The Do’s And Don’ts Of Navigating Unpaid Internships
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The Do’s And Don’ts Of Navigating Unpaid Internships

Love ‘em or hate ‘em, unpaid internships don’t seem to be going away. And since they can be everything from incredible opportunities to exploitative ordeals, here’s some “do’s and don’ts” that’ll help you stay informed and get ahead.

“When you realize they’re taking advantage of you,” Dr. Heather Berg, a labor expert at the University of Southern California says, “take advantage of them right back.” Of course, she’s talking about the “racket” that is unpaid internships.

Although the very legality of employing interns for zero dollars isn’t clear (since it’s complicated by dissensions in state and federal laws) a reported 70 to 75 percent of fourth year college students in the US have completed at least one.

For better or worse, it seems that to stay competitive in the current job market, the majority of US university students consider unpaid internships a must. So how do you participate in one, and get the most out of it? After all, it’s supposed to be a learning experience for the intern, as much as a support for the company.

Here are some “do’s and don’ts” to keep in mind when venturing into unpaid internship territory for the first time.

Do: Consider your impact on others

Unpaid internships are often “a way for businesses and nonprofits to avoid paying staff” says Berg. So ask yourself: does my internship simply allow this organization to avoid paying someone else a living wage? If the answer is yes, then now what?

Don’t: Feel guilty about your decision

First: Don’t panic. Berg says there’s not point feeling guilty. While you may in some cases be removing a paid job from an already intense job market, that doesn’t mean you should boycott unpaid internships.

Berg emphasizes that internships aren’t necessarily the ethical responsibility of the people who take them. We can think about the issues without blaming ourselves for them.

Do: Be wary of stop-gap solutions

What seems like the easiest answer to not being paid? Stipends. College credits. Metro passes. Again, don’t blame yourself for accepting these concessions, but Dr. Berg calls them “stop-gap solutions.”

In terms of course credit, for example, Dr. Berg notes that our schedules are filled easily enough. “Most students aren’t hard-up for credits,” she says. Moreover, taking credit can mean paying “for the privilege of working for free.”

Don’t: Forget about privilege

“Internships can serve as class gatekeepers for organizations,” Dr. Berg says. Even though anyone can apply, only people who can afford to work for free are going to take the job.

“If you’ve set internships up so that the only people who can afford to do them are rich kids,” she says, “that’s a problem.” Do you want to work for an organization like that? Remember, it’s your call.

Don’t: Underestimate the importance of networking

We take internships to get jobs. “In terms of getting a foot in the door,” Dr. Berg says, “all you need is to meet a few people.”

So while you’re networking more, and sending cold emails to people who you admire, you can also take that unpaid internship. But it’s OK to accept only five hours a week! According to Dr. Berg, you can “be selfish about how much of your life you’re giving in exchange for the possibility of connections.” It’s all about that work-life balance.

Do: Feel empowered to negotiate

In the state of California, internships have to be primarily about education. “If you show up and what you’re doing is filing reports,” Dr. Berg says, “that is a point of negotiation and you’re entitled to rework that with your supervisor.”

Guess what? That’s not a unique circumstance. A lot more than you think is up for negotiation. “These aren’t jobs. They don’t have job descriptions. If they do, most bosses are not following those job descriptions. You can make creative proposals about how your time is used…and they may be up for it.”

And even if you’re afraid to, ask about money. “If the terms change,” Dr. Berg reminds us, “ask for more.” When we’re too scared to negotiate, we make it harder for others. Bigger organizations may have more wiggle room, of course, but no matter where you are, remember it’s within your rights. It might change everything.

Don’t: Ignore the alternatives

There are other ways to work towards a dream career. Ask yourself, Dr. Berg says “Is there another way you can get this experience without undertaking unpaid work?” She has some specific tips, too.

One is autonomous work. For example, if you’re an artist, why not set up your own gallery space? You can even learn more doing work on your own. Another is expanding skillsets within your paid jobs. “Say you’re tutoring in an after school program,” she says, “you can offer up your services to manage their social media.”

You can also work for smaller organizations. Berg notes that “You might decide that major Hollywood corporations don’t need your unpaid time and you might instead give that to community news organizations, for example.” Or you might pursue freelance or contract work. “So many of our jobs are going to look more and more like freelance and contract work,” she says, “it is a good time to start young with setting boundaries around your time.”

Do: Work together

You don’t need to feel like the weight of this issue lies on your back alone. Most places you work, you’ll have other interns there too. Or, if you’re at a university, you’ll definitely find other people going through the same thing. Dr. Berg says supporting each other is a major “do.”

Talk to other interns about their concerns, she says. You can get creative about working together to make things happen.

Don’t: Feel helpless

A final thing thought to leave you with: They need you more than you need them. People are hiring you because you’re skilled. Now it’s your turn to do what feels right to you. Whether that’s holding out for a paid opportunity, doing an unpaid internship (or three) until you’re ready for that entry-level role, or going full DIY—empower yourself to make your own way career-wise.

For access to resources that’ll assist you in navigating unpaid internships, check out the Geneva Interns Association.