4 Ways to Make an Unpaid Internship Work for You

By: Olivia Power

If you work during the school year or in the summer, you probably think you don’t have the time or money for an unpaid internship. Or, you may think that these types of internships are merely a form of exploitation. If you find yourself nodding your head in agreement at this point, this post is for you.

It’s enough to make an English major despair, isn’t it? What’s the point in working without a tangible reward? Or what if working for free is just not a financial possibility? And why are so many unpaid internships the exact kind that English majors want–positions for writers and editors? Are words really this cheap?

But don’t despair, English majors. Unpaid internships can be tricky, but when you find one that strikes the right balance between good experience and low time-commitment, it can end up being well worth your time.

As I read the description for the position of Communications & Marketing intern at Ronald McDonald House Charities of Central Indiana at the end of last semester, my heart began to race. I had been searching for a position exactly like this one for months, one that would suit my interest in nonprofit organizations. But, as their name implies, nonprofits rarely have the luxury of extra cash for paying interns, relying on volunteers and just a few salaried staffers to carry out their mission. When I applied for the internship, I knew I wouldn’t be getting paid, but hoped that I’d gain enough good experience would make up for the spending money I’d be missing out on. I got that and more.

Here are some ways to approach an unpaid internship to make sure you get the most out of your experience, just as I did this past summer.

Internships–paid or unpaid–need to allow you to actually do some of the work you’re hoping to do in the future.

If the main draw of an internship is experience, it’s important that you actually get to practice the thing you want to learn more about. Each morning when I arrived at my internship, I received a series of projects for the day—each of which were exciting, meaningful, and relevant. Throughout each of these projects, I was given a great deal of autonomy (something I’ve noticed many interns in this day in age are not given).

Day to day, I worked mainly with social media—crafting tweets and Facebook posts, scheduling for the week, and posting on Instagram. I am very active on my personal social media accounts, but didn’t have too much experience doing social media for an organization. The sheer number of posts I wrote, received feedback on, and edited allowed me to work on my own creativity—an area which I’ve never been very confident in. In addition to this intangible experience I gained, I also walked away from Ronald McDonald House Charities of Central Indiana with quite a few pieces for my portfolio, which I hope to show to prospective employers when I begin searching for a job in this field.

An unpaid internship should not take up the same amount of your week as a full-time job would.

We creatives need to be especially wary of this. Writing is fun, but it can be absolutely exhausting. If you are producing time-consuming, emotionally exhausting content all day for every day of the week, you should be compensated for that!

All of my internship duties were packed into just two days out of the week, leaving plenty of room during the rest of the week for other commitments and prospects. Although I did not end up taking a part-time job in addition to my internship this summer, I am confident that I could have managed to take on an additional, paying job because my internship did not monopolize my time.

My advice for balancing an internship and a job would be to make both employers aware of your situation and lay out your schedule from the start, so that both parties know when you’re available and when you’re not. Developing good time management skills is also important; keeping separate to-do lists and giving equal attention to both will help you to balance your commitments. With a little time management and understanding from both employers, there’s no reason you can’t have the best of both worlds–an internship in your field and a paycheck.

The right internship, even if it is unpaid, can help to guide your future.

In my 12 weeks with Ronald McDonald House Charities of Central Indiana, I got to experience many unique aspects of the nonprofit world, including marketing, development, event planning, volunteer management, and even a little bit of grant-writing. My greatest lesson was that I do, in fact, want to pursue a career in the nonprofit sector. I finally feel confident and secure about my career path after my final year of college. What more could a girl with two majors in the humanities want?

In my opinion, if you can afford a part-time, unpaid internship, do it. Don’t let the lack of financial compensation keep you from pursuing an experience which may compensate you in other ways, like heightening your passions, providing you with networking opportunities, and giving you invaluable experience. And remember, look for one that is part-time, so that your experience helps you, not costs you.

Take the time to search for the perfect internship

Internship opportunities are all around you. All you have to do is look! Check out #bsuenglish’s own Jobs and Internships page, or browse Indiana INTERNnet or glassdoor.com. Internships can also take the form of an immersive learning course, where you work with students of all majors on a project, of which Ball State has plenty. Start your search today!

Olivia Power is a senior rhetoric/writing and sociology major from Indianapolis, IN. She likes candy of all kinds, The Office, and feminism. Want to connect?

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