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How To Break Into A Career Field When You Can’t Afford to Do Unpaid Internships

Unpaid internships have long been a controversial topic, and recent Twitter discourse has called into question whether they’re even ethical. It’s true that the ability to take on an unpaid internship is not available to everyone, which can create inequality in the workforce when individuals with more experience are more likely to be hired—leaving those that couldn’t afford to get that same experience in the dust.

But if you want to stay ahead of the curve without getting screwed over by the unpaid internship conundrum, there are still lots of ways you can break into your dream field. To find out how, we talked to several collegiettes and Emily Mienther, founder and CEO of FindSpark, a community dedicated to connecting young professionals and setting them up for career success.

1. If at all possible, go for the paid option

This seems like a no-brainer: if you want to get paid, apply for paid positions. Duh! But as we all know, not every field is going to have paid opportunities galore. Despite this, Mienther encourages you to really do your research and find a paid program.

“My number one tip would be to focus on connecting with people in companies that have paid internship programs,” she says. “Most major companies are not doing unpaid internships anymore, and focusing on programs that are paid is a way to protest companies that are still doing unpaid. Companies that aren’t doing unpaid internships also see the value in diverse talent, and they’re most likely going to have an actual structured program.”

Sometimes, your university may have a scholarship or grant program that will allow you to take on an unpaid internship and still get paid. If you’re in an industry where opportunities are scarce, this may sound perfect to you—and it can be! But be careful when accepting these positions.

“It’s murky stuff because … unpaid internships really are only legal for not-for-profits,” Mienther warns. “If it’s unpaid, the intern is not supposed to provide any value to the company. It should be like school. It should be structured, you should be learning and you should not be replacing an actual employee. So, if you get a scholarship and you find an internship like that and you’re getting college credit, it’s a unique scenario. If all those stars are aligning and it’s going to help you, then okay, maybe there’s an exception.”

If your role doesn’t fit that description, you’re going to want to avoid accepting that offer. Know your rights and if you feel like the unpaid internship won’t live up to those standards, accepting the offer, even with a scholarship, is not the best idea.

2. Try freelancing work

You’ve probably heard the term “side hustle” a billion times, especially if you’re hoping to score work in media or the arts. Fitting yet another commitment into your busy schedule on top of schoolwork, extracurriculars, a part-time job and anything else you might have going on (like, oh, a social life or actual sleep) might feel daunting, but it’s worked out for many a college student in the past, like Endicott College junior Eva Graef.

“I was looking for internships for [the 2018] summer and there was a constant pressure of having to give up awesome internships because they were unpaid,” Eva recalls. “I … was offered a really good experience at a nonprofit for the marketing and special events intern, but it was nonpaid. … So, I found a loophole and was able to make my own schedule running my own business while doing my unpaid internship. I’m a marketing major with a graphic design minor and I had done logo and graphic design work in the past so I figured, why not make a business out of it?”

Even with the extra work, Eva loves the experience she’s getting. “I go to my 9 to 5 internship and run my freelance graphic design business, egdesigns on the side from my computer, and it’s a great balance!” she says. “I have met great people and love what I’m doing and know that I’ll be [continuing my side hustle] for a while, no matter where I end up!”

Mienther agrees that such an experience can be great. “Be a freelancer! Start a side hustle for yourself, create a small business, write for publications,” she says. “Within media, there are still a lot of companies that will pay for articles or contributions. So look … for those opportunities so you can build your portfolio and gain real experience while you’re still getting paid.”

Mienther has a few tips for staying on top of everything. “Be very self-aware, really going through your workload and figuring out, one: Is there anything you can cut that is not adding value to your life and career?” she advises. “One of my biggest suggestions for folks who are still in college [is that] everything you are doing, you’re doing for you—not because your parents want you to, not because you think you should, not because your friends are pressuring you. Maybe cut down on clubs where the focus or the experience aren’t the best for you anymore, if you have certain responsibilities. Prioritize what matters the most to you.”

She recommends this especially for upperclassmen, as they are starting to search for full-time opportunities.

“I was one of those college students involved in a million different things and when it got to my senior year, I started to shed the things that weren’t as important to me,” Mienther continues. “I was a resident assistant and there was a handful of RA meetings and events that weren’t mandatory, but were really pushed. And I skipped a lot of them to [go to] work, and I got a lot of folks who were like, ‘How are you skipping that?’ I just had to ignore those people and know that I was making the right priorities.”

As always, your best bet is to do your research and know yourself. “Know how long it takes you to do certain things,” Mienther says. “If you’re trying to be a freelance writer, before you commit, have an understanding of the expectations with timelines and deliverables. Make sure you understand what they want and [ask yourself], how long is that actually going to take you? Only take on projects you can deliver high quality results for.”

3. Work for your university

If freelancing doesn’t have enough structure for you or doesn’t exactly align with your field of interest, there’s another way to get your foot in the door without even leaving campus. Utilizing the opportunities of your school’s academic departments can help you gain experience related to your major or field of choice, so you’re doing more meaningful work than any old part-time job. Whether you take on a university job part-time during the year or stay for the summer, you’re still getting new connections and skills specific to your field without sacrificing the sweet, sweet feeling of getting paid.

“At my school … a lot of different departments within different schools offer on-campus positions that allow students to gain real industry experience,” says Colleen Byrne, a senior at Temple University. “For example, a bunch of different departments within the communications college offer social media management jobs and blogging positions that give students real experience, and they’re paid!”

When you hear “on-campus job,” you might think that you’ll be shelving books in the library or sitting behind the information desk and answering questions about where the bathroom is, but we promise there’s more potential for intellectual stimulation than you think.

“Colleges and universities have to employ far more people than just professors,” says Sophia Borghese, a graduate of Ohio University. “By going on your school’s careers page, you’ll find that they have plenty of student-level jobs. No, these aren’t just jobs where you swipe student IDs and hand out books or to-go meal boxes. You’d be surprised to find that your school is looking for everyone from student-level social media coordinators to lab assistants—jobs related to all majors. By applying for and obtaining one of these jobs, you’ll be able to talk to your academic adviser about accepting your hours spent working on campus as college credit. That way, you get paid while filling graduation requirements.”

Sophia found that working at her school opened the door for bigger career opportunities down the line. “Since I did not have the luxury of $2,000 a month from mom and dad,” she says, “I spent 25 hours a week working on my campus dining services. At first, they hired me as a dishwasher, but then I got promoted to a job where I supervised all student employees at the dining venue. Once someone on the marketing team for dining services learned I also knew how to write, he hired me as his student social media strategist. This helped me get a job in marketing and advance my career to where it is today.”

Being stuck on campus may not be what you had in mind when you said you wanted to be a working woman, but trust us, it’ll take you far.

“It’s much better to make some money and work a student job that actually helps you gain skills in your field than it is being at an unpaid internship where you do nothing but coffee runs,” Sophia says. “Future employers want to hear that you learned skills to do the job much more than they want to see a respected company name on a resume.”

4. Network, network, network

At the end of the day, networking is one of the most important things you can be doing both now and throughout your career, no matter what industry you’re hoping to break into.

“I’m a huge believer in networking online and offline, and balancing both of those things,” Mienther says. “Reach out via social media or email to a few people each week who are in your industry who you admire.

“One of the best things college students and recent grads can do is start networking within companies before they are actually applying for internships. Set up informational interviews and attend networking events. … Then, when roles do open up, you’re already in the network of that company.”

Collegiettes are well-aware of the importance of networking, too—so many of them shared their success stories with us!

“Before I got my internship, and still now while I have my internship … I reached out to people in my field and asked if they were willing to get coffee or Google Hangout or even have a phone call with me,” says Katrina Kincade, a senior at American University. “I take these as informational interviews and opportunities to find mentors in the field. Through doing this, I have been able to get feedback and share my work with other people who are already working in the job that I am. Additionally, it has allowed me to stay on people’s radars for when I do apply for jobs or paid internships within the field that I want.”

She recommends using social media to your advantage as well. “I suggest following everyone that you want to talk to or are interested in your field on Twitter because that makes people realize that you’re engaged in more than just one way,” she says.

Still not sold on informational interviews? Listen to Simmons College senior Alyssa Williamson! “It’s a great way to start up a relationship, and to learn more about a particular job without dedicating a ton of unpaid time,” she says. “I mostly set these up by stalking people on Linkedin and cold emailing (the worst that can happen is that they say no!), or reaching out to my school’s alumni relations department and asking for connections. That has definitely helped me build connections in the workforce, and it will also set you apart from the crowd!”

Geneve Lau, a sophomore at Boston University, had a similar experience. “I think people are so afraid of reaching out to people via social media, but honestly, I’ve gotten great opportunities just messaging people or sending LinkedIn messages to people who might know mutual people,” she says.

Her advice? Be authentic about your interest—the beauty of an informational interview is that nobody has to expect anything serious from the other person beyond some good conversation and a new connection.

“Try to not make it so obvious that you are networking,” Geneve says. “Try to have a genuine conversation with someone and make a connection on something they’re working on, or something that interests them.”

Not all your networking has to be online, either: remember, Mienther stresses the importance of networking both in-person and through a screen. So how can you find people in your area that would make great connections?

“Consider joining professional organizations that are related to [your] area of study,” says Audrey Lent, a fifth-year at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. “Through these connections, you could potentially find a job or apprenticeship in your field. Even if it’s just working as an office assistant for someone who has a career in your field, that is a great foot in the door!”

Unpaid internships are an almost unavoidable evil of being a millennial or Gen Z-er trying to make it in the workforce, but there are ways around it. Hopefully this guide has given you some ideas of how you can still be making waves without the “intern” title—now get to it!

Erica Kam

Columbia Barnard '21

Erica Kam is the Culture Editor at Her Campus. She oversees the entertainment, news, and digital verticals on the site, including politics, celebrity, viral, movies, music, and TV coverage. Over her six years at Her Campus, Erica has served in various editorial roles on the national team, including as a section editor for the high school and wellness verticals and as an editorial intern. She has also interned at Bustle Digital Group, where she covered entertainment news for Bustle and Elite Daily. She graduated in 2021 with a bachelor’s degree in English and creative writing from Barnard College, where she was the senior editor of Columbia and Barnard’s Her Campus chapter and a deputy copy editor for The Columbia Spectator. When she's not writing or editing, you can find her dissecting K-pop music videos for easter eggs and rereading Jane Austen novels. She also loves exploring her home, the best city in the world — and if you think that's not NYC, she's willing to fight you on it.