'I Can't Afford To Do An Unpaid Internship!' Sure You Can

by Vault Education Editors | November 11, 2010

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A classic dilemma (or modernity's cruel joke): A student wants an internship. This person is smart and diligent and eager to enter working life. So what's keeping this model future employee from getting one? Money, naturally. The student, on the brink of insolvency, must work to eat, eat to live, and live so he can work again. The student's dedicated, sure, but not yet superhuman. Or as well-off as some of his other classmates, who surely will not hesitate to seize that coveted unpaid internship. He feels trapped between his current and future livelihood. Does the student have to choose between his career and his subsistence? Is it eat now or eat later?

Certain facts about the current job market for college graduates seem to hint at an answer.

Higher chance of receiving a job offer with internship experience. Candidates with internship experience had a 42 percent likelihood of receiving an offer, compared to only 30 percent of students who had no internship experience.

Graduates with internship experience tend to receive significantly higher starting salaries. Median starting salary of applicants in 2009:

• With internship experience on their resume: $41,580

• No internship experience: $34,601

· Most jobs are found through people you know. Some experts say 70%. In the most competitive markets, the number could even be higher than that. Internships can expand your professional and social network, especially those in your desired industry.

* first two statistics taken from the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) 2010 Student Survey

It's very easy to see the work-or-intern question as an either-or situation, with the facts supporting the choice to take the internship. Either stop working and take an unpaid internship (and increase employability), or work now and graduate without potentially crippling debt (but reduced employability). Luckily, what we have here is a false dilemma, at least in most cases. Plenty of options exist, in fact, and often go unconsidered by the youthful and under-informed college student.

Adjust your financial aid package. As tuition has risen, so has financial assistance. Speak to a financial aid officer about increasing your aid amount. There is no reason why you can't negotiate if your situation changes. Also, schools offer additional aid sometimes when students begin unpaid or low-pay internships.

Find a paid internship. Due to tighter federal regulations on unpaid internships, many companies have been converting to paid internships. On the other hand, they have also been reducing the number of total openings.

If you can't find a paid internship in your immediate field, look for paid work in a related field. Skills and expertise often overlap across industries and jobs. For instance, it might be a great idea for a journalism major to choose an internship that would increase his subject matter expertise. An aspiring science journalist, then, might find it more useful to find part-time work as a research assistant at his school, over a more traditional journalism internship.

Consult HR or career services. If your dream internship is unpaid, you can still receive non-wage forms of assistance. For contractual reasons, it's tough for a company to switch an internship from paid to unpaid. But they can provide for travel expenses, housing sometimes, a variety of perks and often a small stipend. You can also apply for a stipend at your university's career services.

Take the hit on student loans. You can always reduce your payments in the first few years if you have to. Though the market is getting better, finding a job—one in your desired field, no less—is no easy thing. The trade-off for graduating into debt is that you will have a much higher chance of getting a job you like, and at a higher salary.

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