Should You Say Yes to an Unpaid Internship? Part 2

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If you’re offered an unpaid internship, should you go for it?

In my last post, I covered some of the legalities associated with unpaid internships and how these apply to nonprofits.

While volunteer work can be a great way to learn more about a field, an internship requires more investment for both the intern and the employer, and depending on your circumstances and the work assigned, an unpaid internship can absolutely be a worthy addition to your resume.

When to say yes

  • This internship appears to be a unique way to gain the experience you want. Many job seekers have experienced the frustration of “entry-level” jobs not being truly entry-level—it’s not uncommon for a hiring organization to look for candidates with at least a few years of experience, even when the job is listed as entry-level. Most internships, on the other hand, are truly entry-level positions. During the interview process, ask if there is any training involved in the internship. If the organization has a detailed program mapped out, that’s a great sign! Some will even offer learning and networking opportunities that are available exclusively to interns.
  • You have a plan to support yourself. Your experience as an intern will be better if you have a plan in place to get the bills paid. Can you rely on savings or outside help with housing? Are you able to pick up paid work on the side? Are you comfortable putting student loans in temporary deferment? Some internships require full-time hours while others permit a part-time schedule, so find out more about the required time commitment and how flexible your potential employer can be.
  • You’re excited about the opportunity. The more genuine enthusiasm you feel for the work, the more worthwhile your experience is likely to be. Passion makes a huge difference in finding the right career.
  • The internship fits your short-term and long-term plans. In the short-term, an internship can provide a low-commitment way to figure out if a new career is a fit. And in the longer term, it can kick off your career and help you develop your network. Maybe there’s a key skill set missing from your resume that you can tackle at the internship. Or, like this 30-year-old mid-career intern, perhaps you’ll find the responsibilities are a perfect match for where you want to be.

When to say no thanks

  • The organization’s expectations are unclear. While the specifics of an internship may be subject to change, if you have no idea what you’ll be doing when you arrive, the internship may not offer the career boost you need. Even worse, you may end up sitting around waiting for something to do. To avoid this situation, be sure to get the details of the internship in writing.
  • The work doesn’t help you reach your professional goals. You should be the primary beneficiary of an unpaid internship. That doesn’t mean your work can’t help the organization or that you can’t pitch in as part of the team. It does mean you should carefully consider what the benefit will be for you and your resume. Will this internship get you closer to the skill set and job you want, or is it only vaguely related to your professional path?
  • You’re feeling extreme financial anxiety. A little uncertainty about money is normal, particularly in the early stages of a career. But panic can be a signal for you to take a different route.

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Have you taken an unpaid internship? Would you recommend others do the same, and what advice would you add?

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Amy Bergen is a writer based in Portland, Maine. She has experience in the social impact space in Baltimore, Maryland, the educational museum sphere in Columbus, Ohio, and the literary world of New York City.
Ask Alexis | Should I Go Back to School? How One Columbia Student is at Work to Do Good

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