The Foolproof Guide to Choosing a Paid or Unpaid Internship

It’s the age-old problem… you need a job to get experience, but you need experience to get a job.

Internships are a powerful solution, offering real-world experience to complement your education. However, many questions arise when we think about taking on internships. First and foremost for many: Should you take an unpaid position, or hold out instead for an internship with a paycheck?

Despite the lack of monetary compensation – and assuming all other factors are equal including education value, networking opportunities, available mentorship and relevance to your choice of careers – an unpaid internship may be an attractive option for you.

Before you invest your time and energy, however, ask yourself these important questions:

Will I Profit Even Without Pay?

You may not get paid, but you may still see a profit from the internship. If you’re getting course credit, for instance, and the employer is paying for those credits, you can figure out how much those course hours would cost as you pursue your degree.

It’s also important to consider how your job prospects – and compensation included in the job offer – could change with experience, even unpaid. If you’re training to be a website designer, for example, an unpaid semester at a design firm might translate to a much higher starting salary at your first job. Your unpaid internship has now paid significant dividends.

Will I Get Closer to the Job I Want?

For many, an unpaid internship is worth the investment if the experience gets them closer to the job they ultimately want after graduation while enhancing technical and soft skills.

For example, the U.S. Department of Education offers unpaid internships for students interested in careers involving federal education administration and policy. After graduation,  those who have completed these internships stand well above the competition that seeks work for the federal government an nonprofit group in the education field. These internships, in today’s workplace, have become pre-requisites of sorts for work after graduation.

What is the Internship Culture in My Field?

This essential question may require you to talk with HR departments, career counselors and those currently working in the field.

Even the most competitive tech firms offer paid internships; Google, for example, offers some paid internships that include free transportation and the potential for relocation compensation.

On the other hand, many other industries thrive on unpaid internships: broadcasting, fashion and more. The journalism industry, specifically, thrives on unpaid interns – and many employers expect their potential employees to have paid their dues.

The lesson: if unpaid internships are the norm in your ideal job’s culture…finding a paid internship may be difficult.

Will an Unpaid Internship Negatively Affect my Schoolwork?

Your degree program might require an internship, or it may provide you with an externship. In that situation, an unpaid internship gives you a chance to fulfill your school requirements – and the investment may be near mandatory. If an internship isn’t required in your course of study, think about how much time you’ll lose while performing the pro-bono work.

For many, a well-paid internship – no matter how much impact the experience has on their current life – is worth the time. If you’re taking on a credit-heavy semester or anticipating challenges with time management already – and an unpaid internship would quickly become more hassle than it is worth – consider pushing your internship back a few months and give yourself a break.

Can I Negotiate Other Benefits?

Even though you’re coming into an unpaid internship as a novice, you still bring skills and man-hours that will benefit the company.

As such, you should feel comfortable asking for a couple perks. Even if a company doesn’t pay you a monetary stipend, perhaps they could cover transportation, parking and meal expenses – or extend benefits they offer their regular employees. Ask, because even a few small concessions could go a long way to balance your expenses.

These are just some of the questions you may want to deliberately ask yourself before taking on an unpaid internship. As with any major career decision, smart research goes a long way. Unpaid internships vary by industry and location. Talking with your school’s career counselors, the companies’ HR departments or current interns in your industry can give you a realistic picture of what to expect from an internship before you choose a program.

Be informed. Be smart. Make the right decision… for you.





mary-finedayAbout the Author: Mary Fineday is a freelance writer who writes for online publications including She has worked in teaching, consulting, reporting and freelance editing. Her professional interests include organizational strategies, leadership, management and business education.



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