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Should you work an unpaid internship?

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The image is all too familiar: fetching coffee, making copies, doing mundane paperwork.

As you can probably guess, this description fits interns, or at least some of them. You could end up with these kind of duties whether you’re paid or not, but you may be less happy to do them if you’re not paid. You may also feel less valued as an unpaid intern and find it more difficult to make ends meet. On the other hand, you could build your resume with an unpaid internship and learn useful knowledge.

Ultimately, though, for college students or recent graduates, is an unpaid internship worth it? Answering this question requires looking at a few different factors.
Are unpaid internships legal?

Before determining if you should apply for unpaid internships, you should understand the law.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, an unpaid internship at a for-profit establishment must meet the following criteria to be legal:

The internship should be similar to training the intern would receive in an educational environment, even if the internship includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer.

The internship is for the benefit of the intern, not the employer.

The intern should not take the place of regular employees, but can work under close supervision of existing staff.

The employer that provides the training should not gain immediate advantage from the intern’s activities, and on occasion the establishment’s operations could be impeded for the benefit of the intern.

The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship.

It should be clearly understood by the employer and the intern that the intern is not entitled to a wage while in an internship capacity.

If an unpaid internship doesn’t meet this criteria, then it’s most likely illegal. At that point, the employer must pay at least minimum wage to keep the internship going legally. An internship is probably not worth getting caught up in legal issues.

But plenty of unpaid internships are legal, so this doesn’t cross out all unpaid internships as options.
Financial considerations of unpaid internships

If you perform an unpaid internship on top of attending school, will you have time to work? How are you going to pay your bills? According to a Fox Business article, these are some things you need to consider.

“You have to make sure it’s feasible before you commit, so create a financial plan,” the article stated. “First and foremost, arrange a living situation. Try and stay with family or friends if at all possible, but if you’re headed to a new city, look for roommates, sublets and even hostels. Be aware that intern-designated housing is typically slightly more expensive than finding a place on your own, because you’re paying for the convenience and social atmosphere.”

If you can make it work, and the internship’s a good one, then perhaps you should go for it. Otherwise, you may want to look at paid internships.

Other considerations

Some other factors you should consider about unpaid internships are:

Do you think you’ll feel valued as an unpaid intern?
Will it build your resume enough to justify doing it for free?
Can you get credit toward earning your degree for doing the internship?
Will you actually learn from this internship?
Will the internship interfere with doing well in school?
Will the internship interfere with other school activities that are important to you, such as extracurricular activities or a relationship? Is it worth that sacrifice?
Is your internship mentor sufficiently knowledgeable and a good teacher?
Location: Is the internship feasible to get to at the allotted time, given your transportation situation?
Can you plausibly land an equally or higher quality internship that’s paid?

Of course, some of these questions you can’t possibly answer before doing the internship. But you should research and ask the right questions to ensure that the unpaid internship is a good experience and not a waste of time. As a college student who possibly has a job and is balancing a social life and extracurricular activities, you don’t have much time.

An unpaid internship may be a rite of passage, a learning experience, or a resume-builder for a future career. Or you could just fetch coffee, make copies and do mundane paperwork. Whichever it is, make sure it’s legal, financially plausible, and worth it before accepting it.

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About the Author

Jon Fortenbury is an Austin-based freelance writer who specializes in higher education. He’s been published all over the place, ranging from the Huffington Post to USA Today, and is a featured contributor to Schools.com. Follow him on Twitter and check out his blog.

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