When You’re Too Broke to Intern: Paid vs Unpaid Internships

As a college student you probably need more money. Tuition, room & board, books, Uber, Amazon… everything starts to add up. The idea of doing an unpaid internship does not make anyone excited. You know you should do an internship of some sort before you graduate, but what do you do when you’re broke and offered an unpaid internship? An unpaid internship is better than no internship, but you have to figure out if it is worth it for you.



I did eight internships in college. Some of them paid, some not. I was a broke college student too, but I saw opportunity in each of the unpaid positions I took and I was hungry to build my resume. I didn’t just take any unpaid internship that came my way. It had to enhance what I was learning in class, and I still had to be able to afford to work for no paycheck. The experiences on my resume when I graduated didn’t say “paid or unpaid,” they just demonstrated how prepared I was to start my career.

The best way to avoid having to take an unpaid internship is to find a paid internship. Download my free Internship Manual Toolkit so that you can get on the path to finding your dream gig.  If the best opportunity you find is unpaid, here are four strategies I’ve used to make it through the unpaid periods.

Work a Job While You Intern

During my unpaid internships, I always worked at least one additional part-time job. If you are interning over the summer, that is a much easier thing to do. If your summer internship is full-time, that leaves you weekends and some evenings to work a job. It doesn’t leave you as much time for fun and socializing but, if you are about trying to gain experiences and earn some income, then it is the trade off you make.

In my senior year, while doing an unpaid internship with the New York State Power Authority, I also worked part-time at the public affairs office on campus at SUNY Oswego. I was able to do this through careful planning and having select days for each obligation. In today’s global economy, you can seek out jobs online that will make time management less hectic. If your internship allows you to do real world projects and build a portfolio, you will have work to show off and start freelancing through sites like fivver.com.

Transportation Stipend

If the internship requires transportation that you can’t afford, have a conversation with the manager about helping with the cost of transportation. If the company is on a bus route or metro/subway line, they might be able to assist you by providing a bus pass or metro/subway card. If you have to drive a long way, ask for a gas card. In one of my internships I was asked to drive to a location that was over 20 miles one-way. Even though that internships was already paid, I told them the expenses for gas would keep me from being able to do it. They offered to let me use their gas card for free fill ups every week. I happily went to work.

Negotiate the Hours

paid vs unpaid internAsk if you can work fewer hours so that you can make some money at a part-time job. Sophomore year I had an unpaid spring semester internship for academic credit with a AAA baseball team. Interns where offered the opportunity to stay with the team through the summer as full-time interns, but still unpaid. 

At the time, my career goal was to work in public relations for a pro sports team so it was important for me to stay connected to the sports world for as long as possible. Financially, it just wasn’t going to work for me to be a full-time unpaid intern. I’d already proven myself as a solid intern over the spring, so I approached my manager and asked for a schedule that would allow me to only work on game-day. That modification to part-time allowed me to work two part-time jobs in addition to my internship.

Is Being Unpaid Worth It

Think about what you will get out of the internship. Some benefits include:

    • Building your portfolio
    • Networking
    • Job prospects
    • College credit
    • Finding a Mentor

Will doing the internship make you more competitive for getting a job when you graduate? Will the internship make you more attractive for highly paid internships in the future? Think beyond the immediate moment to the longer term benefit of taking the unpaid gig. Ask a lot of questions and ask about the outcome of previous interns that have worked there. Not all internships (paid or unpaid) are created equal. Do your research and check off the list of things that are true benefits. Giving up 40+ unpaid hours for experience may not be worth it if you could find a great fulfilling opportunity that only takes up half the time, and still allows you to work elsewhere and make some money.

Fair vs Unfair

I believe that interns contribute to the workplace and should be compensated. Seek balance. Don’t let yourself be taken complete advantage of. If you are sent out into the field with no training, never meet with your manager, seem to be there only for the purpose of making the boss money, get no instruction, and feel like it is complete waste of your time, then let it go. Your time is valuable too.

Recent lawsuits  have led to changes by many companies who now pay their interns. Some companies hold fast to the idea that what the student is getting in terms of experience is more important than money. While experience can not always be measured in monetary gain, unpaid internships offer an advantage to students that can afford to do them.

College costs continue to rise, just as the cost of living keeps going up. For interns who have family support and financial means, a paid internship isn’t something they have to think twice about doing. For the intern who provides family support, an unpaid internship is just another hurdle in the long line of issues already stacked against them. Interning with the promise of experience that may lead to a job in the future, doesn’t pay the bills when they are due.

I never had a full-time unpaid internship because I just couldn’t afford it. That sadly kept me from being able to take advantage of other internships that I might have been able to get. At the end of my college career however, eight internships later, I did not have trouble finding a job. If that one shiny bright company isn’t willing to pay you, and you can’t afford the time away from work, look harder and find a better opportunity. I actually created an internship one day out of a random encounter. It is detailed in my book, The Internship Manual: A Step-by-Step Guide to Getting the Internship of Your Dreams.

Internships matter. Make it your business to do multiple internships before you graduate so that you are in the best position to launch your career. I am an advocate of completing at least four internships before graduating. Internship are not just about making money, it is about starting the process of shaping your career, learning more about yourself, adding to your skills and getting ready for the real world work force. Start the path to get your dream internship and it might lead to your dream job. 







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Written by Sharise

Sharise Kent is an internship expert and freelance writer. She has spent over 20 years in college admissions and career development. As the former manager of a national internship program, she oversaw the placement of 400+ interns with some of the biggest media companies in the world. She holds an MS in Professional Writing and a BA in Public Relations.



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