Why Unpaid Internships Are Worth It

Today we welcome back our Tuesday contributor, Catherine Alford!

I have definitely lost count of how many times I’ve worked for free in the form of an internship, but I can honestly say that each time was a very valuable experience for me.

I started interning at museums in college. I majored in history, and at the time, I wanted to work in a museum either as a curator, historian, or educator.

I had some really great experiences during that time in my life with some seriously geek-tastic moments, like seeing the first skeleton that they uncovered at historic Jamestown in Virginia and seeing parts of the U.S.S. Monitor ironclad ship just after they pulled it out the ocean.

I worked with amazing people and got to be a part of projects that contributed positively to the world. Plus, all of these internships (combined with some good grades) helped me get into graduate school with a full tuition scholarship.

Once I got that acceptance letter with the scholarship offer attached, I knew that working for free all those years was definitely worth it.

Unpaid Internships After College

When most people think of unpaid internships, college comes to mind, since that’s the time when we are developing what we want to do with our lives.

However, unpaid internships are awesome experiences no matter how old you are! For example, just year ago, when my blog was still on blogger with a header I designed in paint shop, I interned with a new online branding company.

They taught me how to use WordPress, navigate the site, and edit blog posts. Then, they launched an even bigger internship project asking other bloggers to contribute. At that time, I became the editor for the site, checking contributor posts for grammar, formatting them, and keeping everything on schedule. It taught me a lot about what website owners expect from their staff writers, lessons I still use to this day in my own business.

Also, the knowledge that I gained about WordPress was golden. When I decided to start pursuing staff writing for other blogs as a serious side venture, I was able to say that I was proficient with WordPress because of that internship. Then, I moved my entire blog over to WordPress without having that awkward getting-to-know-you phase.

Hidden Benefits of Unpaid Internships

As evidenced, there are tons of hidden benefits to working for free, so think outside the box. If you’ve always wanted to learn how to reupholster furniture, landscape, or run an online business, send a nice professional e-mail to a company you admire and offer to work for free!

It’s a win/win situation because the company gets a helping hand, and you get to soak up the knowledge.

Remember, whether you’re 25 or 65, you can do an unpaid internship to learn a new skill. You might be surprised to find out where it takes you. I know I was!

Have you ever worked for free? Was it a valuable experience?

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About Catherine Alford

Catherine Alford is a personal finance freelance writer who received a B.A. from The College of William and Mary and an M.A. from Virginia Tech. She enjoys sharing her adventures on her blog, www.BudgetBlonde.com.


  1. I have mixed feelings about prolonged unpaid internships. The way I see it, they unfairly benefit the people who have the financial resources to what amounts to taking an unpaid job.
    Anyway, I’m glad that it all worked out for you! I have never done an internship but I do know that we ended up hiring our intern at my old job.

  2. I also have mixed feelings. I think companies are generally taking advantage of college kids by doing this.

    Unless they’re just getting the coffee, they are probably using a skill that should require some sort of compensation.

  3. I wouldn’t work for free. In college I had a part time paid job so no time for internships, then for the master a company paid my master and they had me for two years as a paid intern. I would work for free for family members but that’s it.

  4. My son had an unpaid internship (City Attorney) for 4 weeks during law school. The contacts and networking possibilities are invaluable.

    If you view your work experience as opportunities to gain the skills and experience for future jobs or career advancement, you will try to absorb every moment to learn. I tell my children to think about the skills/experience you need for your next position or the one after that now. That way you are prepared for the promotion.

  5. I don’t think unpaid internships are common in my field. Maybe for high schoolers in an informal way? Once in college (and even in HS) there are many opportunities to do research in a structured program and get paid for it.

    From the ongoing coverage I have heard on Marketplace, it seems that there are a lot of rules around what unpaid interns can do and it sounds very tricky for an employer to comply with them while offering a stimulating experience for the intern. I think it would just be easier to pay the intern! It seems that so many just violate the rules to get free labor.

  6. Between my undergrad and grad school, I did a total of 4 internships – all unpaid, BUT they were for class credit. I think that’s a great compromise. I learned so much more from these “real world” experiences then I did sitting in a lecture hall, reading a text book.

    I don’t know of many (any?) unpaid internships that exists outside of school where I live. Is it common here in Canada, or is it more of an American thing?

  7. I think it boils down to attitude and what one wishes to gain with the internship. There are some internships that should definitely be paid and others that one can take for the experience and networking opportunities they offer. Additionally, I think that with a great employer (e.g in your cases Cat) the chances to learn, experience and network are boundless…it might be worth the trouble!

  8. I never thought about having an unpaid internship AFTER college. Although it can still be a valuable learning experience, after a certain point you have to wonder if a company is just taking advantage of you. In my opinion, if you have a college degree under your belt, you should be paid for the time and services you dedicate to a company.

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