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Should You Take an Unpaid Internship?

*Editor’s note: This year-long series about financial literacy is sponsored by PSECU.

If your degree program requires an internship and you’re hoping for compensation, you’ll have to compete for a paid position. Unpaid opportunities are more plentiful, but there are factors to consider before committing to one.

As students and alumni point out each year, unpaid internships aren’t free. Students often incur transportation, clothing, and equipment costs, as well as fees for college credits. With that in mind, what are the benefits of an unpaid internship?

If you’re offered an unpaid internship, here are a few questions to ask yourself before accepting the position.

What Costs Will You Need to Account For?

How will you cover the costs of commuting to or dressing for your internship? Depending on where your internship is located, you may need to drive or take public transportation to get there. You may be able to save costs by carpooling or using student or monthly passes. Or, if the organization is flexible, you could ask to work remotely for some of your hours to reduce how often you need to travel to the office.

When it comes to clothing, you may already have the professional attire you’ll need. If not, you may be able to secure clothing secondhand or through your college’s professional development office.

If you live on campus, a dining plan and your room and board fees will keep you fed and housed during your internship. Off-campus students may face more challenges. If you live on your own, paying for rent, utilities, and groceries can be more difficult during your internship.

While it’s not a traditional budget line item, there’s also a cost associated with giving your time to something. This is sometimes referred to as opportunity cost – because you’re doing one thing (in this case, an unpaid internship), you lose the opportunity to do something else . Having an unpaid internship takes away time from other areas of your life. For instance, do you need to hold a job during the semester? If so, you’ll need a schedule where your job and internship don’t conflict. You’ll also need to factor in time for your other obligations, such as classes and extracurriculars.

Can You Use Your Unpaid Internship for College Credit?

Many college programs require you to complete an internship before you can receive your degree. Even if internships aren’t compulsory, most colleges recommend internships to improve your chance of finding employment when you graduate.

If your college requires or recommends internships, they may offer credits upon completion. Some schools have set requirements regarding what internships can count for credit and whether you’re allowed to receive payment for them. Make sure you understand your school’s requirements and expectations regarding internships before you start applying for positions.

Do You Have a Possible Future with the Company?

Some students receive job offers upon completion of their internships, and the likelihood of getting an offer helps potential interns decide whether they should pursue a particular internship.

If you know you’ll want to pursue opportunities elsewhere after your internship, performing unpaid work for a company may not seem as appealing. However, a company that you want to work for may grant you an internship and offer you a paid position later. This situation is ideal, as you’ll be entering a company you’ve already worked for, and your internship can take the place of an introduction to a brand new employer.

If a company that you can foresee yourself working for offers you an unpaid internship, taking it could be your way into a promising role after graduation.

What Opportunities Could You Potentially Gain?

Ask the hiring manager what their expectations for you would be. If you’re not sure whether the responsibilities and tasks associated with the internship will offer you valuable work experience, talking it over with a mentor can help.

If you’re a college student, you can turn to several people on campus for advice. Try discussing the opportunity with your internship advisor or a trusted faculty member in your department. Networking with alumni is also an excellent strategy because they may have insight into which experiences may be most valuable for your chosen field. Connecting with your alumni association is a great way to find sources for reputable advice.

Beyond direct work experience, an unpaid internship can act as an open door to important connections and networking opportunities. Building relationships with people in your field, and even outside of it, can become valuable later in your career.

Learn Better Money Management Through PSECU

College can present a range of financial challenges if you’re unprepared. Fortunately, we provide resources to help you develop the money management skills you need for better budgeting, spending, and saving. Paying for your education doesn’t have to pose an insurmountable obstacle.

For more tips on securing your financial future, visit our Online Learning Center.

The content provided in this publication is for informational purposes only. Nothing stated is to be construed as financial or legal advice. Some products not offered by PSECU. PSECU does not endorse any third parties, including, but not limited to, referenced individuals, companies, organizations, products, blogs, or websites. PSECU does not warrant any advice provided by third parties. PSECU does not guarantee the accuracy or completeness of the information provided by third parties. PSECU recommends that you seek the advice of a qualified financial, tax, legal, or other professional if you have questions.

Sponsored by PSECU