Internships: Paid or Unpaid?

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As a college student, internships are a big part of my life. I’ve been to many career fairs, career development conferences, internship fairs, and so many other career “promoting” events. Along my way, I’ve learned a lot of valuable skills but I’ve also run into many problems that you’re never taught at these events. I have so much to share about job searching and internships in general, but this blog will more specifically focus on internships: paid or unpaid.

Unpaid vs. Paid Internships: What’s the Difference?

Well the obvious part is that one isn’t paid. So, you won’t be receiving any monetary compensation (bye bye paychecks). This may sound horrible at first but it actually may be beneficial. Some unpaid internships are offered for credit. So instead of taking an extra class, you may be able to substitute it with an internship. Most importantly, internships exist to give you valuable experience relating to your studies before officially entering the workforce. So even if they are unpaid, you are still gaining skills you need and that is very valuable. Most recruiters often prefer new graduates with internship experiences. You already have the skills needed so they’ll save on training.

Unpaid Internships: Blessing in Disguise or the Devil

Yes, I know I just mentioned that unpaid internships are great and offer much value. But there is a big BUT! The problem is that many employers misunderstand unpaid internships. A paid internship should have:

  • Valuable and relevant experience to your major
  • Someone to train you in your field
  • Challenging tasks that teach valuable skills
  • Benefits to the intern more than to the company
  • Complementary work (shouldn’t replace actual employees)

If you’re internship doesn’t follow any of the above, you better get out. FAST! I like to divide these unpaid “internships” into two types: free labor aka slavery and the babysitter.

The Babysitter

We’ve all seen this one on TV. Maybe even experienced it. You know, stapling paperwork, running coffee errands, buying lunch, picking up dry cleaning, etc. This type of internship is stereotyped all over TV but unfortunately they still exist. At some internships you’ll find yourself being the babysitter of the office. Basically, doing all the work no one wants to do and making sure everyone has coffee and food. In this case, the only benefit you’ll be getting is observing what happens on the inside of a company. This may teach you a few things but it definitely doesn’t prepare you for actually being in a position.

Free Labor

Last time I checked, slavery was illegal. And guess what, so are these types of internships. These internships have you doing work that directly benefits the company. This work is usually something that should be done by an actual employee. Why bother hiring someone though when you could get an intern and save money? I’ve been in this position and it is the worst. Short story: I interned for a company that only had the founder of the company as an employee. The founder was not my major and had interns from different majors so she couldn’t be training us all. Since there were no employees (except the founder), the interns were doing all the work that requires a full time staff. If that isn’t free labor, I’m not sure what is. An intern doesn’t benefit in this situation (no learning or training), doesn’t get paid (hence unpaid), and takes on an even bigger workload. If you find yourself in this situation, please leave. I wish I had someone to tell me to leave my first internship! Why you may ask do these internships exist? They’re certainly not legal (read more here: but they do go unnoticed. Interns are usually scared and unaware of their rights (I was!) so they never report these internships.

Final Words

Internships are great when they come with the right experience. Experience, not money. An internship may offer you money but no valuable skills. In this case, it’s just as bad as the unpaid internships I mentioned. I’ve had three unpaid internships. Two I hated!!!! They were the free labor kind. But luckily, I’m in an internship that I love now! I work with a great team, practice my skills, network, and actually learn! Yes, it’s unpaid but knowledge is priceless (corny, I know). Let me know what experiences you’ve had and leave any questions in the comment section!

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