Paid Vs. Unpaid Internships

Not all students can afford to work unpaid internships.
Not all students can afford to work unpaid internships. (Image: Jupiterimages/ Images)

There’s an old cliche about workplace interns scurrying around the office making coffee for superiors or being delegated to complete unwanted drudgery. True or not, completing an internship has become nearly a rite of passage for college students, recent graduates or career-changers hoping to score experience and industry connections. Some internships are paid; interns receive a weekly paycheck or stipend in exchange for completing workplace responsibilities. Other internships are unpaid; interns are expected to glory in the opportunity to network and hone job skills without a paycheck. Comparing paid versus unpaid internships can help you determine which is right for you.


When comparing paid and unpaid internships, take accessibility into consideration. Competition for paid internships can be fierce; it can be much harder to score a desirable internship opportunity that offers a paycheck. Unpaid internships can still be competitive, but the candidate field is thinned because not everyone can or wants to work without being paid. Some companies don’t offer internships because they can’t afford them; if you’re willing to complete an unpaid internship then contact the desired employer and offer your services for free. This reduces risk for employers and opens doors that would otherwise remain inaccessible for interns, especially for those lacking experience in a new field.


Sometimes it’s not about the money. In some instances, highly respected companies, organizations or institutions offer unpaid internships because they can get away with it; interns are willing to work for free in order to earn a prestigious resume bullet point or high-level professional reference. In this case, interns may attribute less weight to the payment factor. Not all sought-after internships are unpaid, however, and not all unpaid internships are highly respected. To determine whether the prestige factor is worth working an unpaid internship, contact industry professionals and ask for their opinions about the company or organization in question. If they have terrific things to say about the position, jump in. If reactions seem lukewarm and you’re after a red-hot internship position, keep searching.


Sometimes colleges and universities offer academic credit for internships, regardless of whether they’re paid or unpaid. If you pay thousands of dollars to take a three-credit class at your university and can receive three credits for your unpaid internship, this changes the financial equation somewhat. Since you’d be paying for those credits in a traditional college course, you can count earning credits through your internship as an informal type of income.


When weighing the paid versus unpaid internship question, keep practicality in mind. If you usually work during the school year to help pay for college or are already paying rent, credit card bills and student loans in the “real world” after graduating college, working an unpaid internship may not be a practical option. Some students swing it by working their internship during the day and moonlighting as restaurant servers or bartenders, but burning the candle at both ends can be exhausting.

Employer Concerns

Employers should be aware that unpaid internships aren’t a free ride for the company. Under the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division, unpaid interns can’t be used to replace traditional paid workers, for example. Unpaid interns also can’t be used specifically to generate profits; for example, cold-calling potential clients to make a sale.

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