Unpaid internships

It’s a tricky subject but one we do need to broach. There’s so much discussion over whether or not unpaid internships are good for your career, but should you ever find yourself in a position where you need to do one - here’s what you need to know.


Are unpaid internships okay?

It’s best we get this out of the way from the off. You’ll NEVER find an unpaid role or internship on the Debut app. If you’re doing an unpaid internship, more often than not you’re being taken advantage of.

Companies that do this usually have a number of justifications for offering these – it may be ‘customary in the industry’ or maybe they’re ‘paying you in exposure/experience’ . Maybe, they think that ‘covering your expenses’ means that they don’t have to pay you a steadfast wage. Whatever they say, just know that if you’re working like a full time employee, you should get paid like one

While unpaid internships can give you all the same benefits as paid ones, you need to think long and hard about whether or not you’re being exploited before you do one. Read on to find out more.

You’ll NEVER find an unpaid role or internship on the Debut app.


Industries where unpaid internships are common

Unpaid internships are an economy-wide problem and aren’t limited to specific industries or types of business. Typically, they are rife in creative industries such as marketing, music, performing arts and the media, and other sectors where long-term growth tends to be slow. They’re also very prevalent in small and medium-sized companies.

Don’t be fooled though – some major companies, including those in booming industries like banking, law, engineering and consulting, have also been known to give out unpaid internships.


How do I know if an unpaid internship is right for me?

Just like any other internship or placement, unpaid internships are one way of getting your foot in the door. They’re great IF you can afford them. But this ain’t no fairytale world and in the infinite wisdom of DJ Khaled, ‘it costs money to eat’. Statistics show that students who do paid internships get a higher starting salary for their first job than those who do unpaid ones.

Remember, if you’re not being paid, you can leave any time you want to.

Moreover, by choosing not to pay a salary for internship, companies make it clear that they don’t want to make the role accessible to people from less advantaged backgrounds. Not only should you think about whether you want to work for free, you should also think about whether you want to work for a company with this kind of ethos.

When doing an internship of any kind, especially one that’s not paid, you should constantly be evaluating its value to you. Remember, if you’re not being paid, you can leave any time you want to. You have no legal obligation to the company.

Of course there are a few things you should consider before you walk out your internship. For instance:

  • Whether or not you’re doing work that will be relevant to your future career
  • Whether or not you’re making useful industry contacts
  • Whether or not you’re developing valuable and relevant skills
  • The chance of you securing permanent employment at the end of it

Also, think about how long you’ll be doing this internship. If you’re working somewhere for two weeks and you’re not getting these things, it’s not as harmful to your eventual job prospects as if you were staying there for a month.



We’ll say it again to be clear. In the same way that you have no obligation to a company you’re not formally working for, that company is obliged to pay you a salary if you are. If you are required to show up for a certain period of time or you’ve got a set list of duties, you’re entitled to the National Minimum Wage by law.

The only exceptions are as follows:

  • Voluntary placements at charitable organizations
  • Temporary placements that last for less than a year as part of a further education or higher education course
  • EU programmes, such as Leonardo da Vinci, Erasmus and Comenius

If none of these apply to you, then the company you work for is breaking the law by not giving you a minimum wage. In this situation, it’s best to report the company to HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC). This is the government body tasked with ensuring that the National Minimum Wage is paid to everyone who is entitled to it. You can do this either before you begin the internship or afterwards, in which case you can claim back the money you’re owed retrospectively. If you’re worried about whether or not this might make things difficult for you, consider not taking the internship at all.


How to support yourself

As much as we’d love to pretend that this is a world where you can stand on your principles in any situation, this is simply not true. There will be times when you have to take an unpaid internship; it might be your only way into a competitive industry or to get relevant experience. So if you absolutely must, here are some tips on how to support and take care of yourself during it.

Ask for payment: It’s often a good idea to try this before you do anything else. If it’s not possible to negotiate before you start somewhere, after you’ve shown yourself to be capable of the job they may be more willing to listen. If you have frequent progress meetings with your manager, this is the forum to bring this up. If you don’t have these often, ask for these first. When you make your argument, focus on the idea that the quality of your work is worth a salary and bring stats to show the difference you’ve made.

Ask for flexible working hours:  As you aren’t being paid, you have no reason to work the hours that they set you. You could conceivably ask for flexible working hours and do a part-time job in your extra time. That way, you can support yourself while you work your way into the industry.

Find free/cheap accommodation: Accommodation will be your largest expense so try and look for internships in areas where you know you can stay cheaply, e.g. with family and friends. If you can live at home or in halls, even better.

Ask to have your expenses covered: Companies offering unpaid internships may be breaking the law but for the most part, they aren’t monsters. As a bare minimum, they’ll pay your travel expenses and possibly your lunch too. If they don’t, ask them.

Ask for more meaningful work: If you can’t get paid for your work, at least ensure to invest in yourself so you can get paid later. Talk to your manager if you’re being given menial tasks and ask for more responsibility.

Accommodation will be your largest expense so try and look for internships in areas where you know you can stay cheaply

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