Should you work for free

Intern. The word always conjures up an eager young student, happily delivering coffee to busy professionals, all the while hoping to absorb some of their knowledge. Sure, internships are a great way to build real experience for your career, but should you be working for free instead of being paid?

It’s a debate that has caused a lot of mixed opinions lately. On the one hand, students are much more likely to land a job right out of college when they’ve been able to work in high-profile roles while completing their studies. On the other hand, many interns complain of being forced to give free labor without receiving any valuable experience in return.

Some schools will work with students to set up internships as part of completing their studies. Your school may have relationships with companies who want to hire its graduates and will set up opportunities to have them work in roles that compliment their schoolwork. Many students will seek out internship opportunities on their own as a way to complement their degrees.

Which ever option a student chooses, he should always consider if working for free adds value to his education or if he is only devaluing himself. Internships are most common in fields that are somewhat glamorous and known for heavy competition. Industries such as entertainment, sports and fashion often rely on internships because of the sheer number of graduates looking to work in these exciting fields. Unfortunately, with large number of willing workers, companies aren’t always that interested in helping further their intern’s educational goals.

If you decide an internship is right for you, a bit of research will pay off in spades. If you are interested in a particular position, try to find a former intern with that company. Did they receive proper mentorship? Were they giving challenging projects? Did the internship assist in helping find a job?

Another option to consider other than interning for a private company is to offer your services to a charity. These organizations are usually run on a shoestring budget and are very welcoming to intelligent pre-professionals who are willing to help them execute their programs. If an organization will benefit a lot from your help, they may be more receptive to giving you opportunities to work alongside their top managers, exposing you to the real tricks of the trade.

Getting entry-level experience is notoriously difficult, particularly in crowded job markets. If you do chose to accept an unpaid internship, always be sure that your needs will be met as well as the employer’s. A valuable experience is priceless, but so is your time.

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