Home > Personal Finance > Internships: When is the Cost Not Worth the Experience?

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Summer is right around the corner, and many college students who see graduation looming on the horizon use the break from school as a time to take an internship in their field. While internships offer valuable “real world” experience and have seemed to become almost mandatory in many fields, internships often provide very little pay, or in some cases no pay at all. How do you answer the question, then, if the benefits of taking an internship are worth the cost?

Drawbacks of Internships

First and foremost, not all college students can afford to take a low-paying or unpaid internship, making it almost a privilege to even apply for one of these positions – and then not get paid. Past that, if you accept an internship, particularly right after graduation, you will likely not be putting money towards paying off your student loans, asking for deferment or forbearance, which delays the repayment process and can add interest. Future employers could also use low-paying or unpaid internships against you in salary negotiations once you land a full-time job, so be careful when disclosing previous “salary” information. Additionally, students who take entirely unpaid internships are not typically considered actual employees of the companies they’re interning for, and are therefore not legally protected against discrimination and harassment.

Benefits of Internships

The obvious advantage of taking an internship is the real-world experience it offers. Interns can learn important job-related skills through hands-on experience while getting a feel for the industry to decide if it’s the right fit for you and your career aspirations. Taking an internship can also help you network with people within the industry you are pursuing, which, in turn, can help open doors for job opportunities. In many fields these days, taking an internship may be one of the only opportunities you have to get the experience that employers will be looking for when you’re seeking a full-time job after graduation. Also, while you may not be making much or any money, there may be other perks to taking an internship, including reimbursement for transportation, tickets to company events, or use of company facilities. Additionally, check with your college to see if you are able to receive course credit for your internship.

Other Options

If you feel taking an internship may not be in your best interest, or if you feel as though you can’t afford to work for low or no pay, consider your other options. Taking a part-time job may be beneficial. Even if you aren’t able to find a position within your field, job experience goes a long way for potential employers down the road – it shows that you know how to show up on time, work with a boss, and generally act professionally. You may also consider exploring freelancing opportunities, which would allow you to gain experience in your own field while also making money for your work.

Making The Decision

If you are in a financial situation where you can take a low-paying or unpaid internship, it is still crucial to consider whether the value of the internship outweighs the cost. When offered an internship, check in with the company to see what kinds of tasks you will be assigned. If it sounds like you will just be picking up coffee and making copies, chances are you will not be gaining enough valuable job experience to offset working for little pay. But, on the other hand, if it seems as though you will be able to engage in hands-on activities and be involved in learning the way the company works, the internship may be an incredibly beneficial way to get valuable job experience that may be integral in landing a job in the field after graduation.

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