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Unpaid internships: money-sapping or career-starting?

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Unpaid internships are probably one of the most controversial ‘work experience’ options that you will come across at university. As a student you are faced with a huge dilemma: should I be paying my own money (in expenses, etc.) to gain experience? The answer is yes… And no. The truth is that money-sapping as they can be, unpaid internships can be really useful.

Aged 18, in the middle of my gap year, I undertook an unpaid internship that lasted one week. It would cost me £280 in hotel fees, plus around £200 for food and other things. The work I was doing was ‘internship’ style work. I had responsibility for my own project, but was not doing the type of work that is vital to the running of the office. After finishing the week, I was offered a job doing something else within the department. A paid job.

What, then, is the moral of the story? There are two questions you need to answer when you are thinking about unpaid internships:

Should I be paid for the work I am doing?

Unfortunately, companies will often take advantage of unpaid interns by giving them too much work, the type of work that a paid member of staff could do if they had more time. At no point should you feel during your internship that you are being exploited, so if the job description suggests too much responsibility or that you will be held accountable for things that are outside of your expertise, then chances are you’re going to get less of an experience and more of a hard slog as you battle through work you should really be paid for.

Is it worth it?

Seems like an obvious question, but it is so important that you consider this. Unpaid internships require you to invest not only time, but also money, into the role that you undertake. If you are uncertain as to whether it will benefit you in your future career, it probably isn’t worth it. However, if you want to work in that particular company, for example, unpaid internships can be a great way to demonstrate your potential and ‘get a foot in the door’.

So, don’t take a decision to do an unpaid internship lightly. The investment of your time and money needs to reap rewards! That said, if you choose wisely, though unpaid, that internship could be career changing.

Do you think unpaid internships are money-sapping or career-starting? Let us know in the comments below!

Photo: Tristan Martin / Flickr

Harley RyleyUnpaid internships: money-sapping or career-starting?

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