9 Reasons Unpaid Internships Are Worth It

With internships rising a whopping 350% in the past four years, the debate often focuses on whether or not unpaid internships are worth all the trouble they cause. Here are nine reasons why it is worth it to take that unpaid position.

1) Experience

As cliché as it sounds, internships and work experience, more so than your other extracurriculars, provide you with actual understanding about how the real world runs. People hold you accountable to certain outlined responsibilities and time commitment on a day-to-day basis. If you fail to meet these basic obligations and expectations, much less exceed them, you can forget about getting that valuable letter of recommendation, college credit, or network connections.

2) Resumé-building

This point does not require much explanation. Internships add value to your resumé. You never know – maybe that internship is more valuable to you and your future employer than another minimum wage job.

3) Recommendations

One of the main reasons people take on internships is because of the awesome opportunities that can arise from that experience. Internships open doors to future internships, jobs, fellowships, graduate school, and networks. Future positions often require letters of recommendations from previous employers and professors. Having a letter of recommendation from a previous supervisor who can attest to your actual skills and abilities in the workplace can potentially offer more value to a future employer or admissions officer than a letter from a professor or manager. Additionally, if your internship supervisor is impressed with your work, she or he might be more than willing to recommend you to someone they know at a different firm.

4) Practical skills

Research tactics, persuasion, lobbying, negotiating abilities, graphic design, marketing strategies, investment knowledge, and a multitude of other things that you gain from your internship can be applied to future endeavors. Skills you learn in an internship are different from the types of things you would learn working in a minimum wage job. (Well, they should be.) Both set of skills are valuable and may be necessary, depending on your future career plans. Besides, it never hurts to have extra skills in your toolset.

5) Prestige

Particularly in the political, media, and non-profit realms, the most coveted and well-known internships aren't paid. Prestigious internships like working for the White House, the State department or NPR are often unpaid but are pure gold on resumes, building relationships in the field, and getting your name out there. Having that kind of name recognition on your resume can only add to your credibility as a potential job candidate.

6) Demonstrated commitment

Unpaid internships prove to future employers that you are truly dedicated to learning the skills necessary to succeed in that field. If the opportunity presents itself, you are willing to not take a paycheck in order to learn the art of that field -- now that’s real commitment.

7) Network building

What better way to prove your worth and capabilities to future employers, colleagues, and supervisors than by impressing them with your performance at your internship? Besides getting to know your supervisors and those already established in the field, getting to know your fellow interns and co-workers builds positive relationships for the future. You never know if your colleagues will be hiring people themselves in the future, looking for someone to recommend, or have connections that can help your career out later in life. Every opportunity is a possibility to make connections. Don’t miss out on it.

8) A foot in the door

With those connections and recommendations and with that prior experience in the same or a related field, you are more likely to score future opportunities because you have already proved yourself to some degree.

9) Option elimination

If you hated your internship because of the actual field-related work (not because of the people, company or the number of coffee runs you made), then you figured out what you do not like, and, yes, that is progress.

Of course, unpaid internships presume that you have the financial means to not take an income for a certain period or can get college credit to justify the hours that are spent on an internship. It’s definitely doable. If you are able to save up money, find scholarships or stipends at your university (a lot of universities have special scholarships for internships), or a company, or work part-time at your internship, go for it.

Lastly, it is necessary to note that with the rapid increase in internships, particularly unpaid ones, these past few years, remember what the law requires of internships. Your internship cannot be a position that replaces an actual job in the company, unless you receive some form of compensation.

For instance, this past summer I interned at and did much of the same work as my supervisors. Since my work was basically what the entry-level employees did, I was compensated through my room and board and received legal protection during my tenure.

As this recent Atlantic article notes, “There is a law in this country that says that internships must resemble an education and that interns cannot work in the place of paid employees, nor be of 'immediate benefit' to an employer.”

Safeguard yourself and know the rules. Remember what your goals are for that internship. Take on something that you believe can teach you something useful, expose you to new ideas or understandings, and benefit you in the long run. If you play your cards right, the rewards should outweigh the risks.