Will That Unpaid Internship Be Worth It?

Is your unpaid internship worth itA recent article brings clarity to the long discussion about unpaid internships: An unpaid internship is legal as long as it is educational.

“The purpose of a bona fide internship is to integrate classroom learning with practical skill development in a real-world setting,” Circuit Judge John Walker reportedly stated in the article.

But, what exactly defines an internship experience like this?

Here’s what the U.S. Labor Department states:

  • “The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment.”
  • “The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern.”
  • “The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff.”
  • “The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded.”
  • “The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship.”
  • “The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.”

With these guidelines in mind, here are a few indicators your unpaid internship passes the “is it worth it” test:

Your Boss Prepared a Plan For You

From the moment you entered the office, you were never left alone wondering what to do. Your boss gave you a plan for your internship term that outlines program objectives, where you’ll be helping out, and ongoing tasks you’ll be responsible for. You were also given a schedule that includes company events, important projects you’ll be participating in, and when.

You’re Paired With a Mentor

On your first day, your boss introduced you to key people you’ll be working with directly on various projects. He also pointed out who you should direct questions to, depending on the subject.

You were also assigned a mentor or contact person you check in with every day. She is the main person in charge of showing you the ropes around the organization. Plus, she seems to have a lot of industry knowledge and is willing to give you career advice.

You’re Included in Important Events and Activities

You’re included in all team meetings instead of being asked to clean out the storage closet each time the team huddles up. You help your team run the table and talk to people at networking and community events. Plus, you were invited to join the team at the national convention coming into town. Your boss wants to introduce you to some of his long-term friends who work in the industry.

The Work is Interesting, But Not Overly Challenging

The work isn’t too demanding — you don’t have the sense you’re “filling in” for a full-time employee (as in, you’re not working 40 hours a week for free). But, your tasks aren’t all stuffing envelopes and folding brochures either. You get to help out on some really engaging projects and you’re learning what it’s like to work in the industry.

You’re also applying what you’re learning in school. For example, you could be in charge of drafting the company’s internal e-newsletter, so you test out what you learn in your digital media classes.

You’ll Walk Away With a Portfolio

You won’t be at a loss trying to explain what you did at this internship. Part of the program requires you to create a portfolio of the work you did while you were there. Your boss lets you delegate some time each week to building it and you have plenty of work samples and pictures from events you attended to include.

The educational value of an internship can be very subjective. That’s why many are evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Before you decide to take your next unpaid internship — if unpaid opportunities are your only option — take inventory of what makes an unpaid internship valuable to you.

Do you want to work with a mentor? Will you get to make connections with other industry professionals? Will you walk away with something tangible you can show to your next potential employer? Then take the internship that offers you the most of what you’re looking for.


For this post, YouTern thanks our friend Heather Huhman.


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Heather HuhmanAbout The Author: Heather R. Huhman is a career expert, experienced hiring manager, and founder & president of Come Recommended, a content marketing and digital PR consultancy for job search and human resources technologies. She is also the instructor of Find Me A Job: How To Score A Job Before Your Friends, author of Lies, Damned Lies & Internships (2011) and #ENTRYLEVELtweet: Taking Your Career from Classroom to Cubicle (2010), and writes career and recruiting advice for numerous outlets.



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