It seems near to impossible to enter today's job market without at least some relevant experience on your resume. But how do you obtain an entry-level job without being previously employed? While an unpaid internship may sound ridiculous—why would anyone work without getting paid!?—their usefulness in jumpstarting a career cannot be understated for some jobs.
But just how do you know when it's the right time to take on an unpaid position? It all depends on your desired profession's entry-level career standards, which you can usually determine by checking out several job postings in your area of study.
Unpaid internships must, according to rules set out by the U.S. Department of Labor, directly benefit the intern, not the hiring company. Essentially, an intern's work should be educational training by doing real-world work, not just that real-world work. Sound confusing? Well, that's how so many companies can get away with unethically (and illegally) employing people for no pay and calling them "interns."
Even in a completely ethical unpaid internship, there are hurdles. Some financially able students can accept unpaid gigs, but those who cannot are automatically at a disadvantage. Given student loans, living expenses and daily expenditures, it's sometimes a wonder how anyone can accept a temporary job without pay, no matter how much your chosen career path values them in the long run.
We talked to two pros who have previously had to bite the unpaid internship bullet to get some experience in their respective fields of fashion, advertising, and journalism. Collectively, Andi Morales (who had two internships) and Maggie Dickman have worked without pay for BCBG, ad agency twoxfour, and the Alternative Press. Here's their advice when it comes to landing your next opportunity, and whether or not you should work for free.
1. Networking is key.
In the communications industry, it's all about who you know when it comes to paving your way as a young professional. Dickman says she'd never met an employee of the Alt Press in person before, but her avid readership of the publication and her social media engagement with the brand earned her quick recognition when it came time to interview for her unpaid editorial position.
"I submitted my application pretty close to the deadline, but I got a call within days of clicking the 'complete' button," recalls Dickman. "I had some great phone interviews and I was able to express my love for the brand throughout the process."
Morales' family friend assisted her in getting a job shadow at twoxfour, which in turn led to an interview after she kept the conversation going after her 9-to-5 experience.
"I accepted the offer as I was completing my freshman year, and I knew how crucial it was to start building up my portfolio as soon as possible," says Morales. "That first agency experience helped me land my next unpaid PR intern gig at BCBG the following summer."
Even if you're still early in your undergrad studies, it's never too early to connect with some of your most admired companies and organizations on LinkedIn and Twitter. You might even land an interview in the future! Just be aware that in some industries, such as communications, it's often common to work without compensation at these internships.
2. With little-to-no income, you'll need to budget wisely.
Dickman had to relocate to Cleveland, Ohio, from Iowa for her Alt Press gig. While she had found affordable housing in a nearby dorm, she knew she had to make ends meet for the rest of the summer. Though she initially struggled to find a suitable part-time summer job, she eventually scored a sweet one at a local cupcake shop.
Morales' first internship at twoxfour was conveniently located in downtown Chicago, just a 30-minute commute from her childhood home. Her unpaid experience with BCBG in New York City, however, proved to be more difficult with both her commute and her financial situation.
"I was fortunate to be supported by both my parents and scholarships while I was interning in the city," says Morales. "I was given a meal stipend by my apartment complex as well, which certainly helped with my expenses, and I could walk to the office, saving me valuable subway money."
For both Morales and Dickman, taking joyrides around their new cities wasn't much of an option, and day trips or little vacations on the weekends were savored and uncommon treats. Some students who take on unpaid jobs have to find extra paid work, such as freelancing or a second job, in order to manage their expenses. Still, others determine that the financial burden isn't managable or is impossible.
3. Even though you're not getting paid, you shouldn't be fetching coffee.
Going into her Alt Press editorial gig, Dickman harbored doubts about her day-to-day experience at a major publication.
"I knew other people who had been interns at other publications and never got to write anything or make major impacts in the office," says Dickman. "Instead of being reduced to doing menial work, I showed initiative and was able to publish my own work and interview some of my favorite bands and artists."
Likewise, Morales was thrown into the advertising industry head first. At twoxfour, Morales assisted with contacting clients, managing mailing lists and she even helped contribute creative ideas for client campaigns. Her BCBG experience had her pitching content to major magazines such as ELLE, Seventeen, Vogue, and Marie Claire; for upcoming editorial spreads and featured content.
"My internships ended up intertwining with one another, and I was able to fully understand the ins and outs of my professional industries," says Morales. "It was hard at times, but looking back, I wouldn't change anything."
Though both Morales and Dickman were fully committing themselves to their respective experiences, they were ultimately being treated as work equals without receiving any of their coworkers' benefits. At the end of the day, no matter how hard you work, you should be compensated with more than pats on the back and bylines. Unpaid jobs may offer plenty in terms of experiential education, but you're the one paying for it, not the other way around.
4. Hard work may eventually pay off (literally).
Upon completing her summer with Alt Press, Dickman was soon offered a paid news writer position, and she now contributes regularly to the Alt Press site with online quizzes, features and articles. Morales went on to score a paid internship with Calvin Klein before accepting a full-time position as an advertising sales assistant for ELLE magazine and O, the Oprah Magazine.
Both Dickman and Morales showed determination and a willingness to learn in both of their unpaid internships, and neither shied away from the idea of not earning monetary compensation. Looking back, both women are grateful for their respective experiences and glad they took the unpaid plunge.
"If you're passionate about a particular career, don't be scared about not making money from an internship," advises Morales. For Dickman, the learning experience was payment enough.
"It's worth it to work without pay for the experience," claims Dickman. "If you work really hard, the money will come in time."
No matter what field you plan to work in, having an internship or two will not only make you look more desirable to recruiters, but the experiences alone will teach you about your skill set and professional interests. Relocating to a new or unfamiliar city could cost you, and receiving no payment could set you further back in your debt-destroying efforts. Whether or not you want to work without pay, however, is a decision you'll have to make on your own. It goes against human nature to work without pay, but in order to stand out in a sea of applicants in today's job market, some sacrifice might go a long way.