The unpaid internship. The ongoing debate. Personally, I have no problem with the unpaid internship. (I chose to do four of them.) However, there is a lot of chatter out there around whether they are fair or not.
My blog, my opinion — In order to gain experience in a competitive industry, you likely need to make some sacrifices. This could mean accepting an unpaid internship and committing to work a part-time job on the side in order to make ends meet. So you’re super busy for 8-10 weeks… So what if you’re working hard for something you really want.
You’re gaining knowledge about how a department, company and even an entire industry works. More importantly, you are establishing relationships, building up your network and opening doors for your future self.
To help paint the picture for you, I’m sharing my first-hand experience with the value of unpaid internships below. But first, I’m sharing some thoughtful insights from an author whom I admire.
One successful author’s perspective on the unpaid internship
Ryan Holiday is one of my favorite authors. In fact I recommend his book, The Obstacle is the Way, in my post 4 Awesome Books College Students Should Read. I recently watched an interview in which Ryan so sensibly articulated a couple points about the value of gaining experience in an industry or line of work, no matter what the pay.
Ryan spent some of his early years learning from his idol, author Robert Greene. He did so by doing what some may consider mundane tasks, at below-market rates. However, he saw his time in this position as a great opportunity.
In the interview, Ryan said he believes it’s shortsighted to think that the value of working for someone as their intern is only $15/hour (or whatever the intern pay rate may be). Instead, you should think in terms of “What is an hour of this person’s time worth?”
As an intern, you get to be around these people. You have access to them. Whether directly or indirectly, you are learning from people whose time is very valuable. It’s hard to put an hourly pay rate on that.
And yes, Ryan was earning a wage, but it was minimal. Beyond his own experience, his perspective held true when discussing unpaid internships that have made the news in recent years.
To further strengthen his position on internship experience (paid or unpaid), Ryan expressed the difference between being around people who are aspiring to do what you want to do versus being around people who are doing what you want to do.
This may mean taking on jobs that others won’t, in order to get to where you want to be. Maybe that’s an unpaid internship, or maybe it’s an entry-level role as an executive assistant. I’ve personally done both, and they presented me with invaluable experience and coveted opportunities.
Just completing the coursework and talking about what you hope to do — That’s not going to open any more doors for you than it does the next person. You have to seek experience, learn what it takes to do the job firsthand and demystify all the rest. You have to make connections and expand your network. Sometimes an unpaid internship is the best path forward.
My perspective on the unpaid internship
As I already mentioned, I had four unpaid internships while in college. Two of the four were extremely competitive to secure. They were competitive, because they are what I like to call “sexy internships.” They were high-profile, in-demand, resume builders in an exciting industry. Both of my “sexy internships” were in professional sports. One with the Chicago Bulls, and another with Priority Sports.
I went after these internships without giving the unpaid part a second thought. I knew that the experience I would gain, and the people I would meet, would far outweigh the fact that these were unpaid internships. As it turns out, I gained a lot more than just experience and connections…
Actual value I got from my unpaid internships:
- Direct mentorship from leading industry experts (top NBA and NFL coaches and sports agents), which translated to strong professional references throughout my career.
- Access to a state-of-the-art NBA training facility for my own personal workouts.
- Daily lunch and dinner compliments of the Chicago Bulls team chef.
- Chicago Bulls game tickets for me and my brother in the team friends and family section.
- My next internship opportunity → The Chicago Bulls internship is what opened the door for my internship with Priority Sports.
- First-hand experience working in a variety of departments inside the professional sports industry, helping me narrow down what I did and didn’t want to do from a career perspective.
- Strong, lifelong friendships with fellow interns and employees.
- A FULL-TIME JOB OFFER IN CALIFORNIA, as a result of my combined internship experience, months before I graduated from college.
I made the unpaid internships work for me, not against me. I also did what I had to do in order to make it all work. That meant working early and late shifts at the local fitness club in order to cover my expenses. Were my days long? Sure, but only for eight weeks of my life. And the bulleted list above is proof that all of the long days were worth it.
Unpaid internships are not the enemy here. They can be an amazing opportunity if you’re willing to sacrifice and put in the work. Bottom line, you get to choose. If a company is only offering an unpaid internship, you don’t have to say yes. If unpaid doesn’t work for you, go find a paid internship. There are a lot of great opportunities out there on both sides.
Paid or unpaid, all of them require work on your part. Nothing worthwhile comes easy. You have to put in the time to search for opportunities, present yourself professionally and secure the internship. If you’re looking for some guidance on how you can do all of this, sign up to join the waitlist for my upcoming online program, The Course. I’ll show you the ropes!