How I Feel About Paid and Unpaid Internships, From a Girl Who’s Had Both*

Let me preface this by saying I’ve had six internships – four paid, two unpaid. I think all of my internships helped shape me and my interests today and each internship was valuable in its own specific way.

There’s a lot of controversy if unpaid internships are illegal, or if internships are legally and morally acceptable without any monetary reward. Personally, I think unpaid internships are just as valuable as paid ones, especially if they offer you another form of compensation, such as college credits, great networking opportunities or content and experience to put on your resume.

As a recent graduate in the journalism/creative/public relations field, internships are invaluable. I’ve had half a dozen internships so far and have learned just as much what I don’t want to do for a living as I have what I do want to do.

At my most recent internship at Cramer-Krasselt, all of the new hires are given half hour orientations around each department, led by department heads. The creative manager at my first orientation told us (and this is not the first time I’ve heard this from a creative standpoint) that when he hires new “creatives,” he doesn’t look at their GPA. He doesn’t look at what they were involved in during college. Instead he looks at their experience, internships, their portfolio, and what their potential is.

Most employers won’t care about your GPA you got in college. For the most part, what I’ve found is that a Bachelor’s Degree and experience will far outweigh any stellar grades you got in school (but lets be honest, if you graduated summa cum laude I bet you were a lot of fun at parties).

If you’ve got no work to show for yourself, you’ve got nothing. Although, to be fair, that is the same in many other fields, such as chemistry, education, art, and psychology, to name a few. Of course you’re going to need a portfolio of your work in your field to get anywhere.

The creative industry is notorious for offering unpaid internships, but what if you can’t afford an unpaid internship?

“This presents a Catch-22 for lower-income students who want to work in politics, research, journalism, non-profits, or other industries that traffic in unpaid internships. These students need work that pays money, but they also need an internship to work in the field.” Couldn’t have said it better myself, Mr. Thompson.

You can’t get a job if you don’t have experience, and you can’t get experience without internships, volunteering or senior projects.

If you can’t afford taking an unpaid internship, my advice is to see if the company will offer you college credits. List the pros and cons of taking an unpaid internship. You may have to get a part-time job to balance out your unpaid internship. You may have to take a hit on student loans. But, will it look great on your resume? Will creative professionals who look over your resume be impressed? Will it make you stand apart from your peers? Will it help you out in the long run?

It will never be a good time to accept a position that’s not paid, but college may be the best time to do it.

I do think it is somewhat unfair for internships to be unpaid, but honestly, some companies just can’t afford to pay interns, especially if the internship is at a smaller company or start-up.

Take, for example, my two unpaid internships: a writing internship with College Lifestyles and a website/social media management internship with the Whitewater Historical Society.

College Lifestyles is an online magazine founded in 2008 and only makes enough from advertising to pay the top couple of positions, but not interns. I interned with CL for a year and am convinced it helped me get internships I would have had a hard time getting otherwise. It also helped me strengthen my writing and get published over 40 times on the website, something a writer like myself can’t get enough of.

The Whitewater Historical Society is a community-focused organization, so many of the funds it receives goes straight to exhibits and repairs. I took this internship because the hours were sparse each week but I learned about website management, Joomla and creating a Facebook page from scratch.

“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. If you have ever held an unpaid internship, you know just how routinely flouted that rule is,” via The Atlantic.

Yeah, I know how it feels to be considered not of “immediate benefit” to the employer. Ouch.

Know that most times, an unpaid internship is a stepping stone to a paid internship or full-time job. They say it’s all about who you know. While you’re at your unpaid internship, network with your supervisor and other interns and be the best intern in the office.

If you can afford to take an unpaid internship, I say go for it. If you can afford it, having experience in your field will far outweigh your summer job in an unrelated field.

As long as the internship benefits you in some way – just as much as you’re benefiting the company you’re working for – whether it’s via paychecks, college credits, a resume-builder or some other form of compensation, then I think it is worth it. If an internship is unpaid but would look stellar on your resume, it would be silly not to take it.

That is why I am a fan of unpaid internships – because they give you experience and work to put in your portfolio and resume.

Of course, if you can find and get a paid internship in the creative industry, you’ve hit the jackpot. Take it, be the best intern you can be, and learn as much as you can.

An internship is an internship. Experience is experience, no matter how much you get paid for it.

*Title also known as, ‘Always an Intern, Never a Full-Time Employee,’ because I just completed my sixth internship and the job hunt looks bleak.