Should you do an unpaid internship? Read this before you decide

Experts share everything you need to consider, from the career benefits of unpaid internships to their impact on your pocketbook.

Whether you’re fresh out of college or looking to make a midcareer transition, internships can get you closer to your dream job—but not all internships are equal.

Paid and unpaid internships offer you the chance to gain work experience, but only paid internships, as the name implies, provide the benefit of a paycheck. Before accepting an unpaid internship you’ll need to review your finances and carefully consider the pros and cons.

Here’s what you need to know about unpaid internships to help you decide: Are unpaid internships worth it?

Paid vs. unpaid internships: What sets them apart?

To help you decide whether to take an unpaid internship, it’s helpful to understand the difference between paid vs. unpaid internships. It might seem like there’s an obvious answer: the paycheck (or lack thereof). But in reality, money isn’t the only thing that sets paid vs. unpaid internships apart.

A woman speaking while standing in front of a white board, with two people listening.

A major difference between paid vs. unpaid internships can be the level of autonomy you experience, says Brooke McCord, certified career coach at Ama La Vida, a personal and career coaching firm.

“When you think of paid internships, they are often pretty set in stone,” McCord says, adding that this is especially true at large companies. “You are going into an already set field. You know what you’re doing, and you know what you’re getting.” As a result, paid interns tend to make their way through a rigidly structured internship program that doesn’t allow a lot of say in what they get to do because they’re being hired for a specific role or objective. 

With an unpaid internship, because you’re working for free, you may have more leverage to ask to work on specific projects of interest to you, McCord adds. Of course, your request has to fall within the scope of your internship, she notes.

Both paid and unpaid internships can allow you to demonstrate your initiative, creativity and work ethic, but keeping these differences in mind can help you decide whether an unpaid internship is worth it. 

How long should you stay at an unpaid internship?

Internships shouldn’t be considered permanent roles, says Ray Giese, owner of career coaching firm Career & Financial Pathways. For that reason, he adds, you’ll want to understand exactly how long the internship commitment is before considering the role. This will help you know how to budget for this unpaid internship period.

It will vary depending on your situation, but internships—whether paid or unpaid—typically range between two to four months, McCord says, but can last as long as six months, adds Giese. 

“Getting into the flow of a workplace is going to take at least a month or two, both in terms of roles and responsibilities,” Giese says. During those first couple of months, you’ll also get a sense of whether you’re passionate enough about the line of work to make it your lifelong career, he adds.

“Even if an internship is not paid, you can put that experience on your resume. That’s really important. Other than just saying I have a degree and I want a job, you have a little bit of a track record.”

Ray Giese, owner of Career & Financial Pathways career coaching

What are the pros and cons of paid vs. unpaid internships?

With an eye on your bank account, you may be wondering: Why would anyone work as an unpaid intern? For many soon-to-be professionals, unpaid internships are a critical first step in their career paths.

If the lack of pay has you on the fence, here are the pros and cons to help you weigh the benefits of unpaid internships against the downsides:

The pros of unpaid internships

You can test-drive your future job

For students, one of the biggest benefits of unpaid internships (as well as paid ones) is the chance to determine if they’re on the right career path before they go too far down it and risk having to start over, Giese says.

A pre-career pivot can save you potential losses down the line. This is why unpaid internships are good options for students.

A woman showing a co-worker something on a tablet, while the co-worker sits in front of a laptop and a coffee mug.

You’ll stand out to future employers

An internship is an opportunity to demonstrate your dedication, experience and skill set to potential employers. “Even if an internship is not paid, you can put that experience on your resume,” Giese says. “That’s really important. Other than just saying I have a degree and I want a job, you have a little bit of a track record.”

If you’re already in the workforce and are looking for a career pivot, you may consider taking on a part-time unpaid internship, McCord says. An unpaid internship can help you expand your skillset and bring you closer to the job you really want, whether it’s at your current company or another.

You can build your professional network

Internships are an important source of professional contacts, so it’s important for both students and career changers to build these relationships. “This is where they’re going to get those contacts that feed into that professional network,” Giese says. “Any time you show that you want to immerse yourself in your future career, gain experience and build connections, it’s always a good thing.”

Of course, you must proactively engage the contacts within your new network to maximize the long-term benefits of an unpaid internship, Giese add. This can be extra helpful if you’re already employed and trying to crack into a new career.

The cons of unpaid internships

They may not be worth the investment of your time

If the unpaid internship isn’t a great match, you may be at a loss of three or even six months of your time.

To make sure your time investment is worth it, Giese suggests asking yourself: At the end of the internship, will I have a skill or an addition to my portfolio? Will the unpaid internship help me stand out in the job market?

They’re… unpaid

As the name implies, your only payment will be in experience. Similar to determining whether an unpaid internship is worth the time you invest, ask upfront whether it’s worth the money you’re not earning during this period.

“You have to make sure the value you’re receiving is worth the investment you’re making in it from both time and maybe a money standpoint. Are you going to get something out of it that you really need to help your career?” Giese says.

“An unpaid internship where you’ll gain provable skills and experiences is better than getting paid $15 per hour to get coffee.”

Brooke McCord, certified career coach at Ama La Vida

Can you afford an unpaid internship?

If you’ve considered the benefits of an unpaid internship and are seriously thinking of accepting one, you’ll need to be sure it fits into your budget. Whether you can afford it depends on your situation—the numbers will look different for a college student with financial aid than for a person leaving a paying job for a career change.

For college students paying for their living expenses with tuition grants, scholarships or loans, their living and food expenses may already be covered, Giese says.

However, if this isn’t your situation, having adequate financial reserves is critical. “It’s key to have an equivalent amount of cash reserves to maintain living standards and offset any time away from a paying job,” he says.

Before accepting a position, you’ll need to have saved up enough money to cover your cost of living through the duration of the unpaid internship, Giese says. (If you’re still working on your degree, brush up on money savings advice for college students.)

Follow these steps to determine if an unpaid internship is affordable for you:

1. Pull up your budget

Don’t have a budget yet? Now’s a perfect time to create one! For students, learning how to budget in college is an important life skill, so be sure to brush up on the basics if necessary.

Tally up your savings and monthly essential and non-essential expenses for a full picture of your finances. With your budget up to date, you’ll know how much you’re spending each month.

Multiply your monthly expenses by the estimated duration of your internship. (Remember: Internships generally last anywhere between two to six months, so round up to ensure your savings are enough). The total you calculate will be how much money you’ll need to get through your internship period.

2. Look at your savings

Next, turn to your savings. Take a peek at your savings accounts and ask yourself: Does the amount you have saved cover the total you just calculated? Depending on your situation, this may be when to use your emergency fund, Giese says.

If you’re coming up short, take an honest look at your budget and see if there are expenses you can cut or temporarily pause.

3. Adjust your budget if necessary

Giese recommends modifying your budget prior to starting the internship. To avoid any potential hiccups, revise your budget prior to even interviewing just to be safe. By proactively cutting back your spending and boosting your savings, you can start off the unpaid internship period in a stronger financial position, Giese says.

If the math checks out and you can afford an unpaid internship, go ahead and apply! If not, you may want to hold off for now and consider a different path (more on that below).

What should you do if you can’t afford an unpaid internship?

For many people, money is a major barrier to accepting an unpaid internship. If that’s the case for you, McCord suggests bringing it up with the employer. “Ask: Is there any way this could be paid?” she says. “If not, ask about stipends or commuter benefits.”

These questions are fair game, Giese says, but be sure to have this conversation upfront during the interview process. “If you come across an unpaid internship that can’t be passed up, it doesn’t stop you from saying, ‘Hey, I’d love to do this and I think we’re a good match and here are the reasons why,’” he says. “‘Is there any opportunity for me to earn a little bit of money to make ends meet in the meantime?’” 

Not an option? McCord suggests taking on a part-time job while you complete your unpaid internship. This way you are at least making some money to keep you afloat.

Do unpaid internships lead to jobs?

While it will vary, some employers consider unpaid internships to be auditions for full-time roles at the company, according to Giese. “It’s never guaranteed, but sometimes jobs can be offered at the end of an unpaid internship if the individual has done a good job during that internship,” he says.

McCord recommends discussing the road to a potential job during the interview process. If you’re uncomfortable having this conversation upfront, she suggests bringing it up at the midpoint of your internship.

You can ask questions, like: How am I doing? What am I doing well? What do I need to work on? “A job is not being handed to you,” McCord says. “You’ve got to fight for it. You have to ask for opportunities, because they don’t necessarily hand them over to you.”

Even if you don’t land with the company you interned for, the benefits of unpaid internships can still help you stand out in the job market as you look for other opportunities.

A woman holding a coffee mug and a pen while looking at a laptop screen, as her co-worker is pointing towards the laptop screen and smiling.

So, are unpaid internships worth it?

Short answer: They can be. But as with any internship, you have to be sure it’s worth the time investment and potential hit to your budget to really decide if unpaid internships are worth it, Giese says.

“You have to discern upfront: Are you going to get something out of it that you really need to help your career?” Giese says. “Internships, even if they’re unpaid, are an investment in your career and can lead to better earning power, happiness and satisfaction.”

There are a lot of questions to answer as you consider taking an unpaid internship: Can you afford to? Will you have the time? Will it provide valuable experience and help you sharpen your skills? If the answers are yes, then go for it.

“An unpaid internship where you’ll gain provable skills and experiences is better than getting paid $15 per hour to get coffee,” McCord says. But if you happen to land an offer that will allow you to develop the skills you want and get compensated, take that instead, she adds.

Ultimately the decision is about choosing the best option that’s available to you.

Now that you know more about what sets apart paid internships vs. unpaid internships, you can decide how to move forward. It may not happen overnight, but stay on your chosen career path until you reach your next destination: a salaried, full-time job in your chosen field.

Once you kickstart your career and start collecting a paycheck, learn how to manage your first salary to stay on track toward your long-term savings goals.

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