internships can be worth it? If the stars align yes, but almost always no. Because the circumstances by which they come about are usually sketchy.” – Jake, 22

6. “I absolutely love my (unpaid) internship. Am I overworked? Definitely. I haven’t been mistreated by my staff, but my clientele stress me out. On top of that, I PAID for this internship because it was required for class credits. So $5,000 went to my college for me to work for free. Don’t get me started on that shit. It’s honestly ridiculous.” – Kat, 23

Mary is the summer Media Fellow at The Financial Diet. Send her your summer intern stories (your lessons, failures, triumphs and good advice) at mary@thefinancialdiet.com

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  • Tara

    “On top of that, I PAID for this internship because it was required for class credits. So $5,000 went to my college for me to work for free.” International students get a raw deal like this too — colleges dangle the prospect of using CPT rather than international students’ precious OPT for summer jobs, and then get to charge them $3,000 (or the equivalent cost) for the privilege. It’s pretty predatory, especially since they know international students will usually do anything to maximize their time here.

  • nicolacash

    I did 3 unpaid internships when I was in college, and I did them alongside my other paying jobs so I fortunately didn’t have to worry about spending my own money for the internship. They were all great for adding work experience to my resume, expanding my network, and giving me a clearer sense of the types of jobs I like and dislike.

  • Andrea Sease

    i think its a little ridiculous to ask people who literally only have the life experience of a fresh grad whether it was ‘worth it’, also can we get more info on these fields. i was a chemistry major, and you are a complete dumb ass if you did an unpaid internships.

    i am sorry but equating worth it as ‘getting a job in my industry because of one summer of being slave labor’ is setting the bar really low. what are all these industries. this site loves using the term industry/field. i got a job in my industry after like five PAID internships through out college.

  • LynnP2

    Unpaid internships perpetuate a classist system, because most of the people who can afford to take them have parents supporting them (i.e. parents with money). If you can’t afford to take the unpaid internship – no matter how great it might be for your career potential – you’re at a disadvantage compared with those who can.

    • produk 29

      wow you’re absolutely right. considering that you’re not making money and you’re actually losing it implies you have a way to fill in the losses. i could never do an unpaid internship and will likely pick a dead end min wage job over it just because i need the money to cover my bills, expenses student debt etc. and i’m still in uni.

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