Unpaid internships: are they worth it?

A dilemma that all students are facing, especially now summer is approaching, is gaining relevant work experience for future career jobs. For years, internships and work experience placements have been the most obvious solution to this problem, but giving up your time for free to do menial tasks for a company isn’t an easy choice for everyone.

In a frenzy of soon-to-be-graduate fear, I applied for the Penguin Random House paid work experience placements, and was lucky enough to get in. I knew I was dealing with a large conglomerate and went in with fairly low expectations about how I’d be treated and the kind of tasks I’d be given. I was expecting a lot of filing, menial tasks, and someone breathing down my neck the entire time to make sure I was doing them right. The actual experience definitely shattered a lot of my presumptions and opened my eyes to the kind of opportunities students should be looking out for when considering applying to placements.

While I was doing a lot of ‘grunt work’ like tidying and mailing out up to 80 books a day, there were also opportunities for me to sit in on meetings, talk to supervisors to make contacts, communicate with different departments, and use software that was relevant to the industry. That was extremely important for me as someone looking to possibly begin a career in publishing.

While my experience at Penguin was very positive, not every internship and work experience placement is created equal and I know people who hated the department they were assigned to, and felt exploited despite being payed. Not every internship is for everyone but you won’t know for sure until you apply and find out.

The university advises you not take an unpaid work experience placement for more than one week. I would definitely agree. Students are young, talented individuals and those applying to the internships are generally driven and motivated to be working within the companies they apply for. Penguin and other publishing companies in particular rely on a steady stream of interns throughout the year in order to help keep the company running smoothly. If interns are so vital to the company, then it makes sense that they should pay them for the valuable work they provide. If they are unable to do this then companies should at least provide financial aid to take care of travel, accommodation, and other costs incurred by the placement. For smaller companies who might not be able to afford this, but still have valuable experience to offer, the placements should not be too long and focus on tasks that would benefit a student CV, rather than handing them general admin work. Some might say these companies should not be offering work experience, but smaller companies can be more relaxed to work at while also providing useful experiences.

The crucial thing to remember before going into any unpaid work experience placement is knowing how to negotiate not only costs but also what you do with your time there. If you are accepted into the company, it is because they realise that you have the potential to do well and possibly be a future employee. Take this into consideration as well as what kind of experience you want from your placement, before you simply accept a placement under any terms.

Most students are so anxious about getting work experience or a placement in the first place that they forget to value their input into the companies they intern for. This puts companies at an advantage, because they know students need the experience and that they are willing to do it for free. But if more students valued their time, the amount of paid work would increase.