Unpaid internships offer students the chance to really explore the area of work that they want to enter, without being blinded by a five-figure salary.

Like thousands of other hard-working and ambitious undergraduates, my summer holiday has revolved around gaining CV points. Every day, I’ve got up early, done the rush-hour commute, answered my emails, quickly grabbed lunch and gone back to the hard slog of an eight-hour working day in an office. The only thing that separates me from the rest of the staff is my salary, or lack of it.

A recent by The Guardian found that half of students spend their university holidays doing unpaid interning. In a society recovering from economic downturn, the competition is well and truly on. The only thing that distinguishes you from millions of other fantastic candidates is your work experience, so you naturally grab any opportunity that draws you a little closer into the field you eventually want to be. And yet, despite regular condemnations of the “unpaid internship” in the press over the last few years, many companies simply refuse to pay students.

This poses an interesting question: are companies playing on students’ vulnerability, or do internships help us really question our desire to pursue a certain career without a five-figured salary influencing our decision?

I have plenty of friends who have sacrificed their summers to the world of banking. All of these friends have been very generously financially rewarded. But I can’t say they have much respect for the industry they want to enter, or its work ethic. Meanwhile, my foray into the magazine world has shown me that journalists can expect years of unpaid work before making their hard graft, quite literally, pay off. And although the salary we’re working towards isn’t great, I’m quite glad the places I worked at this summer didn’t pay me more than expenses.

This summer has certainly been a learning curve, and it’s provided me with a real insight into what life is going to be like when I’m forced to leave the comforts of learning and loans behind. The fact that I wasn’t paid more than expenses made me focus on what I was doing rather than what I was earning, ensuring that the term ‘work experience’ really rang true. It made me realise that in the real world, it really helps if you enjoy what you do – because somehow, weekly essays and supervisions don’t seem so burdensome compared with the reality of long working days and minimal breaks.

So set a balance, and try sometimes to fill your CV rather than your pockets; it can prove strangely insightful.

Illustration by Olivia Vane

  • What?

    How lucky you can afford to just be paid expenses, do mummy and daddy pay for rent, food and other basic items?

    • LvM

      And even if so, would it be her "fault"? Surely unpaid internships are a problem, but it's certainly not the interns that should have to take the blame.

      Nice to see that one of the related articles is titled "Is inverse snobbery a problem?".

      • taja

        doubt inverse snobbery is as damaging to posh people as normal snobbery has been and still is to poor people, for you know, all of human history.

        the idea of 'inverted snobbery' emerged to deflect criticism of unequal access to resources as western societies have themselves become increasingly unequal. just sayin

  • Can't agree with you

    I'm very glad you had a good time on your unpaid internship. However, a lot of us just can't afford to do an unpaid one, and so your urging us to "fill our CV rather than our pockets" is a little redundant. I did an internship in finance which did pay me, but I certainly wasn't focussing on what I was earning rather than what I was doing. In fact, it's unusual for even paid internships to work out as much more than about £7 an hour – not much more than the average holiday job. We're all destined for different work areas. Just because some people want to go into an area that has paid internships does not mean their eyes have turned into pound signs, and they're no longer interested in job satisfaction or professional integrity. We all have our niche in life – but your internship wasn't more worthwhile just because you didn't get paid for it.

  • DI-J.R.

    "And although the salary we’re working towards isn’t great, I’m quite glad the places I worked at this summer didn’t pay me more than expenses"

    This is very confusing sentence, and I question whether you really believe this. It just so happens that this is the norm in that field. There is plenty of money swimming around banking (still) hence why they pay their interns. It's simple supply and demand. There are far more folk wanting to be journalists than can be paid to do so on a short-term basis, therefore publications can 'afford' to not offer a salary. I really can't be doing with this idea that an internship is somehow more personally valuable if unpaid.

    If that is the industry you want to work in, then that is all there is to it. One is not more valuable or rewarding than the other *because* of the wage slip or lack thereof. I agree you should avoid being motivated solely by money, but you need to bear in mind that some folk actually want to work in these paid internships (an Engineering company in my case) and others can't afford to pursue unpaid ones.

  • Guest

    "And although the salary we’re working towards isn’t great, I’m quite glad the places I worked at this summer didn’t pay me more than expenses"

    I'm personally very grateful to have been paid for working over the summer. You know so I can have something to live on….

  • Guest

    "And although the salary we’re working towards isn’t great, I’m quite glad the places I worked at this summer didn’t pay me more than expenses"

    Personally I'm really grateful to have been paid for working this summer. You know, so I had money to live on…

  • Article Judge

    Riddled with school-boy errors and simplistic presumptions about the benefits, or lack thereof, towards paid internships and money more generally (which I would like to clarify to Miss Fenton, is actually what normal people need to live on)… No wonder you weren't paid!

  • Gabriemma

    the new lexi abrams!

  • Jen

    "All of these friends have been very generously financially rewarded. But I can’t say they have much respect for the industry they want to enter, or its work ethic."

    You seem to be taking an odd upper high-ground. Is the media in general and journalism in particular the squeaky clean ethical environment that you seem to be suggesting? Dubious. Think I might have more respect for bankers than journalists – but it's definitely a fine line and not one that should be decided by whether or not they shelled out for your work over the summer. Journalism as a career is going down the pan anyway, so good luck.