The Benefits of Doing an Unpaid Internship

Focus on the experience, not the lack of pay

Unpaid intern carrying coffee cups to office workers.
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A successful unpaid internship is similar to earning good grades in college. Doing a good job leads to increased opportunities for the future—especially when being evaluated directly against other students or employees. Paid or not, interns get a first-hand look at what it is like to work for an employer in the real world.

For those who may not be able to afford the expenses associated with an unpaid internship, there are ways to receive funding.

Legal Requirements

The U.S. Department of Labor’s internship guidelines require employees to be paid, but they also distinguish interns from employees if certain conditions are met. Details of the internship must be explicit, as must the educational purpose of the internship. Expectations for pay, benefits, or employment after the internship cannot be promised or even implied. Work done by interns must be complementary in nature and cannot displace actual employees.

Consult with an adviser at your college or university who has experience placing students in internships. Such a professional can help you to be certain the participating employer is following appropriate regulations. If a problem arises, the adviser can serve as your advocate.

The internship must align closely with an intern's educational program. The experiences and any work completed must align closely with an educational program, and the internship is expected to be scheduled during a time period that aligns closely with a school semester.

Benefits

A sense of pride from providing a meaningful product or service that helps others comes with its own set of benefits and rewards, but don't settle for just that if you're not getting paid during your internship. Think of the experience as another class you are taking, as opposed to thinking of it as unpaid work. However, the benefit of this class is that it gives you hands-on experience with important workplace skills, such as:

  • Professional standards: The knowledge and skills required to be successful in the workplace is something that can’t be taught in any college or university. College has its own pace, and schedules vary, but most professional environments have more rigid schedules, dress codes, and other policies.
  • Networking: This is the top strategy when searching for a new job. The personal connections you make and the mentoring you receive can’t be found in a college classroom. Establishing strong connections during an internship can result in quality job leads when you graduate and valuable references when you apply for full-time positions.
  • Career exploration: It's better to find that a preferred career might not be a good fit for you during an internship than during your first months on a job after graduation. An entire professional field cannot be assessed from one internship, but if it doesn't feel like a good fit, you have time to figure out why.
  • Teamwork and interpersonal relationships: Working in an office with other professionals and possibly clients requires developing strong people skills. This may include navigating issues with a difficult boss, learning how to express opinions objectively, being part of a team, and compromising.
  • Dealing with conflict: The reality is that not everyone is a team player—at least not the same kind of team player you are or hope others will be. Learning how to work with others who are difficult to work takes hand-on experience, as does learning how to avoid being the one who is difficult to work with.
  • Resume-building: When hiring managers review your resume, they won't be all that interested in your transcripts or your GPA, but they will want to know what practical experience you managed to gain as a student.
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