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Paid Internships vs. Unpaid Internships

Paid internships

Students all eventually face the same dilemma: They have to choose between paid internships and unpaid internships.

Why is it even a dilemma, you ask? The choice seems obvious. Paid internships are better because they, well, pay, right?

Regrettably, in our experience, it’s not as simple as that. Money is important, but it’s only one of the factors students should take into account when choosing an internship. Just because an internship is paid doesn’t automatically make it right for you. In fact, it can set your career back in the long run if you are only choosing it because it’s paid.

In this post, we take a look at the not-so-obvious advantages and disadvantages of paid and unpaid internships. If you’re at the paid vs. unpaid internships fork-in-the-road, we hope this information helps you make an informed decision:

Paid Internship – The Pros and Cons

Paid internships, you may be surprised to find out, aren’t all sunshine and roses. They often come with drawbacks – some of them as significant ones.

Let’s go over some of the major pros and cons of paid internships for international students.



The most obvious advantage of a paid internship is you get paid. And there’s no denying how empowering it can be. Money opens up avenues where none existed before.
What may have once seemed like an impossibly-distant dream-like interning in a megacity such as London or New York for a big-name company – is now your new reality. Your living expenses are taken care of, at the very least. Maybe you even have enough for sightseeing. The future appears bright.

Confidence Boost

Many students and recent graduates have a shaky sense of self-worth. They haven’t truly found their place in the adult, working world yet and are eager to prove themselves, but unsure if they have the skills. You may have experienced similar feelings before.
Often an unpaid internship can make you feel like your time and work is not worthy of being paid for, which can reduce your self-esteem further. When you find a paying opportunity, it’ll fill you with a sense of accomplishment. It can do wonders for your sense of self-worth and will motivate you to work harder to continue to succeed in your career


Paid and unpaid internships both look good on your resume, but this is especially the case for paid internships. When you apply to work somewhere in the future, the employer will take you seriously. The fact you drew a paycheck is likely to tip the scales in your favour. Employers recognise how competitive paid internships are so will be impressed by the fact that you managed to secure one.

Now we’ve discussed some of the positives of a paid internship, let’s talk about some of the negatives and things to be aware of before applying.


Irrelevant field

Paid internships, compared to unpaid ones, are few and far between. While you may succeed in finding a paid internship, the chances of you getting one in your field of choice are low.
Many students compromise and end up pursuing paid internships in a different industry. It’s not an industry they trained for. In many cases, it’s not an industry they have much interest in. They mean to switch back later, but it doesn’t always work out that way. It’s one of the reasons why the number of graduates mismatched to their jobs is sky-high.

Furthermore, if your internship is not in the field that you want to work in, then your chances of securing a job in that field in the future are unlikely as even though you have an internship the skills you gained may not be relevant to the roles you want to apply for.

High workload

There’s no such thing as a free lunch. If someone pays you, they are going to expect something in return. Students looking to ease into the working world may be in for an unpleasant surprise. This doesn’t apply to all internship opportunities, of course, but is true often enough.

If you get paid, you may have to shoulder a lot of expectations and tangible work responsibilities. After all, the money you’re being paid could have been used to hire an employee instead. Your employer may see you as a replacement employee, not just a trainee, and adjust your workload accordingly. You may learn a lot from the experience, but it won’t be easy.

Miss out on following your dreams

Making the transition from college straight to a paid internship and then a high-paying job is tempting. You have it all figured out. You’re going to be mentored by the brightest, network with people in high places, and rocket up the career ladder. You can see it happening and the world is your oyster.

But is the opportunity something you really want to pursue? If the answer is yes, you’re on the right track. But if it’s a no, you may need to explore your options.

Plenty of students have been in your shoes, with promising paid internship opportunities lined up and career paths mapped out. But some forewent all that for unpaid internships and a chance to chase their dreams. They even say it’s the best decision they ever made.

Unpaid Internships – The Pros and Cons

Let’s face it: Having to work but not getting paid for it doesn’t sound appealing. Given the choice of paid internships or unpaid internships, most students eagerly jump at the first.

In reality, however, many unpaid internships come with amazing perks. Sometimes, these perks even make up for the “not being paid” part.

Below are some known and lesser-known pros and cons of unpaid internships for you.


Valuable experience

Unpaid internships can bring you a wealth of experience. You’ll get to work with passionate people in a field you love. Compared to paid internships, there is likely to be less pressure on you to perform. It leaves you free to explore, learn, experiment, and grow.

Unpaid internships are also great for character building. We don’t mean to glorify not being paid. Being broke, saddled with student loans, and forced to work for free isn’t exactly a walk in the park. We’d rather you made money.

However, it does evolve you as a person. If you make it through the experience – and you will, just like the others – you’ll emerge stronger and wiser for it. And you’ll know you have what it takes to make it through tough times.

Testing the waters

Quite a few students are pushed into their internship and, indeed, career paths by societal influences, peer pressure, and parental demands. You may relate. These students end up unhappy and dissatisfied several months in. We think it’s a contributing factor as to why only 15% of people are satisfied with their current jobs.

An unpaid internship opportunity is an obligation-free way to explore your passion. You are free to find out if your current industry is to your liking. Also, unpaid internship opportunities are not hard to come by. You will have the freedom to pursue your dreams – something you can’t always do with paid internships.

Training opportunities

Paid internships are prone to having strict work programs and schedules. Paid interns may be treated as entry-level employees. Unpaid internships, on the other hand, usually have fewer constraints. Unpaid interns are likely to be free to explore a bit more.

The free time and comparative lack of responsibilities can work in your favour. You can see how your company works firsthand, job shadow other people, and even attend company training courses or gain professional qualifications which may be offered by the company.


Stress and financial constraints

Not many students can afford to work for free, even if it is for a brief period. If they have no choice but to get an unpaid internship, many take up part-time or even full-time jobs to eke out a living. It can lead to a great deal of stress.

Ideally, students should be free to focus on learning and work. Having to work two jobs can make it hard to have a satisfactory internship experience.

Self-esteem challenge

We talked about how being paid is good for your self-esteem. Working for free, on the other hand, can negatively impact a student’s self-esteem. This is especially true when “real” employees look down on them for being unpaid interns.

While it’s challenging, we think it’s crucial that students develop thick skin here. Don’t let your paycheck dictate your self-esteem. You have value just for being you. Remind yourself you will make it to a well-paid job eventually. You’re just doing what it takes to get there.

May affect future employment

Having an unpaid internship on your resume doesn’t always look as good as a paid internship. When you apply for a job somewhere, the employer may be impressed by your work experience. But then they’ll see you didn’t get paid.

However if you are unable to secure a paid internship or find one in a field you want to work in then an unpaid internship will still look good on your resume and show that you have some work experience and will have developed soft skills required in the workplace such as communication, organisation, and teamwork which are all attributes that employers seek in candidates.

The Third Type of Internship: The Perfect Middle Ground?

There’s a third type of internship that you need to be aware of – the internship that pays you, but not in the form of money. Instead, it compensates you in some other way:

  • The internship may reward you in the form of academic credit.
  • You may receive free housing for the duration.
  • You may get free breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
  • The company may offer to pay for insurance.
  • You may receive a small stipend at the end.

If you can’t afford to do an unpaid internship, this third type of internship might be a good solution.


There’s no clear winner in the battle of paid vs. unpaid internships. Paid internships and unpaid internships both have their pros and cons. Also, every internship opportunity is unique, and so is every student. There’s no one-size-fits-all answer.

It’s our hope you don’t reject an unpaid opportunity out of hand just because it doesn’t pay you. And we also hope you don’t blindly pursue a paid internship just because it’s paid! Instead, choose the internship opportunity that makes you happy, helps you to grow, and builds up your career.

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Having written for publications globally for over a decade, Prathamesh is a seasoned writer. He loves to read, game, and travel the world in his spare time.

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