Should I Take An Unpaid Internship?

An information-based industrial revolution has been upon us for 20 years, and we Americans are highly poised to thrive in it. Working in a new economy is exciting, but the fluidity of modern employment can be confusing. Most of the job titles available to the 20-something college grad use words that didn’t exist when we were in middle school. As the demands of industry outpace the ability of schools to teach them, students must seek out industry-specific education, often for no pay.

The term "internship" originated in the medical field, but apprenticeships have existed for millennia. There is a movement afoot criticizing unpaid work, but the exchange of experience for free labor is a mutual benefit too symbiotic to be done away with. The explosion of specialization in our modern economy has meant that young workers often need extra-curricular training to be able to perform particular jobs. 

Internships also offer windows into particular industries for people who want to know more before committing to them. The key to assessing an internship is whether the training and insight it endows is commensurate with the labor it requires.

First you need to decide if you can afford to make no money. Expending your productive hours without an income is difficult, especially while living in the cities in which most internships are located. If it’s not on the table financially, you may need to find another way to perform free work in the area or commit to it with a sufficiently salaried job. If you have savings or family support, congratulations! You get to work for free.

To all college students: take the internship. It’s probably at some stupid entertainment or fashion company, so get it out of your system and pad that CV. Out of school, the decision gets tricky. Can your present resources afford to write a check to your résumé ?

Assume that the company where you’re interning is not going to hire you unless they explicitly dangle it in front of your fresh, naïve face. Recognize the pros and cons. A small company, for example, may have a harder time hiring new people, but it will be easier for you to make yourself valuable than in a large McRésumé program. Avoid places where the interns have advanced degrees; almost certainly, you will find an easier climb up a different ladder while getting paid.

The real question is whether you know the industry well enough to commit a few years to it. Remember the not-so-long-ago days when Christmas seemed like a distant possibility on Halloween? Well, now you plan casual social events a month ahead of time, because you’re old. Use an even longer timeline for assessing the usefulness of the uncompensated drudgery that awaits. If you’re dipping your toes, you may want to do so as a hobby. If you know where you need to be, then get off the internet and do it!