Paid Vs Unpaid Internships -- Which is Better For My Career?

By Joyce Huber

Internships offer a great way for college students to explore career opportunities, apply their classroom learning in a real work setting, and help them decide if this is what they want to do the rest of their working life. Whether the internship pays or doesn't pay, the student is gaining valuable, on-the-job experience. But which internship is better -- a paid internship or an unpaid internships? It depends.


It is best to weigh the pros and cons of both paid and unpaid internships. If money is the primary goal and you absolutely need to make money for college, then a paid internship should be the goal.

But if the primary goal is to gain valuable experience that will give you a jump-start on your career, or help you find employment, then there are several things to consider when choosing a paid or an unpaid internship.

Gaining Experience

The most important thing to remember in choosing an internship is to choose one that is in an industry that relates to your chosen career field. Remember, internships go on your resume, which means you will need to explain to your potential employer what you gained from the internship experience. If the internship is totally out of your career focus and was accepted just for the money, it may be a negative on your resume.

On the other hand, examine carefully the duties you will be performing during the internship. If a paid internship turns you into a go-for, fetching coffee, making copies, and answering phone calls, it is not going to give you any meaningful experience in your career field, even if it does include pay. In this case, an unpaid internship that offers more experience in your field would be more valuable.

Increasing Job Opportunities

Internships can also lead to offers of full-time employment following graduation. Competition for good jobs out of college lead many students to choose internships that have a history of hiring interns. Statistics show that by far, paid internships are more likely to lead to job offers than unpaid internships. According to The National Association of Colleges and Employers, students who complete paid internships were 63 percent more likely to find employment. Students who completed unpaid internships were only 37 percent likely to find employment. This is close to the 35 percent likelihood among students who did not complete an internship at all.

Just because you completed a paid internship does not guarantee you a job, but it does seem to increase your chances. Even if the employer who hired you for the internship does not offer you a full-time position after graduation, the social network you have established during the internship can increase your chances of being hired by another company.

Internships For Credit

Many internships are unpaid but offer internships for college credit. This is an option to consider. Although it is unpaid, you can earn credit toward your degree by completing the internship. These types of internships require students to keep accurate notes, and they are generally graded by both their supervisor and their professor. Internships for college credit that are directly in-line with a student's chosen field and offer exceptional experience will add credibility to their experience.


The good news is that paid internships are on the rise. According to The National Association of Colleges and Employers’ (NACE) 2014 Internship and Co-op Survey, among the 97 percent of employers who were planning to hire interns in 2014, 98 percent were paid. And they are paying well. According to a recent survey, average pay for interns seeking bachelor’s degrees is at $16.35; and $22.50 for those with a master’s degree.

Internships in technology typically offer very competitive wages for interns and often include housing and living expenses. Companies like Apple, Google, Microsoft, Facebook, VMware, Twitter, LinkedIn and Palantir offer wages up to $7,000 a month, and benefits like free food, free haircuts, and drycleaning services. Other large companies like ExxonMobil also offer competitive wages. But they are also competitive when it comes to selecting candidates for internships.

The bottom line is that whether you choose a paid or an unpaid internship is a personal decision that is based on what is best for you. In addition, you have the opportunity during your college years to participate in more than one internship. Each one will be a learning experience that will help you make better career decisions. Finally, whether paid or unpaid, an internship is not a waste of time but a valuable step in planning your career.

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