Ways You Can Afford to Do an Unpaid Internship

Intern working in laboratory
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You’ve just found the perfect internship that you know will provide just the right experience that you need to get a job in your chosen field after graduation. You have a place to stay and the internship offers a chance to get hands-on experience working with some very knowledgeable and well-respected professionals in the field. It all sounds perfect except for one thing, the internship listing you found says that the internship is unpaid.

Since you know there is no way that you could even consider applying for an internship that is unpaid since it is essential that you make money over the summer to help defray some of the costs of college while making a little spending money to use over the summer and once you return to college.

The frustration of finding the perfect internship is a dilemma that many college students face. To make matters worse, the dilemma of the unpaid internship as well as those organizations that say the internship must be done for credit are unforeseen obstacles that many students weren’t aware of prior to looking for an internship. Students who do an internship for credit over the summer often have to pay college tuition in order to receive college credit. Consequently, taking an unpaid internship, especially if it’s an internship for credit, can become quite costly for students. It’s important for you to research your options to see if taking an unpaid internship is the best course of action.

Doing an internship for credit over the summer can be costly as well so you might want to see if the organization will waive the requirement or if your college offers 1 or 2 credit for an internship which can provide substantial savings. Internships during fall or spring semester usually are rolled in with the semester and don't require any additional costs.

If a lack of financial resources is holding you back from applying for what you see as the perfect internship, take a look at some of the strategies listed below to see if you are able to come up with a solution. The key is not to give up prior to exploring all options.

Paid Vs. Unpaid Internships

The majority of paid internships are usually found in the business world. Students interested in finance (investment and commercial banking, venture capital, accounting), information technology, marketing and sales, and entertainment will often get the best paid internships. Keep in mind that many sales positions consist mainly of cold calling of which salary is based on percentage of results, a multi-level marketing or sales internship may not hold the financial rewards that are listed in the internship description.

Recently more organizations are offering at least a modest stipend in order to get the most talented students to apply. Unpaid internships can be valuable for those students who can afford to do them. Gaining the relevant skills required for getting hired in the field along with making connections with professionals in the field can be invaluable. It is important to base your decision on not doing an unpaid internship more on financial need than on the principle that you refuse to work for nothing.

Does your College have a funded internship program?

Many colleges and universities have started programs in order to help students who want to pursue an unpaid internship. Several years ago the small liberal arts college where I work began to offer a number of funded internships. Each student receives $2500 to help defray costs and expenses over the summer. The goal of these internships was to provide access to all students to be able to get experience in their field of interest especially if they didn’t have the financial resources to complete an unpaid internship. The Program has grown exponentially over the past three years and we are looking to expand it even further in the future. It has become a major endeavor of the College since providing a quality education for all students with equal access to resources is an important part of the College’s Mission.

Check with the Career Services Office at your College to see if they have a similar program and, if not, you may recommend that they looking into ways that they could fund several internships just to get started. Many internships are funded by alumni, parents, and friends of the College.

Research Individual Grants, Scholarships, and Fellowships on the Web

There are many organizations and foundations who provide grants for students seeking to gain relevant work experience by completing an internship in their field of study while they are in college. Scholarships are awarded to many individuals by type based on personal experience and professional pursuits. Often scholarships are awarded for some unique attribute or interest of the student and there are thousands of unique opportunities that exist. For example, Green Scholarships are awarded to students interested in protecting the environment, who want to gain experience in the field, or who actually plan on working on an environmental project during college or immediately upon graduation.

Whatever you or your family’s situation or uniqueness, there may be available grant money offered through the federal or state government, organizations, and/or foundations.

Is There a Chance That a Family Member or Friend Would Contribute Money in Order for You to Do an Unpaid Internship?

You may be able to receive a donation or a loan from family or close friends if they believe that the internship you are planning to do will help you to get started in your career without incurring any additional debt. They may see it as providing a resource that could provide a big pay-off in the end. Especially when we are in the throes of a challenging job market, the value of doing an internship can be the deciding factor between getting hired or not immediately after graduation. Competition is fierce for new graduates in a down job market and not having the relevant experience that employers are looking for can be a definite detriment to getting hired anytime soon.

Financial Aid Options

You may apply for additional financial aid if you have reason to believe that you will need to do an unpaid internship in order to gain the experience you will need to get hired. This is not the ideal situation and should be explored if you feel there are no other options. Of course discussing your finances with a professional should be considered when taking on any additional debt.

Apply for a Part-time Job

Many students will combine a part-time job with an unpaid internship. Since many internships can be done part-time, coupling that with a part-time job may not be such a bad idea. Combining a job with an internship may give you the best of both worlds – relevant experience in your chosen field along with some money to help pay for some of your college costs and other incidentals.

Being Proactive and Checking Out Options Is Well Worth the Effort

Gaining relevant experience and developing professional connections with professionals in your field are two of the most important aspects of completing an internship. Once you complete your internship, the experience you gained can be used to help you build a strong and effective resume.

Checking out some or all of the various options that may permit you to do the perfect unpaid internship is well worth the effort. Remember we are talking about a very short time-frame that can make a huge difference in your career. By taking a proactive stance you will be capitalizing on your education while seeking ways that you can compliment it by creating a bridge between the academic and real world by doing an internship.