Unpaid Internships Galore!

Unpaid internships are one of the necessary evils of the modern workforce. When new graduates can’t get hired unless they have experience and they can’t gain experience without getting hired, the only remaining answer has become the unpaid internship. Billed, and only legal, as a way in which to gain knowledge to supplement classes at universities, unpaid interns are not allowed to do work that would otherwise be done by a paid employee.

In recent years, there have been lawsuits filed by interns because their work was either too demeaning, or too important; these interns sued their “employers” for doing work that would have otherwise been done by a paid employee (producing content for which the company got paid), or because they were doing work that shouldn’t be asked of anyone (fetching coffee, working without lunch breaks or working obscene hours). Conde Nast ended their internship program this year after being sued by former interns. The Huffington Post even published a piece this week about unpaid internships.


Currently on my fourth unpaid internship, I have accepted my fate as the unpaid student employee. If only I was an heiress, because I am very lucky to have worked for and gained the tutelage of the people I have. I just wish I didn’t need to eventually feed myself; I wouldn’t trade my experiences for the highest paid position in a field I didn’t love.

As an experienced intern, I believe that I have a lot to teach my fellow, and any future, PDXSX-er. The most important lesson I have learned is that “yes” is the intern’s best friend. “Do you want to write about ____?” “Yes.” “Do you want to help me with _____?” “Yes.” “Can you compile a list of _____?” “Yes.” “Will you pick up _____?” “Yes.”

Always say yes, even if you have to come up with your own task. Is your internship site hosting a big event next Wednesday? Take home the 22,160 inches of ribbon that needs cutting over the weekend and get it done. Are you getting hungry or craving coffee? Offer to pick something up for your coworkers as well; they’ll return the favor when they’re caffeine-deprived tomorrow.Image

Now, this suggestion may sound demeaning or as if you’re cowing to your superiors. Here’s the unpaid intern’s insight: the nature of the unpaid internship is inherently demeaning, but if you can prove that you’re an invaluable, considerate and helpful coworker, you’re more likely than not to be missed on your days off and be offered a paid position in the department post-graduation. What do you have to lose?

Lucky for those of us in the PDXSX program, graduation is right around the corner.


Laura Hanson


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10 Responses to Unpaid Internships Galore!

  1. cbuch232 says:

    The concept of an unpaid “yes man/woman” is quite odd in theory, but it is totally what we all have to do to make the most of our internships. Though unpaid internships aren’t usually fair or sometimes even legal, you gotta do what you gotta do. It sounds like you have loads of experience and will get a job easily, so cheers to the rough times almost being over! Also, thanks for the insightful post.

  2. kaitlynchock says:

    Thanks for the insight, Laura. You brought up a number of great points; you need to prove your worth to the company and the way to do that is to be assertive and have initiative. There is only so much room in the budget to hire new people so you need to show value. You’re a great example of this because you go above and beyond. Cutting 22,160 inches of ribbon to test fragrances sounds like an incredibly time-consuming task but I’m not the least bit surprised that you took that on. Thanks for being an inspiration and thanks for your perspective.

  3. I find the debate over unpaid internships difficult. You’re completely right, eventually an intern will need to eat! I’ve mentioned my feelings towards unpaid internships to the Gen X folks (our employers and probably parents) and they think it’s the best thing since sliced bread. I think they don’t understand that since they’ve interned, prices on groceries have changed, a lot. On the other hand, the experiences we gain are so valuable (as long as you’re not the office errand boy). However, saying yes shows commitment even with errand tasks, so I agree that saying yes to tasks. Also, if you’ve done four unpaid internships, I think you owe it to yourself to accept a paid internship next time! Thanks for the post.

  4. You have a great point in that the majority of internships (especially those in the journalism field) are unpaid. Yes, it’s not the greatest feeling in the world to work for free. However, sometimes even those unpaid internships end up being the most valuable starting line to your career. I also enjoyed reading about your take on saying “yes” and offering to run an errand or bring coworkers coffee or treats. I confess I once walked over to Whole Foods to fetch my supervisor a few pounds of granola at one point – and I’m happy that I did! Taking the initiative and performing kind gestures show you’re genuine and WANT to be there.

    From what you’ve mentioned to all of us about your internship (food carts) it sounds like you’ve got it made. Be kind, willing and keep saying “yes.” Great things will happen.

    Thank you for sharing!

  5. What a great post Laura! It’s a hard concept sometimes to wrap your head around when you see interns working so hard and not getting paid in the end. The other day someone asked me about if my internship was paid and my first response was that I feel like I have a means to an end with my internship and that I have learned a variety of valuable lessons that I think would make it worth it no matter what. I think that although sometimes it might seem a bit tedious in our daily routines but as interns I think that we should remember that it is a learning experience and even though we might be taking on a heavy work load that in the end it will make us well-rounded in our field. I also enjoyed your bit about saying yes. I think that it’s important to always be willing and take initiative in any given circumstance. Really awesome input and links!

  6. davidhamernick says:

    Very true stuff Laura. In this wacky catch 22 situation, unpaid internships are our savior. That’s pretty crazy that the interns for Black Swan never got paid though. It seems like a very grey line with unpaid internships, especially when you’re talking about big companies like Fox Searchlight Pictures. I’m glad I feel the same as you though, the experience is worth far more than monetary compensation, and it will last us so much longer. I will truly take your advice to heart and start asking people if they want any coffee while I’m out!

  7. pdxsx says:

    Good job, Laura. Humorous, insightful and inspiring. Things are about to change for the better. I promise. Besides, having significant internship experience like you do will translate into a bigger starting salary later.

  8. This is the ultimate dilemma so many of us face as we enter the working world. It is an intimidating fact, but we just have to go with the flow and pay our dues. However, your approach and the way you wrote this post had so much eloquent flow. I really enjoyed reading it! Like David said, its a catch 22 at its finest. Your attitude is the best attitude a unpaid intern can have. Being optimistic and making yourself invaluable is the best way to approach it! That’s really the only way to approach it without getting frustrated or feeling like your getting taken advantage of. Also, your part about saying “yes” is so true. I think even as a paid intern you have to learn to say yes and broaden your horizons and perspectives. Like Kylee mentioned as well, at least your getting to experience the awesome culture of Portland, like the food carts, just to name one. But keep your head up, even though based off of this post you already are!

  9. jroger10 says:

    Wow, four is a lot!
    I like where you point out that an internship is by nature demeaning, and it’s our jobs to prove we’re invaluable. Hopefully Josh is right about you earning a higher starting salary later–soon!
    Good luck job shopping!

  10. simonemyers says:

    Thanks for the advice, Laura!
    Showing your boss and employer that you’re willing to go the extra mile for them is always beneficial, and your point about saying “yes” is spot on. “Yes” is one of my most used words at my internship!
    All of your hard work will definitely pay off in the end!!

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