Are Unpaid Internships A Path To Opportunity Or Just A Dead End?

Manavi Agarwal

Last Updated: November 4, 2023
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Unpaid internships have long been a rite of passage for many students and recent graduates seeking to gain a foothold in their chosen industries. These opportunities promise invaluable experience, networking, and a stepping stone to future employment. However, they also raise a contentious question: are they worth it? We get it, making the decision to dive into the unpaid internship jungle can be as nerve-wracking as choosing between ketchup or mustard for your hotdog. In this blog, we’re going to break down the pros, the cons, and the ugly truths about unpaid internships. By the time we’re done, you’ll be ready to make an informed choice and understand whether that unpaid gig is a priceless stepping stone or just a bridge to nowhere.

The Great Unpaid Internship Debate


Unpaid internships are a bit like the enigmatic cat in Schrödinger’s famous thought experiment, existing in both a valuable and exploitative state until you open the box to observe them. Let’s start by unboxing the concept:

Understanding The Basics

Unpaid internships are positions where you work for an organisation without receiving monetary compensation. They are typically offered by companies, non-profits, and government agencies, providing students and recent graduates with an opportunity to gain practical experience in their field of interest. But before we tackle the worthiness of these internships, let’s explore their hidden facets.

The Dark Side Of Unpaid Internships

  • Legal Grey Area: In many countries, the legality of unpaid internships is a complex matter. Laws surrounding internships vary, and they may only be legal if they meet specific criteria, like educational benefits for the intern and not displacing paid employees. The onus is on employers to adhere to these regulations, but many do not.
  • Financial Strain: Unpaid internships can be financially burdensome. Many interns are forced to take on part-time jobs to support themselves, which can be detrimental to the quality of their internship experience. It’s a cruel paradox: you need experience to get a job, but you also need a job to support your unpaid internship.
  • Access Inequality: Unpaid internships can be exclusive. Those who can’t afford to work for free may miss out on valuable opportunities, perpetuating a cycle of privilege. This exclusion can lead to a lack of diversity in various industries.

The Bright Side Of Unpaid Internships

Now that we’ve seen the shadows, it’s time to shed some light on why unpaid internships might be worth considering:

  • Valuable Experience: Unpaid internships often offer hands-on experience you can’t get in a classroom. You’re in the trenches, learning practical skills, and gaining insight into your chosen field.
  • Networking Opportunities: Internships provide an excellent platform to build a network of industry contacts. You’ll meet professionals who could become mentors or even potential employers down the line.
  • Resume Booster: Having an internship on your resume demonstrates your commitment to your chosen field and makes you more attractive to future employers.
  • Skill Development: You’re likely to learn skills that can’t be taught in a traditional classroom setting, such as problem-solving, teamwork, and adaptability.

Balancing The Equation


Now, let’s address the million-dollar question: Are unpaid internships worth it? It’s a complex matter, and the answer isn’t the same for everyone. Consider these factors:

  1. Industry Norms: Unpaid internships are more common in some industries than others. Creative fields like media and fashion, as well as non-profits and government agencies, often rely on unpaid labour. If your heart is set on one of these industries, an unpaid internship might be your ticket in.
  2. Your Financial Situation: Can you afford to work for free? If your answer is yes, you’re in a better position to consider an unpaid internship. If not, look for alternatives like paid internships, part-time jobs, or applying for financial aid or scholarships.
  3. The Company’s Reputation: The prestige of the company matters. If the organisation offering the unpaid internship is well-known in your field, it might be worth the sacrifice for the connections and experience you gain. However, in the quest to make an informed decision about unpaid internships, assessing both the company’s reputation and its compensation policies is crucial to know the right fit for you. 
  4. Duration and Responsibilities: Consider the duration and responsibilities of the internship. A short-term, intensive unpaid internship might be more manageable than a long-term commitment that doesn’t offer significant learning opportunities.
  5. Education and Future Prospects: Think about how the internship aligns with your educational and career goals. If it’s directly related to your field of study and enhances your skillset, it could be a wise investment in your future.

Exploring Alternatives

Don’t be disheartened if an unpaid internship doesn’t align with your circumstances or goals. There are alternatives that can provide similar benefits:

  • Paid Internships: Seek out paid internships. They may be less common, but they exist and can provide you with income and experience.
  • Freelancing: Consider freelancing or gig work in your field. It might not be as structured as an internship, but it allows you to earn while building your portfolio.
  • Volunteer Work: If you’re passionate about a specific cause, consider volunteering with organisations that align with your interests. While it may not be a traditional internship, it still provides valuable experience.
  • Online Courses and Workshops: Don’t underestimate the value of online courses, workshops, and certifications. Many of these can boost your skills and make your resume more appealing to potential employers.

Mentoria – Your Guide To Informed Decisions


For those seeking clarity in this contentious arena, Mentoria stands as a beacon of guidance. We understand that the decision to embark on an unpaid internship can be daunting. It’s more than an investment of time; it’s a strategic choice that can influence your career trajectory.

Our dedicated team at Mentoria equips you with the insights and tools to make well-informed decisions. We offer personalised counselling to understand your career goals, financial situation, and what you hope to gain from the internship experience. Our career experts delve into the pros and cons, helping you weigh the potential benefits against the financial sacrifices.

Whether you’re driven by a passion for the field or the promise of future opportunities, Mentoria assists in setting realistic expectations and identifying ways to maximise the value of an unpaid internship. We believe that your career choices should align with your aspirations and financial circumstances.