Should You Take an Unpaid Internship After College?

Unpaid internships are definitely one of those subjects that people tend to feel strongly about. There are those that believe the hands-on experience and industry connections are well worth it—despite your empty wallet. And, then there are others who think that unpaid internships take advantage of desperate, gullible college students and recent graduates. After all, who would actually want to work for free?

Many of us intend to make an exit from our college campus and hit the ground running. But, unfortunately, things don’t always work out that way. Yes, you may be lucky and get your foot in the door at your dream company. But, getting your foot in the door might actually mean shuttling coffee to your superiors for no pay—not exactly the grand entrance you intended, right?

Deciding whether or not to accept an unpaid internship after college is a personal choice. But, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s an easy one. So, ask yourself these five questions in order to determine whether or not that freebie opportunity is the right path for you!

1. Do I need the money?

There’s a lot to be said for experience. But, your bills still need to get paid. So, if you’re in a situation where you need to be bringing home some cash in order to finance your life (aka you’re not crashing in your childhood bedroom at your parents’ house), an unpaid internship after college might not be the right choice for you.

However if you’re still eager to gain the insider view that an internship offers, consider balancing that with another part-time job. That way you can take advantage of that hands-on opportunity while still cashing a paycheck. Yes, you’ll be busy, but it’s one of the only ways to get the best of both worlds.

2. Do I have any other experience?

There’s sort of a catch-22 that comes along with graduating. All of the “entry level” jobs are requesting one to two years of experience. But, you can’t actually get that experience unless you land one of those entry level job. It’s frustrating.

So, when weighing the pros and cons of an unpaid internship, take a look at your professional history. Do you already have another previous internship or other hands-on projects you can use to make yourself more marketable to companies and potential employers? Or, do you only have a list of courses you completed during your college career?

There’s no doubt that real-world application of your knowledge is especially appealing to hiring managers. So, if you don’t have any other way to tangibly demonstrate your skills and value, an unpaid internship might be worth it in the long run.

3. What will my responsibilities look like?

As I’ve already mentioned, the real value in an unpaid internship is the knowledge and skills you’ll inevitably soak up during the course of that time. But, in order to ensure that an unpaid internship will live up to your expectations, it’s important to have a solid understanding of what exactly you’ll be doing on a daily basis.

Will you be fetching dry cleaning and ordering lunch? Or, will you be collaborating in meetings, working on special projects, and generally involving yourself in the daily happenings of your department and organization?

You don’t want to walk out of your internship with nothing to show for yourself other than the fact that you managed to memorize everyone’s coffee order. So, get those nitty gritty details in order to effectively determine if it’s the right choice for you.

4. Where are some of the company’s past interns?

In a similar vein, it also doesn’t hurt to do some investigating in order to discover where the company’s past interns have found themselves. Did they wind up being hired by the company and moved up to a department in their chosen field? Or, were they given a standard, “Thanks for your time!” at the conclusion of their experience and booted out the door to find something else on their own.

No company can ever guarantee that an internship will transform into your full-time dream job. But, if an organization has a history of hiring on their previous interns? Well, that’s definitely an extra check mark in the “pro” column.

5. Is this standard for my industry?

One of the most critical pieces in helping you determine whether or not to accept an unpaid internship is thorough research. Particularly, you should look at if an unpaid internship is considered standard in your industry—or if interns are more frequently paid for their contributions.

If an unpaid opportunity seems like a common and accepted thing within your chosen field of work, then you can enter into your internship knowing you made a smart and thoughtful decision—rather than like you’re being taken advantage of by a company that’s trying to get the most bang for their non-existent buck.

Choosing whether or not to pursue an unpaid internship after college is a personal choice. But, regardless of what route you ultimately decide on, you want to ensure that you thought through all of the positives and negatives. So, ask yourself these five questions before making your final decision, and you can move forward with confidence!

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Kat Boogaard

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Kat is a Wisconsin-based freelance writer covering topics related to careers, self-development, and entrepreneurship. Her byline has appeared in numerous outlets and publications, including Forbes, Fast Company, The Muse, QuickBooks, Business Insider, and more. Find out more about her on her website, or connect with her on Twitter.

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