Are unpaid internships worth the frustration of not getting paid? Are unpaid internships “immoral,” as one article says?

There has been a lot of (revived) debate in the past week or two about the concept or worth of unpaid internships for college grads. Full disclosure: I’ve never had a completely unpaid internship: I’ve either gotten paid or gotten a living stipend. But I did live at home with my parents for one.

Are Unpaid Internships Over? (N0.)

Time says the unpaid internship is over. I disagree. The unpaid internship is far from over. The opening of this particular article draws us into the plight of a young woman who has had seven internships:

In August 2011, when Diana Wang began her seventh unpaid internship, this time at Harper’s Bazaar, the legendary high-end fashion magazine, she figured that her previous six internships – at a modeling agency, a PR firm, a jewelry designer, a magazine, an art gallery and a state governor’s office – had prepared her for the demands of New York’s fashion world.

First of all, why seven? The thing about internships is to pick them well, and then stop when it’s good for you. I mean, at first glance, that looks great: wow, she’s been able to land seven internships! For starters, it is in your best interest to get at least one or two paid ones. People, especially college grads, simply cannot afford to do seven unpaid internships. Also: you are worth more than that. It’s okay to turn down unpaid internships, to say “no” when you find out you’ll get nothing to live on. Three internships, between college courses, is great, and I’d suggest leaving it at that if you’ve gotten that far. As for during the school year, your focus should really be on not falling asleep in class. If it fits with your schedule, is educational, and doesn’t leave you scrambling to keep up in the school you’re paying a bucketload to attend, go for it during the semester. Otherwise, cool it.

As it turned out, Wang’s internship was just like many of the thousands of others: unrewarding in terms of both pay and marketable experience — not to mention the lack of a job offer.

That sucks. But, without knowing particulars, my word of caution and response to this is: do your research. Don’t take an internship for the sake of taking an internship. Study the organization or company, and the job description. Ask about it in the interview. What should you end up with when you finish this internship? Does the program lead to potential job offers? Every job you get, think: how will I put this on my resume? If you might as well be working at a grocery store, skip it and move on (and in late spring, start thinking about applying to a grocery store). Thanks but no thanks. Applying for internships is much like applying for jobs in this age: you will get far more rejections than acceptances. Far, far more. Keep counting. You’ve got to become an application machine. Keep a file of your writing samples, information many online applications ask for so you can do a copy/paste, and knock out cover letters customized to the organization. Yes, it is hard work, but so is the internship (hopefully in a good way), so it’s worth it.

As for the suing, both by Wang and the interns at Fox, I support them. If those were really their experiences, then that’s absurd. But I disagree that everyone ever must get paid, no matter what. Again, ask the right questions. Maybe these laws need to be reviewed, but if an internship passes the test, it’s legal and both parties are aware of it:

As more internships sprouted across the country, Congress passed a number of laws regulating them, including the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which specifically lays out a 6-point test, still in use today, for hiring unpaid interns:

1. The internship must be similar to training that would be given in an educational environment;
2. The internship must be for the benefit of the intern;
3. The intern does not displace regular employees;
4. The employer derives no immediate advantage from the intern;
5. The intern is not entitled to a job at the end of the internship; and
6. The intern understands that he or she is not entitled to wages.

From the article, it sounds like the internships described did not follow all of these points, specifically 1, 2, and 4. I’m in no way blaming these individuals for taking these internships and then suing. I think this needs to be brought up, and students made much more aware of the facts. Then they can decide for themselves. But, be careful. Like jobs, schools, …  almost everything in life – all internships are NOT created equally.

Then there is this piece:

Then in March, another intern sued, this time a 25-year-old film student named Lucy Bickerton, who interned at “The Charlie Rose Show.”

“It’s so ingrained, especially in the film industry, that you pay your dues,” Bickerton says.“You keep your mouth shut and are thankful for anything that comes your way.”

I’m not in the film industry. I’m not sure if that’s true. But I do know one thing: you do pay your dues. Jobs are things you have to work for. You have to work very hard. The internship that led to my current job was exhausting in all capacities. I worked 50 hour weeks until they stopped allowing overtime. Then I just had to get everything done in just 40 hours. It was totally sink or swim. I was too tired, every day, to cry from the stress (most of the time). Luckily, none of those breakdowns happened in the office. Do I work for a terrible company? Of course not; I wouldn’t have accepted the job offer if it was. But my company holds its employees to high standards, and it pushes people. I have gained incredible work experience and opportunities from being there. I work with great people and know that I’m valued. You don’t have to be thankful for anything that comes your way, that’s up to you, but don’t expect to slide by. 9-5 is gone. I’d love to bring it back, but I can’t.

Bickerton says so many college students entering the workforce think internships will automatically lead to jobs.

Newsflash: internships do not automatically lead to jobs. That’s all I have to say about that. I had 4 throughout my “intern” career.

Are Free Internships Immoral? (Whoa. No?)

According to The Atlantic, work is work and free internships are immoral. First off, calm down. If we’re going the “immoral” route, I’ve got a laundry list pages upon pages long of things that are immoral. Unpaid internships is not really high on it…or there.

This article opens with a careful mix of story and hard facts:

This summer, millions of students — some graduating, some between school years — will spend the summer working. Some will work at restaurants and on retail floors, where working is called “working.” Some will work at think tanks and non-profit organizations, where working is called “interning.” Estimates put the number of unpaid interns every year between 500,000 and one million. So, in a country where working for free is mostly illegal, a student population somewhere between the size of Tucson and Dallas will be working for free, in plain view.

Interning is an actual thing, different from “work” or “jobs” in more than the name. According to,

Job is defined as: a piece of work, especially a specific task done as part of the routine of one’s occupation or for an agreed price: She gave him the job of mowing the lawn.

Internship: any official or formal program to provide practical experience for beginners in an occupation or profession: an internship for management trainees.

I do like the “mostly illegal” line though. True, but with the exception of internships, specifically unpaid internships, which have laws from the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 in place to manage them. The author, a former member of the “unpaid intern nation,” now says: “I’m coming down in the second camp: Unpaid internships aren’t morally defensible.”

Again, the “moral” thing is weird to me. Let’s dig deeper.

If you have worked in the Washington, D.C., research or non-profit sector, you know that often the roles of an intern and, say, a research assistant overlap. The reason that companies pay one and not the other is that they know they can get away with it. A 19-year old student has little bargaining power, especially if she wants to work in an industry where unpaid internships are the norm. (“If you don’t pay me, I’ll go to that other magazine that has better muffins,” is not a strong negotiating stance.)

Yes, that’s a terrible negotiating stance. Research assistant and intern roles likely do overlap. Is one getting paid because they’ve had one or five of these internships and know a lot more than the intern? Or perhaps they are in grad school and have no choice if they want to stay in their program without going into even deeper debt. Or maybe, in some instances, they are doing the exact same thing, have the exact same experience, but only one of them is getting paid. That is an issue. That needs to be brought up and handled with an appropriate level of confidence and professionalism.

The broader effects of unpaid internships are (a) a tendency for employers to take advantage of young labor by offering the currency of experience in lieu of actual currency,

Yes…but as the author repeatedly points out, these internships – this experience – is crucial nowadays for college grads to get jobs. So, yes, sometimes “currency” comes in the form of experience. Just note my advice above and don’t go overboard on the unpaid internship thing. It’s not worth it (in my opinion).

and (b) a widening of the social inequality gap as lower-income students are implicitly barred from this so-called  “educational” experience, which is their gateway to full-employment in the field of their choosing.

This is a good point. Not being a lower-income student or worker, I’d like to see if any of the following make a difference.

  1. Take internships nearby so you don’t have to leave home. This is much easier in big cities, where many socioeconomically disadvantaged tend to reside. Plus.
  2. Call everyone: can you stay with family somewhere else? Your best friend’s parents? A cousin? An aunt? Just for the summer. Offer to cook twice a week, look after small children or pets when they want a break, clean.
  3. Remember that you are worth paid internships, too. Go get ’em!

This is not my area of expertise. This will be a longer fight. But never say never.

So, those are my two cents. Take it or leave it.

Have you had an unpaid internship? How did it go? Leave a comment or submit your own blog post.

Up on Thursday: my advice to college grads. I was there two years ago.