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Aug 25

Should you do an unpaid internship? The pros and cons

Reading Time: 4 mins

Unpaid internships are a growing trend within the job market. Research states that about a fifth of interns work for no money. With an average unpaid internship in London costing £926 per month, they are also expensive. However, in the current job market, especially in careers like journalism and politics, they are simply necessary. Plus, there are many advantages, often offering experience in a more desirable company than paid opportunities. The right internships are fantastic experiences, good for your CV and perfect for networking.

There are many mixed opinions out there. So should you do an unpaid internship? Read below for the pros and cons.


Pro: Network, network, network

Young professionals socialising in the office

Unpaid internships are a fantastic way to make contacts. A recent LinkedIn survey found that employees are three times more likely to receive a job through networking than by applying directly for a job. Not only do you meet people on your career path, but you also get to show them your hard work and talent.

Unpaid internships are popular in industries like the arts and business. These are also jobs dependent on connecting to other companies and their employees. If you take advantage of the opportunity, you can leave your internship with a list of contacts and emails. When looking for paid work, you can then approach individuals within the industry on a personal level, asking if they know of any appropriate opportunities.


Con: “Intern” can also mean “coffee runner”

Unhappy intern bringing coffee

It ‘s hard to know whether an unpaid internship opportunity will stick to the promises of the job description. Being guaranteed hands on experience should not mean taking coffee orders or filing for hours on end. The experience should be an opportunity for you to learn about the company, not for the company to save money.

This Guardian article addresses the exploitative nature of some unpaid internships, especially in the creative and PR industries. It raises awareness that interns are sometimes made to work beyond their agreed time or take on responsibilities that should be handled by paid employees.

However, there are ways to avoid these pitfalls. Ensure you never work more hours than contracted and keep comparing your current role to the position originally advertised. Although working for nothing, you still have a lot of power by staying aware and knowing your rights.


Pro: It can lead to a job

Young woman accepting a job

Some Internships offer the possibility of a job at the end. Others don’t promise anything. Either way, think of your internship as an extended interview. Whether immediately, months or years after, a job role will eventually become available. So make sure you are one of the faces they remember when the time comes!

Ask from the beginning – “Is there the possibility of a permanent job role following this internship?” Make you employers aware of your career goals from the beginning. Put yourself out there as somebody with ambition. If you impress your boss, they will likely give you, the now-experienced-in-the-company intern, the job over an outside competitor.


Con: The “unpaid” part

Young man pulling out empty pockets to indicate no money

This is the most obvious negative of unpaid internships – you are not paid. While experience and networking are great, they don’t pay the rent. You are left with two possibilities: either get a second job while working as an intern or save enough money for the duration of your internship. Work twice as hard or bet your savings on this one opportunity. Either way, it’s a bit of a gamble.

There are ways to make the lack of payment slightly less detrimental. How about trying to earn some extra cash online, to keep you topped up?


Pro: The chance to work at your dream company

Professional woman using VR headset

While looking at internships, you might be faced with a tricky dilemma: be paid to work at a company you don’t care about or don’t get paid but work at your dream company. Just out of college or university, you might be underqualified to work for that business or organisation you admire. However, unpaid internships give the opportunity to dive straight into your ideal career and gain the necessary experience on the job.

So consider the companies that inspire you or motivate your career choices. Approach them directly, look at their website, call or walk straight into the building. Ask what unpaid opportunities there are for someone who is truly interested in the company. That way, an unpaid internship will be a wholly positive experience both on a personal and professional level.

Nobody pretends that unpaid internships are the long-term goal; they are a stepping-stone. Ultimately, it is up to you, your attitude and passion. So take it step by step towards your dream job!


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2 years ago

It does seem rather like cheap labour.

David Blakemore
David Blakemore
3 years ago

Little disappointing for not pointing out the legal aspects of this. If an intern is classed as a worker, then they should be paid NMW. The only time there is an exception is there the role is voluntary or shadowing. Very surprised you didn’t pick up on this

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