Paid vs. Unpaid Internships

Internships are an excellent way for college students to  experience their careers before they even graduate. There are literally thousands of opportunities for internships. Choosing the right one can be a challenge. One of the biggest decisions for most college students is weighing the options of paid and unpaid internship opportunities. A student may find the perfect internship job as far as experience is concerned but it is unpaid. They may also find another opportunity with a company that may not be their first choice but it comes with a salary. Deciding between the two can be difficult.

Financial considerations

Every student has different goals for landing an internship. The primary goal is to gain hands-on experience in their field of study. Beyond this, there are factors to consider in deciding whether a paid or unpaid position best meets their needs. The first consideration is the student's financial situation. If a student absolutely must earn income during the summer to help pay for tuition, a paid position is the best choice. Fortunately, there are plenty of well-paying internships available. According to, interns at the 25 best-paying companies earn an average monthly wage of between $4,604 and $6,704. Students in high technology fields are fortunate because big companies like Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Yahoo, and Apple pay high salaries for fresh talent.

The downside is that some companies may pay well but not have the exact experience a student is looking for. In addition, the corporate culture may not be a good fit. In this situation, students must weigh the experience they will gain compared to the money they will earn. If money is extremely important and the internship will result in experience in the right industry, it may be the right choice.

Also, it is good to keep in mind that although some positions are unpaid, they may offer college credit for completing the internship. This is also a financial consideration because it in effect pays for college. If an internship offers even three hours of credit, that can add up to a nice savings, especially if a student is attending an ivy league school.

Career considerations

There is no question that making contacts at internship companies is important to establish relationships that will help students find jobs after graduation. Many good companies hire interns during the summer as a way of recruiting good talent. Some of these companies will state in their internship description the percentage of interns who are hired as full-time employees following graduation. They may even state that their goal is to establish a long-term working relationship with interns. In other words, they are looking for top talent to join their team.

Recent college graduates face unemployment of 8.8 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. It's not unusual for recent graduates to have trouble finding work and end up in jobs that don't require a college degree. Students in more competitive fields will find it particularly tough to land their first job. Even if an internship does not pay a salary or stipend, students may want to consider an unpaid internship with a key organization in order to get their foot in the door and gain valuable experience that will separate them from other potential job candidates when it comes to looking for their first real job.

According to The National Association of Colleges and Employers, most students want a job with meaning and one that will offer them career growth. In order to meet that goal, students may want to seriously consider an unpaid internship if it is the perfect job in the best company. Taking an unpaid position, doing a great job throughout the internship, and making the right contacts and impressions along the way will result in long-term career benefits.

Consider doing both

Depending on the student, it is possible to get the best of both worlds when it comes to paid and unpaid internships by doing both. If a student is responsible, determined, and has good time management skills, it may be possible to balance time between a paid and an unpaid internship. How can this be done?

Internships are offered throughout the year. Each one varies in how many hours per week the student is required to work. This makes it possible for a student to combine both paid and unpaid internships. For example, a student might accept a full-time, paid internship during the summer to earn money for college, and work at an unpaid internship during winter and spring break. Students must weigh the importance of the internships with their ability to maintain their course work and grade point average. Grade point averages are important, not only for internship selection, but also for hiring criteria after graduation.


Deciding between a paid or an unpaid internship boils down to a personal decision. The decision should be based on what is best for each student's financial situation and career goals. It's important to base your decision on whether or not a position is a good fit with your future interests, as well as with your financial situation. Ultimately, the best choice is the one that meets financial objectives as well as offering useful, hands-on experience.

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