Should I take the unpaid internship?
January 31, 2014 8:48 AM   Subscribe

Should I take the unpaid internship? Putting down roots in a new city, offered an unpaid internship which I believe is a good opportunity but unfortunately did not get the paid part-time gig really felt was a sure thing and would have made the unpaid gig more feasible. What now?

The field is environmental ed., development and the non-profit sector. I feel like I've done about a million interniships and am pretty demoralized at the thought of taking on another low-level opportunity. But, my problem is I've moved around so many times I always find myself back in this position...starting from the bottom. I'm in a new place where I'll be settling for several years. I want to say yes to this position so I can start DOING SOMETHING instead of grueling job search but I've also been trying to be more strategic and demanding about the type of work I pursue and offers I accept, so my internal career counselor tells me "don't take a step down the ladder!" Also, accepting would of course limit schedule and flexibility finding paid work, though I would only be committed in person to the internship for about 2.5 hours two times a week.

Internship details: I'm overqualified and the team is excited they have a chance to work with me. It's small organization with little money for staff (story of my life!). I've been trying to move away from enviro. ed and into arts organizations so this does not accomplish that but does allow me to get some more grantwriting and development work under my belt, which I feel is fairly transferable across the non-profit sector. I'm in a somewhat economically depressed area with lots of competition for the work I want to do. I am admitted to two MA programs and considering returning to school in the fall.

Help! I'm in a tangled web of wanting to say yes out of excitement but wanting to say now out of "standing up for myself". I hate to go back to square one. Can you give me some perspective?
posted by dahliachewswell to Work & Money (16 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
No. Don't take unpaid work. 10 years ago I would have said yes. But now, jobs are being converted to unpaid or underpaid work. These unpaid jobs don't lead to advancement, they're not tracks to anything, and they don't help you reach your goals. Taking low positions that you're overqualified for that don't pay doesn't help your resume/CV either.

Listen to your gut, continue to search for something you feel good about taking - it's not as if rejecting the unpaid job is going to hurt you financially - but rejecting it will free up time to do things you really want and need to be doing, like looking for paid work and other opportunities that build your career, your financial security, and your self-respect.
posted by jardinier at 8:53 AM on January 31, 2014 [7 favorites]

I'm overqualified

It's unpaid. Pretty much everyone is overqualified for unpaid positions.

the team is excited they have a chance to work with me

Of course they are! They're not going to pay you!

I see only one scenario where taking this gig would make sense. Namely, you have committed to grad school, have nothing better to do until then, don't need the money, and the position would check off a specific box on your resume that would help you get a job after grad school.

If any of those conditions is not met, this is likely to be a waste of your time, professionally speaking.
posted by valkyryn at 8:56 AM on January 31, 2014 [3 favorites]

If you love an organization that can't pay you, volunteer for them on your own terms. Don't take an unpaid internship, which will keep you from finding a job.
posted by Etrigan at 8:58 AM on January 31, 2014 [14 favorites]

I have worked for free many times and have never regretted it, but I haven't done so after getting "real" jobs on my resume. I suggest that you take the internship but advise them that given your current flexibility you will be happy to help out their struggling organization that has no money for staff, by volunteering (kind of like Etrigan's advice). This is basically like an internship, but you give off more "good citizen" vibe than "desperate person who can't get a real job" vibe.

I am doing one project right now for free because it will give me tons of high level visibility and is basically free marketing for me. If this is a great opportunity for you in some way, consider doing it as a volunteer because it will keep you busy also, which at least for me in the past has meant better mental health for looking for "real jobs"
posted by cacao at 9:17 AM on January 31, 2014

No. There are situations where I think an internship is the right thing to do, and this is very much not it.

Are you a student? No.

Are you taking this internship because you need to gain vital skills you can only learn in this way? No.

Are you immediately post-college and unqualified for anything else? No.

Is it a short trial situation after which you would be guaranteed a full time fully paid gig? No.
posted by Sara C. at 9:19 AM on January 31, 2014 [3 favorites]

I'm in a somewhat economically depressed area with lots of competition for the work I want to do.

Wrong strategy. Every success I have had professionally has come from going to economically active areas where I was one of the few people available who was competing for an open position.

When you are in a professional environment where there is a lot of competition for a few available opportunities, particularly where the area isn't an economic hub for your profession, what will set you apart from competitors is a stellar academic pedigree and/or personal or family connections to the people hiring. What is not on that list is going to be background as an unpaid intern with people you're not already connected to and don't have much money to spend to begin with.
posted by deanc at 9:35 AM on January 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

Agree that you should structure your own volunteer project for them on your terms, not accept an internship.
posted by Miko at 9:56 AM on January 31, 2014

I agree that taking the internship is not a desirable thing to do. However, any choice you make should be compared against the opportunity cost - the next best alternative you have to that choice. What would you be doing if you didn't take the internship? If you would be spending your day eating potato chips and browsing Reddit, you should probably take the internship - it's the better option. If you would otherwise be intensifying your job search and spending all day perfecting your resume, you probably shouldn't take the internship - as you say, it'd interfere with the job seeking.

That said, there's one thing I wanted to comment on:

though I would only be committed in person to the internship for about 2.5 hours two times a week.

You are never obligated to work for someone if they are not paying you.

If you take this internship, you absolutely need to continue your job search, and the moment you get a job, you should feel free to drop the internship immediately with minimal notice. You are not an employee of the organization and they should not be expecting any professional courtesy. Do not feel a single bit of guilt about taking the internship while still looking for better options.
posted by saeculorum at 9:57 AM on January 31, 2014

Don't take it. Most (not all) of these unpaid positions do nothing for your career advancement. It's just providing someone with free labor.

Places with real internships will pay you some sort of a small allowance to help you with rent, food, etc...
posted by WizKid at 9:58 AM on January 31, 2014

The only way I'd take the internship is if the prospect of networking with new contacts is high. You are in a new city and a contact may be a way to a job. Never let an internship get in the way of paying work. If you need to leave for a job do so. No one is going to begrudge you for needing a job.
posted by AlexiaSky at 10:28 AM on January 31, 2014

You get to goals by being 100% committed to them. So no, don't do this. Once you have a full-time position in your field, then you can volunteer, but until then, no.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:43 AM on January 31, 2014

When you aren't able to find paying work in the job market, your first job is to listen to what it is telling you.

As long as skilled, educated people are willing to work for little or nothing, no one with the same skills, interests, and values is going to be able to make a living wage doing that work. Are your ideals so precious that you'd rather play your part in propagating the economic misery of people who share your values than risk your purity by finding a job that actually exists, that you are qualified for, that will pay you reasonably?
posted by Good Brain at 11:02 AM on January 31, 2014 [2 favorites]

I think the main incentive to do an internship is to gain experience in a field where you have none or nearly so. Once you get that experience (which you seem to have) doing more internships doesn't help you. Doing low level work for a long time doesn't show you're ready to really get your foot in the industry, just that you can do grunt work. Once you get your footing, you should be looking for paid work.
posted by Aranquis at 11:21 AM on January 31, 2014

I run projects at a small nonprofit that would grind to a halt without pro bono professional assistance and I concur with the folks who say "structure your own volunteer project for them on your terms, rather than accept an internship". Working pro bono is actually a decent way to build professional relationships and can help with a job search, but it's a different thing than unpaid internships, which have become disreputable in a lot of ways.
posted by crush-onastick at 11:23 AM on January 31, 2014

Response by poster: THANK YOU, I needed to hear all of this!
posted by dahliachewswell at 11:50 AM on January 31, 2014

no, you should never take an unpaid internship. i offer unpaid internships in washing and waxing a 4x4, cleaning and oiling fishing gear and firearms, and proper firewood handling technique, and you shouldn't take that either.
posted by bruce at 12:58 PM on January 31, 2014 [2 favorites]

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