Should You Do an Unpaid Internship? | Top Universities

Should You Do an Unpaid Internship?

By Chloe Lane

Updated June 18, 2021 Updated June 18, 2021

Virtual internships have risen in popularity due to the global impact of COVID-19, which has affected companies’ budgets and forced firms to adapt quickly to working from home.

On top of this, many traditional internships have been canceled, with students being left in search of work experience opportunities. Often, these remote internships are unpaid.

Unpaid internships don’t work for everyone. Although they can offer valuable work experience for students and graduates, they can often come with incurred costs and many people argue that they are a major barrier to social mobility. 

So, should you do an unpaid internship? Do the benefits outweigh the negatives? Hear what students and employers have to say.

Is it worth doing an unpaid internship?

Is it worth doing an unpaid internship?

One company, Cloud9 Insight, offers flexible paid and unpaid internships for students. We spoke to Cloud9 Insight’s director, Charlene Jackson, about why she thinks students should consider taking unpaid internships.

“I think students should consider doing an unpaid internship,” she said. “Even if the student does not get paid, they still need to appreciate that there is a huge investment for a company to train up any student.”

Jackson explained that there is often room for compromise: “Even if a role is unpaid, it may still be possible to negotiate travel and subsistence costs”.

The benefits of unpaid internships

Unpaid internships can be a great way to start building your professional network, develop skills and receive valuable feedback from professionals. They can also be a good indicator of whether you’ll like your future profession.

Jackson explained that internships, whether they are paid or unpaid, can give students and graduates an edge when it comes to applying for top companies. 

She said: “The role may lead to longer term employment opportunities. Some companies are fiercely competitive, so if you’re looking to get a job with large companies, such as Google or Apple, an internship will give you an inside and boost your CV hugely.

“It’s far easier for a graduate to gain employment following completion of their degree if they have some relevant industry work experience. Industry knowledge and insight is equally important to the functional skills learnt.”

The downsides of unpaid internships

However, it’s clear that not everyone feels this way, with many Twitter users pointing out that unpaid internships cost students a lot of money, and that students and graduates may have to work part-time alongside the internship to support themselves financially.


“Clearly a major downside may be your ability to fund your internship and commute costs, which may put some students at a disadvantage,” said Jackson.

Other than asking for costs to be covered, she said, it might be worth trying to negotiate on wage “or at least asking if it’d be possible to review pay, following an initial three-month period”.

Personal experiences

Personal experiences

Economics graduate, Aima Ahmed, completed a paid six-month internship after her graduation, which she said she “wouldn’t have been able to have done unless it was paid”.

She explains that if the internship had been unpaid, she wouldn’t have had the initial money needed to pay for the expenses outright, even if they were later reimbursed.

She said: “Paid internships also motivate you to do good work, rather than let yourself be exploited for work or skills that the company don’t want to outsource for”.

Another graduate, Jessica Pardoe, said: “Personally, unpaid internships, which were only a week or two long, gave me experiences in lot of different settings and  I would do them all again if I was still a student”.

She added: “I did get a long-term paid internship, and although I wouldn’t have done that if it’d been unpaid, I still wouldn’t want [unpaid internships to be] scrapped”.

Turning an unpaid internship into a valuable work experience

Ultimately it is up to you whether you decide to accept an unpaid internship. It will depend on each individual’s personal circumstances.

Carlene Jackson offers some valuable advice for students who decide to accept an unpaid internship and hope to use it to further their career:

  1. Find a mentor

Having a mentor can help you learn more and build your confidence, Jackson advised, adding that you should try to find someone other than your line manager to act as your mentor.

She explained that doing this “will help if your line manager is not delivering on what you expected in terms of learning opportunity”.

 “At Cloud9 we adopt a coaching approach to working with employees, so that they can take ownership of their own learning and gain confidence to achieve their highest levels of potential,” said Jackson.

  1. Ensure the role is aligned with your career ambitions

Ensure the role is strongly aligned with your career and preferably industry ambitions as this is likely to lead to future career opportunities.  

“I encourage everyone to write a future 10-year CV,” explained Jackson. “This can be a creative process that allows the individual to be open minded about where their career may go, and the skills needed to achieve this. 

“By having this clarity, both the employer and the student will look for learning opportunities which are aligned with the employee’s own personal ambitions.” 

  1. Be highly motivated – you may land a full-time role 

“You will also need to be highly motivated to maximize your learning and the opportunity to increase your future earning potential” advised Jackson.

She explained that at Cloud 9 Insight, internships sometimes lead to full-time paid roles. 

“We have recently taken on an intern, which has led to a permanent role for that individual,” Jackson told us, adding: “I would prefer to take on an intern that would ideally want to work with the company permanently, as it’s a huge investment in that individual.

“Consider what your future CV needs to demonstrate and seek out opportunities to learn these skills.”

  1. Learn a wide range of skills

Use the time in your internship to learn transferrable skills.

Jackson explained how professionalism is something she aims to teach interns.  “I think it’s important that all employees learn to be customer-focused even down to how they engage or speak with clients, as well as to be commercially minded and entrepreneurial,” she said.

“It is important also to learn planning skills and even email management and meeting skills to ensure that your personal brand is optimized” she added.

This article was originally published in July 2020 . It was last updated in June 2021

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