When An Unpaid Internship Is Worth It (And When It’s Really Really Not)

I’ve had a lot of jobs and a lot of attempts at formal education, but I didn’t have an internship until I was 25 years old — and it was a 10-hour-a-week commitment, at most. By that time, many of my peers had already framed their degrees and moved on to their second or third internships. It felt like they were making huge professional leaps, and I was falling behind.
I only applied for that 10-hour-a-week internship because it wouldn’t interfere with my first "real" job, as a legal secretary, allowing me to pay my rent and, hopefully, produce something meaningful. That internship led to what is currently my full-time job, and I privately think of my entire life so far as B.W. (Before WORN) and A.W. (After WORN) because of how radically the experience changed me. Every job I’ve gotten since then has been a direct result of taking that internship. I could only afford 10 hours a week, but I forced those hours to give a real return on my investment.
As summer approaches, more and more students will work as unpaid interns in the industries that implicitly demand their volunteer hours in exchange for future pay. At the same time, more and more people will search for meaningful, fulfilling work in competitive industries that implicitly place a higher value on cultural capital than actual cash.
The intern economy is one that trades promises, not paper, as currency. It should go without saying that a full-time unpaid internship that puts you in debt and does not teach you anything beyond how to balance eight coffees at a time will not help you succeed. But, it must be said that it is possible to gather experience as an unpaid intern that benefits you and your career, but you have to put the highest possible premium on your labor and demand that others do the same, and then you have to know when to give it away for free. Here are the five ways you can make an internship work for you and how to tell when it just isn’t worth it.
WORTH IT: There's A Reasonable Time Requirement
When you’re applying for an internship, the first thing you should find out is how much time will be required of you. For me, 10 to 15 hours was the maximum I could give my first internship without it interfering with my paying job – a demanding assistant position that often topped 50 hours a week. If you’re in school, or working full or part-time, you need to know exactly how many hours you’ve already committed for paying work, and then only commit to what you can reasonably perform for an internship. It’s tempting to think we’re all capable of 70-hour workweeks, but that's a short path to burnout city.
Think about the distribution of time. Two hours a day, five days a week, is exponentially more taxing than two five-hour shifts once you take into account commuting and other incidental annoyances. Can your internship be batched into as few shifts as possible, cutting down on your travel time? Even better, can part of your hourly requirement be done from home (or anywhere with a wifi connection)? A good internship program recognizes that you are your own person, with your own life, priorities, and goals, and doesn’t want to infringe on that. The best internships support you in attaining those goals — even the ones that exist beyond company walls.
NOT WORTH IT: There's Too Much Mandatory Time
An internship that demands full-time hours for an extended length of time is not bad, necessarily — just suspect. On the one hand, just like a short internship is more convenient at two big shifts per week, a long internship that completely immerses you in the office atmosphere can be extremely profitable. You’ll see exactly how the company runs on a day-to-day basis, something that’ll make you a valuable part of any team, and much less expendable than someone who pops in a couple of afternoons a week.
But, a full-time internship will, obviously, relegate everything else in your life to the off hours. If you’re a student on summer break, or have saved up enough money to work for free for a few months, then that's your prerogative. Personally, I'm wary of any company that asks for that much time and doesn’t offer compensation in return. Is the internship a training period for something really labor-intensive that’ll translate to a potential job (within the company or in the industry at large)? Will you be working with people who are compelled to make your experience a valuable one, who'll contribute to your growth and education? You’ll need to know these things before you say yes — you can’t give away free hours just to answer phones and make copies, these are not skills that require intense training, so having them on your résumé won't do all that much for your future progress.
WORTH IT: Gaining Skills & Experience
Now that you’ve established how many hours you’ll be donating to your internship — and it is a donation, because your time is a very valuable currency — you need to make sure you’re getting your money’s worth. What, exactly, will this internship teach you? Can the hiring supervisor provide a list of goals they’ve established for previous interns, something they make sure every intern does before they leave? For example, if it’s an editorial position, will they work with you to edit an article you’ve written, and publish it (or help you get published) before the internship ends? You want to come out of an internship with something firm, something real that you can show off when you're applying to jobs — a byline would be that thing.
NOT WORTH IT: The Only Thing You'll Take Away Is Prestige
I have negative levels of patience for internships that offer prestige as compensation for your labor. The “cooler” an employer is, the more suspicious I am of their intentions. By “cool” I don’t mean things like businesses that you actually respect, or the opportunity to work with people whom you find interesting or inspiring. I mean the kind of cool that reaks of (or worse, actually threatens) if you don't want to organize our paperclips there are a million others who'd KILL to take your place. I mean the kind of cool that thinks an invite to a glitzy event or a handed-down free sample is adequate pay for a summer of your best work. If all an internship can offer you is proximity to someone famous or something important, but nothing in the way of skills or tangible achievement, you’re in serious trouble.
WORTH IT: Exposure To All The Inner Workings
At WORN, everyone does a little bit of general office maintenance during their shifts. That’s to be expected at any internship — you should do some errands for the company, because every company needs that stuff to be done and it's a chance to see the business at its most basic level. For example, when I started, I often packed online orders and took them to the post office; when I came on as publisher, and we did a complete redesign of our print magazine, I wouldn’t have known how to price our new shipping costs without those hours spent at our local Canada Post.
Certain elements of a company have to be seen and experienced firsthand in order to get a sense of what really matters to your bosses and mentors. Organization, customer service, prompt communication, attention to detail — what does your boss value the most, and why? What does she dedicate most of her time to? Seeing what a company cares about, and learning how to become a part of that process, will likely make you a candidate that's valuable to the industry at large. It’ll also train you to be a better team member, to learn how to anticipate what your coworkers and managers need in order to get their jobs done.
NOT WORTH IT: "Paying Your Dues"
If you think I have sub-zero levels of patience for “prestige,” you should see how my face screws up at the phrase “paying your dues.” In theory, it’s true that we should all do a certain amount of labor at the beginning of our careers. In practice, I find the phrase is shorthand for coffee runs, long hours, short breaks, and other such indignities. There is no profession in which being treated badly will help you be a better worker.
Worse, I find that “paying your dues” is an unimaginative way of telling young people to fall in line. If a job sucks, it’s often described as a mandatory stage in dues-paying. If an internship has a structure that everyone goes through, that’s fine. If it's a formless, shapeless, fool's errand that'll end with an impersonal reference letter composed of vague niceties, it’s absolutely useless. Furthermore, an internship should be the opportunity to prove yourself as a worthwhile, contributing member of the industry you're trying to grow into. Your now-mentors could be your future peers — if you work hard and earn their respect. How much respect do you think you earn organizing the coffee filters and sugar packets?
WORTH IT: Changing Your Life
Not every internship will have the power to change your life. But, each one should have the potential to. If an internship program is run by someone who could be your mentor, someone you respect and admire; or if it comes with the opportunity to leave with a tangible achievement; or if it introduces you to the way your industry runs, that's certainly potentially life-changing.
There is no one right way to get the learning experience you need to succeed, no one degree or diploma, no one reference or experience, and you can’t trust anyone who tells you otherwise. You might, if you’re anything like me, spend the rest of your life on a career built from wildly different paying and non-paying jobs, balancing the fulfilling unpaid work with the jobs that keep you fed and sheltered.
I took as much of a risk as I could afford, and it paid off in ways I never imagined. My internship gave me a purpose and a career, yes, but it also taught me that an internship is only as valuable as the intern, a lesson I think of every time I accept a new assignment or contract. Your jobs and internships will just be part of the career that spans your entire life. Think of that career as a building you're constructing all on your own, brick by brick. Every job has to matter in some way — either financially or creatively — because life is too short and your career will be even shorter if you don’t hold your labor to the highest standards. You've got to — you're building this thing to last.

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