Adventures of an Unpaid Intern

Every once in a while, I find myself racking my brain for the justification behind the unpaid internship. The truth is I still don’t get it, despite having completed two of them during my college career. How exactly do businesses get away with not paying me for my labor and services? When you think about it, it’s the intern who is paying to complete the internship experience. Whether that means buying clothes for the position, spending money on your commute, and spending your valuable time doing work for the ‘experience’ instead of the pay.

The more I think back to my experiences as an intern, the more I realize that I was in a position of privilege to even accept these unpaid positions, as many literally cannot afford to do so. Entry-level jobs now require experience (even though they should be the experience), which for some of us just may have to come in the form of unpaid internships. I’m here to share some lessons I’ve learned from my two unpaid internships, some tips and tricks to navigate giving your valuable time and labor away for free, and general things you should know before accepting unpaid positions.

Unpaid Internships Will Cost You Money

If you’re thinking about accepting an unpaid internship, you should know that it’s going to cost you some money to perform your duties in your unpaid position. The expenses of an unpaid internship add up quickly and can come in many forms. The first form is likely your commute and can materialize when you spend money on gas, car maintenance, bus fare, train fare, or however else you get to and from the location of the internship. One of my internships was an hour drive each way, but it was a good enough opportunity that I made the commute work for my schedule as well as my budget. There are definitely ways to budget transport expenses, but unless your position is remote and you’re working from home, they will likely be something to consider.

Another expense can be dressing and looking the part of a young professional. Most college students do not already have a closet full of business attire, so it is also necessary to acquire some office appropriate clothing which results in another expense. Not only can your unpaid internship cost you money, but it will also cost you your time, and you know what they say, time is money, especially when you’re a broke college student. 

The Balancing Act

Many college students have more than just academics to focus on. It is necessary for many, in addition to completing coursework, to hold jobs on and off campus and be involved in extracurricular activities. Not only do college students have expenses but there is also the pressure to be involved in student organizations and activities that will hopefully make us a more desirable job candidate or grad school applicant.

Learning to balance these commitments takes organization, planning, and communication. It is crucial to be sure that you have enough time to commit yourself to an unpaid position and consult your class schedule as well as your work schedule all while taking into account extracurricular and personal commitments. Taking all of this on will leave you with a full plate, but as long as you stay on top of things, the balance will likely establish itself. 

Setting Boundaries & Saying No

Another important lesson I learned while interning was the importance of setting boundaries. Sometimes employers can forget that you’re not truly an employee and shouldn’t be expected to perform every task that a paid employee is expected to. You’re an intern, as well as a college student with a lot of other things going on. It is imperative to communicate your availability clearly, your expectations for when you can be contacted outside of internship hours, as well as tasks you will be expected to perform as an intern. You don’t want to be contacted on the weekends by an unpaid internship if it is not absolutely necessary, which is why setting boundaries and defining expectations is so important.

In my experience I was sometimes asked to attend events on weekends that the company was hosting to lend an extra hand or snap some photos. In the beginning I felt like I was obligated to say yes, but as time went on I learned that I don’t need to say yes to everything. I was already giving them my valuable time and effort during the week, attending these events on the weekend would’ve been too much. Don’t feel guilty saying no to things that do not serve you - this goes for internships and life in general!

Asking For More

Along with saying no to certain things that do not serve you as a busy college student, it is sometimes necessary to seek out opportunities within your unpaid position that have the potential to greatly serve you. If you are sitting at your internship twiddling your thumbs most of the time, ask for more responsibility. Sometimes, in office settings, there are paid opportunities sitting right under your nose. Reach out to your supervisor and ask if they need any administrative tasks done for pay. During one of my internships, I was given the paid opportunity to input names into a database. The task may not be related to your position, but making a little pocket change never hurt anyone.

Thinking outside the box is important in regards to seeking out more within your unpaid position. For example, during an internship I was tasked with setting up and styling a photoshoot for an influencer that was visiting the property. After I set everything up, I took some quick photos of the set, gave them a quick edit, and sent them to my supervisors. They ended up really liking the photos and had me upload them to the department’s files for future use. 

I have also heard unfortunate stories about students who have had internships that didn’t really serve them or teach them much of anything. In this case, especially if you’re not being compensated for your time, I advise you to gracefully leave your position. No, you won’t end up with a recommendation, but did you really want one from a place like that anyway? 

The lesson here is that your time, money, effort, and skills are valuable even though you may feel like you are just another college student. I’ve learned that unpaid positions can be a waste of time, others can be really valuable, and some are only going to give you back what you put in. I hope my tips and experience can guide some of you future interns out there and help you be the best intern you can be while holding your employers accountable for providing you with an experience that meets your expectations. Good luck!