While unpaid internships are technically illegal*, there are no shortage of them. Your school may even require you to take an internship "for college credit" (which almost always means unpaid).
However, if you're not bound by your school to take an unpaid internship, then you may want to carefully consider opportunities.
Paid work has its own balance system: you give time, they give money. When you have to doing a mundane task or even sit around bored, you can take comfort in the fact that you're getting paid.
Unpaid work has the potential to be grating and frustrating, so it's important to make sure you're getting an experience worthy of donating your time.
* Unpaid internships are illegal if you are interning for a for-profit entity (a business) and the internship requires you to do work that results in revenue for the company. It's not illegal to have an unpaid internship at a nonprofit, or as a strictly-educational opportunity.
Questions to ponder:
1. Can I afford to take this internship?
This is a biggie. Unpaid internships are still work - and they take up time you could have spent at a paid job. Besides the loss in time, you also need to consider:
- Tuition (if you plan to get college credit)
- Transportation to/from the internship site
- New clothing (especially if you don't have a professional wardrobe yet)
- Lunch (and occasional pocket money to eat with your coworkers)
2. Do I have time for this internship?
Everyone knows a student who seems to do it all: work part-time, have an internship, get straight A's in 18 credit hours, lead four student clubs and her sorority.... But most students can't do that.
Before taking an unpaid internship, take a look at your current schedule. If you have another obligation for 10-20 hours per week, will you still have time for homework, paid work (if needed), and relaxation? You don't want to get burned out 6 weeks into semester because you're not managing your time properly.
3. Are they prepared to host an intern?
An internship isn't meant to just fill some of that space on your resume. You need to actually get something out of it. That means you need to make sure you'll be getting relevant experience and creating portfolio pieces, not just getting coffee.
In your interview for the unpaid internship, ask the hiring manager for examples of tasks you'll be given. If they don't have any examples or if the examples seem vague, you may not get a valuable experience.
It seems that sometimes hiring managers decide having an intern will be helpful to their department, but don't remember to actually create a program for you.
4. What skills will I gain or strengthen during this internship?
If you don't come out of your semester with a new or better skill set, it might not be worth the time. You should be in a department doing something you're considering for your career.
Be prepared with some ideas about skills you want to improve during the internship - whether it's specific (like graphic design of publications) or broad (tax accounting) - and ask about them during the interview.
5. Am I interested in what this company (and department) does?
If you can't stand theatre, don't take an internship with a production company. You might think you'll be removed from the actual functions of the company if you're in an unrelated department, but you might be surprised how much immersion you'll get.
6. Does this company culture value what I value?
Rightly or wrongly, many people are willing to tolerate a lot more when they're getting paid. Make sure you're ok with what the company is selling - both the literal product and the ideas.
7. Will this lead to something valuable for my career?
According to labor laws, your internship employer can't imply that they'll hire you - and that's not necessarily the only end game to taking an unpaid internship. However, if you've been rejected from paid internships for lack of experience, or if your industry is difficult to break into, you may find it valuable to invest the time in an unpaid internship.
What else did you consider while looking for unpaid internships? What questions do you have?