Unpaid internships are an undeniable staple of the American university experience. According to a 2017 study by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), an astounding 43% of college students hold an unpaid internship. In other words, nearly half of college students VOLUNTARILY work for free! What’s going on here?!
If you talk to one of these students, they’ll give you a couple of reasons for placing themselves in this peculiar arrangement. The primary stated justification is that by having this experience on their resumes, they will be more marketable to prospective employers down the line. However, the data simply does not support this claim. A 2013 NACE study concluded, “63.1 percent of students with a paid internship under their belt had received at least one job offer. But only 37 percent of former unpaid interns could say the same -- a negligible 1.8 percentage points more than students who had never interned.” This means that if you are taking the internship solely for the resume boost… don’t.
This finding might come as shocking for our American audience, which has been brainwashed into thinking that internships are the end-all, be-all of a successful career. Yet, if we stop to think about it for a second, it actually isn’t that surprising at all. Companies do not take unpaid interns very seriously. Treating these interns as an expendable commodity, they’re never truly invested in their growth. Although there are exceptions to the rule, this means that companies are less likely to higher unpaid over paid interns upon graduation (the holy grail of internships). Furthermore, as an unpaid intern, you’re more likely to be relegated to doing menial labor, which means that you won’t even have much to discuss in your resume. This all combines to a less than useful interning experience. You’re often better off taking a job as a barista or waitress, which will teach you important professional skills, as well as how to handle money. In fact, I’d argue that working as a barista could actually sound better on your resume than a seemingly more prestigious internship at a bank:
Barista: Worked on registers daily to authorize returns and audit receipts. Negotiated exchanges with up to 100 clients per day.
Bank: Made photocopies for supervisor and picked up his lunch at noon.
In defense of unpaid internships, there are some cases when it could be useful. If one treats it as an educational opportunity, rather than a line on a resume, it might be worth it. Think of it this way: if you are ready to pay tens of thousands of dollars for a college education, why not continue that growth outside the classroom? As a soon-to-be graduate with a Bachelor of Science in the Science of Foreign Service, I thought that I wanted to enter the foreign service (become a diplomat). To enlist requires first passing through an extremely rigorous testing process, which often takes several years. Before committing my future to the pursuit of this job, I decided to take an unpaid, full-time (32-40 hours a week) internship at the State Department. It was a grueling experience, and balancing it with my two part-time paid jobs and school wasn’t easy. Nevertheless, through my time at State, I realized that the job wasn’t for me. This was an important realization as it saved me several years of pursuing a career that I wouldn’t enjoy. I never would have known this were it not for the internship. Additionally, I learned more about international relations on the job than in all my time in class at Georgetown combined. Therefore, I was essentially compensated for my time non-monetarily.
Before taking an unpaid internship, think through why you’re taking it. Is it really because you’re going to learn a useful skill and apply your classroom knowledge in the workplace, or is it just because of the fancy logo on the front of the building?