Navigating the World of Unpaid Internships

If you’re looking for real-world experience, you have to start somewhere, and that somewhere is very often not going to pay you. Unpaid internships are, for better or worse, virtually unavoidable for college students. You’ve probably heard horror stories about interns being treated like dirt by their employers, but if you know what you’re getting into, unpaid internships can be invaluable introductions to the real world.

If a company takes you on as an unpaid intern, make sure you get all the facts before starting. Just because you’re unpaid, it doesn’t mean you should be taken advantage of. Before talking logistics of your new job, know your rights. Ask about your responsibilities and hours, and ask to sign a contract. If your employer doesn’t have any kind of paperwork spelling out the conditions of an internship, that should be a red flag that the company isn’t the best place to work for.

Once you’ve secured the internship, make sure you can get college credit. It’s one thing not to get credit if you’re getting paid, but if all the internship offers is experience, you deserve some kind of recognition from your school. Every college has different requirements for earning internship credits, but hopefully you can make the time spent worth your while.

One of the most difficult parts of an unpaid internship is, of course, survival. In an ideal world, your family can support you during the summer months and at least feed and shelter you, but for some students, the financial strain of an unpaid internship isn’t worth the risk. Look for grant opportunities, either through your school or online. Many colleges have organizations provide grants to students pursuing research or internship opportunities. If your school doesn’t have such an outlet, look for outside organizations that you can apply for. Grant applications can be exhausting (they may require cover letters, recommendations, sometimes budget proposals) but if it means you can complete your dream internship, they’re worth the effort.

If you’re still struggling to find financial compensation, find a flexible part-time job. Explain to your internship supervisor that you need to be available certain days of the week in order to make ends meet; make sure that those conditions are official and that you’re not forced to stay late at your internship when you need to get to your second job. The bottom line is that you should be treated with respect. Even unpaid, you should be seen as a valued member of the team; if you’re not being treated as such, there’s no reason you should stay

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