Internship Lowdown: The Paid vs. the Unpaid

Is the spring semester half over already? Sadly, it’s true. And while some of our peers will be looking forward to spending the summer at one pool party after another, many of us are currently scouring job listings for summer internships.

Internships are a great way to add experience to your resume, make industry connections, and discover what kind of career path you really want to follow. While school’s in session, it can be hard to fit an internship into your schedule; in the summer, however, you can devote more hours to the gig.

Unfortunately, just because you sign up to work a 40-hour work week from May to August, it doesn’t mean you’re going to get paid like a fulltime employee.

Many internships pay nothing. In fact, they often offer college credit as a means of skirting the salary, but in that case, you’ll find yourself coughing up summer tuition money just to work at the company that hired you. While there are plenty of paid internships out there, they usually offer a stipend rather than a modest hourly wage. So, if you’re going to be working your ass off, how do you decide whether the internship is worth it?

Paid internships certainly have a bit more sparkle at first glance. However, there’s a reason they call it an internship and not a job. Unless it’s a major company, you could probably make more money serving omelettes at Denny’s… but waitressing the third shift isn’t going to bulk up your resume. So, while you may be lucky enough to get paid this summer, you will have to figure out if you can live with a meager paycheck.

Paid internships may or may not be more challenging than an unpaid gig. After all, if you’re expected to work a full-time schedule, you’ll really become part of the office, and get to know your coworkers. You’ll be involved with bigger projects, because the bosses will know you can work on them throughout the week, rather than worry about you only tending to assignments on a Monday-Wednesday-Friday basis. Plus, if they’re bothering to pay the interns, they must think highly of the students they choose for the task, right?

Note that I said “may or may not” above. Many non-profit companies (or smaller businesses with less budget) employ a smaller staff than a Fortune 500 biz. In that case, you may be given a broad spectrum of responsibilities and may have the opportunity to develop a close relationship with your superiors. Any internship will probably require you to do a fair share of answering phones, photocopying, and filing, but you might also get to work for several different “departments” at an unpaid internship- especially if the department consists of one associate.

If you are moving away to do an internship, you should try to plot out how much your living expenses will be in an unfamiliar city. It can be more difficult to find a second job outside your home town, and, if you’re being paid at all, the internship might require more commitment. In reality, landing a paid internshp might not be as profitable, especially if you don’t have time to find another source of income.

Most employers usually appreciate their interns for working for free, and may be more lenient with the rules of the job. Many unpaid internships ask for less hours per week and try to be flexible with scheduling. This means that you can keep a few shifts at your regular summer job in order to pay for your gas to the internship!

Plus, unpaid internships come with some sort of business-related incentive, such as free parking permits or subway cards. You know, so you don’t lose money coming to work. Depending on the company, they may offer free meals if there’s a cafeteria in the building. If that’s the case, then hey- it won’t cost you anything besides time to go to work and the experience might help you get a higher paying job in the future.

There are pros and cons to either side here. If you are going to look into an internship, you should truly ask yourself what you want out of the experience and be prepared to ask questions before taking the job. If you’re not getting paid, it’s easy to get frustrated with menial tasks such as photocopying, filing, and going on Starbucks runs for the bigshots. Then again, an unpaid internship might be intimate enough for you to truly pick your boss’s brain during downtime and get a mentor out of the experience.

No matter what, my advice to future interns of the world is to take the next few months to try to save up and secure sufficient resources to provide for yourself over the summer – this way, you can choose the position that is truly best for yourself and your career goals, rather than only focusing on the monetary aspects of the job.

Personally, I’ve done my fair share of underpaid labor, whether in the form of an unpaid internship, paid internship, or a generally sh*tty part-time job that didn’t pay well enough. While the sh*tty part-time jobs did nothing but supply my weekend drinking funds, all of the internships let me walk away with something more valuable than money. I’ve been paid in experience, connections, all the coffee I can drink, and every random perk from catered meetings to free t-shirts to tickets to killer events. So while the payment issue is something that you should consider when taking one, the bottom line is that you won’t be an intern forever, so, for now, money shouldn’t be the first priority.

Springing (Fashion) Forward:  Spring’s Hottest Trends
Springing (Fashion) Forward: Spring’s Hottest Trends
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