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Are unpaid internships worth it?

I'm currently a full time student working at a part time job. I'm currently looking for an internship to work in the public health field, but I noticed that most of them are unpaid and demand a significant amount of dedication. I understand that internships are extremely important for career advancement, but I don't know if it's worth pursuing without payment. Right now, I work part time and make enough to pay off school debt, pay for supplies, and personal necessities. I know that if I take an unpaid internship, I would struggle financially, but I just wanted to know if it's worth the sacrifice. If I was to take an internship, should I quit my job to put my 100% into the internship? Are unpaid internships really worth pursuing?
#internships #personal-finance #publichealth #money-management #career-counseling #problem-solving

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Dhairya’s Answer

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Hi Cecilia,
Great question. I empathize, I also worked while I was in college to pay off school loans. It's a difficult place to be balancing school, work, and personal life . Aubree provided some great advice above.

Here's a few more thoughts.

Unpaid internships are tricky. Some will provide great experience and connections that you can use to further your career. Others can be exploitive. Do your research and learn as much you can about the place offering the internship and the type of work you'd be doing. There is no harm in applying ( unless there an application charge, in which case be careful), but hold off on accepting until you learn as much as you can.

Here are some things to consider:
1. Does your school have co-op/internship placement program? Sometimes you can get college credit for your internship experience and at least the experience will help you along with your degree.

2. Can you reach out to former interns? The best way to find out if the internship is useful or not is see if it helped past interns. You can lookup past interns on LinkedIn, ask your school careers office, or even ask the internship provider directly.

3. Is there any grants/scholarships that help cover expenses while taking the internship. At my college, there was a general research grant provided by one of the research centers. I was able to show my internship provided research experience and was able to use the grant to cover living expenses for the summer.

4. Are there paid internships in adjacent fields? Perhaps you can get a paid internship in the bio-tech space or health startup. While it may not be directly public health, you'll get internship experience and not dig a deeper financial hole.

I hope some of this was useful. Good luck with school and your career search!

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Aubree’s Answer

Unpaid internships, in your chosen field, are definitely worth it! Even though they don't compensate you financially, you do get the experience you need. And who knows, say you do the internship for a semester or an entire year, right? The employer could potentially decide to hire you part-time or full-time, paid. It's not a guaranteed, but definitely a possibility. You don't want to quit your current job, necessarily, though I understand the internship would be time-consuming. But you still want the cushion there so you don't have to struggle financially, and you want to get your foot in the door with relevant experience.

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Tanner’s Answer

IMO, an unpaid internship is sometimes a necessity. My wife went through 2-3 unpaid internships until she was able to find a good job...and it was a really good job. Sometimes, you will get lucky with a large company that pays well for their interns (e.g. a Siemens or Lockheed or other big corp), but oftentimes, the market is very competitive and unpaid is the only thing available. An internship (or side business/major project) is critical for getting your foot in the door at an organization or to make your resume stand out. It is a must. Plus, you could take the unpaid, while looking for a paid internship.

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Ollie’s Answer

Other answers have good points.

Here's a point, though. In California, an unpaid internship must, by law, be accompanied by a learning agreement. You have the right, if you're not being paid, to be supported in your learning and career development.

There's been a lot of exploitation of unpaid interns, and it's caught up with employers. So you should insist on making sure you learn. Yes, you can go for sandwiches for the big meeting, but you should also get to sit and eat with the big shots in the meeting.

If the place has a formal internship program, they probably will cover this properly. If you're the only intern they have, you can respectfully ask that you get to learn a lot during your time with them.