The Unpaid Internship as a Summer Job

So you read our other summer job articles, and then cursed us out as you proceeded to realize that it was probably too late in the school year to corner any of the great options we recommend.  Before you lies a summer of unfulfilling minimum wage slavery selling t-shirts at the mall, making triple-frosted mocha-frapas at Starbucks, or trying to look happy with that jerk at table 6 that just can’t decide what to order and probably won’t tip anyway!

There is nothing wrong with having to pay your dues at a minimum wage job.  In some cases that’s the only way to build a résumé and/or get some experience.  One other summer option however, is to look into an unpaid internship that won’t have you cruising campus in a Benz in September, but will hopefully have a ton of spin off benefits.

Your Résumé Will Love You – Your Wallet, Not so Much

Unpaid Internship
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Jumping on the internship circuit is an investment in short-term pain for long-term gain.  If you’re looking five years or more down the road, the connections you could make and the things you could learn at a strategically chosen internship could be much more valuable than the few thousand dollars that your sacrificing by forgoing one summer work season.

Related: Are You Using Linkedin?

With many sectors of today’s job market so tight, educational credentials are becoming more and more devalued, and in many cases pertinent job experience with companies/individuals that are recognizable is much more important.  Now obviously a broad statement like that will have many exceptions, but in doing the research for our book it became pretty obvious to me that a university degree isn’t likely to separate you from the back – but having the right person vouch for you in a related field of work could.

*Cue rocks thrown by angry people with radical ideas like the theory that young people should actually get paid for work*

There is certainly a large contingent of people out there that will correctly point that if you “sell out” and go work an unpaid summer internship gig you are supporting a labour structure that reduces the wages of young entry-level workers across the sector.  While this is certainly true, the bottom line is that planting trees for the summer doesn’t really shine up a law or architecture résumé comrades.  What it ultimately comes down to for me is deciding whether I believe strong enough in the principle of “fair pay” (a fairly nebulous concept for me) to sacrifice the opportunities that could come as a result of the right internship.

Being Wealthy Would be Fun to Try At Some Point …

Students who are well-off (or rather students with parents who are well-off) have understood the value of the unpaid internship for some time.  In fact, this is one of the least commented-on advantages that wealthier people have in my opinion.  If Student A and Student B are identical, but Student A doesn’t have to work a part-time job, or really worry about money much at all while they were in school, yet Student B is in exactly the opposite position, then Student A has a massive time and energy advantage.  If Student A is able to parlay all the free time they have relative to Student B (who is busy being a sandwich artist) into non-paying experiences that allow them to build a skillset other than working a cash register then it is fairly obvious that this will pay a lot of dividends when both students hit the labour market.  If you happen to have the specific advantage of being able to pursue summer employment purely with your future career in mind, and don’t actually need any income, then you’re crazy not to play this card and maximize the lead in life you already have.  If you’re like most of us and not only need a paycheque to pay the bills during the summer, but also need to sock away a little dough to get you through the main regular session of the school year, then the choice obviously becomes a little more difficult.  If the only other job alternatives aren’t very enticing, or you are awarded a great scholarship, obviously this impacts your decision to a fair degree.

Related: How To Get Scholarships

A Case Study of Initiative Meeting Opportunity

One of my former students – “C”- has set herself up for an enviable internship this summer.  As part of a massive scholarship she received that will basically cover her whole undergraduate degree, she is encouraged to expand her horizons during the summer months.  I’d say the plan she has in place will definitely do that.  While C won’t make any money from May-Sept this year, she will travel to NY and work with top-notch people in her field (architecture).  The skillset, connections, and experiences she will take with her as a result of this adventure will likely help her career in ways not only in the obvious ways, but also in ways she could never predict.

If you’re brave enough to consider taking an unpaid internship you’re already thinking along the right lines and likely realize that what you’re going to take from the job won’t be measured in dollars and cents.  I personally never had the experience of a summer internship, but I was forced into several months of student teaching, which I believe has a lot of the same qualities.  The most important lesson I took away from the experience was to do everything I could to maximize my compensation in terms of knowledge gained, influential hands shaken, and free coffee drank.  This helped me rationalize the whole thing and not go insane at the thought of how much time and effort I was committing without getting compensated monetarily.  The approach has paid off pretty well for me in my first three years in the workforce.

Do any of our readers have an unpaid internship to thank for a big break that they got, or was it a mostly negative experience?

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10 years ago

My son had an unpaid internship between his 2nd and 3rd year of law school. It only lasted 4 weeks, but the experience was invaluable. Years later, he still networks with some those lawyers.

In this difficult economy, you need to show employers you can apply your college knowledge in a tangible way. An internship (even unpaid) can be invaluable to show you have what it takes. Besides it looks great on a resume.

10 years ago
Reply to  krantcents

A perfect example KC! BTW, that was your 100th comment on My University Money, so congratulations!

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