The Differences Between Paid and Unpaid Internships

When considering unpaid vs. paid internships, it’s difficult to get past the idea of working for free. It is not uncommon to think: if they are paying employees to work, why can’t they pay me? But it isn’t always that simple. Unpaid internships and internships for credit are increasingly popular, even though many companies will offer paid positions. So how do you decide between unpaid or paid internships?

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The first thing to do is decide what is more important to you. Are you trying to gain experience, are you looking to replace a class, or do you need money for the summer?

If one of these is absolutely the most important thing, then your decision has been made for you. While parents and advisors are going to give you all kinds of advice, you need to make sure that your internship fits your needs first.

If that isn’t true, you chances for success are significantly lower.

But let’s say that you don’t have one clear goal for your internship, but you know that you want one. What are the main differences between and unpaid internship and an internship for pay?


One of the perks of an unpaid internship, particularly one that you’ve coordinated yourself (not an established program) is that you will have a bit more flexibility in your schedule. You have the opportunity to present what is feasible within either your current class schedule, or with your summer job. Paid interns usually have to pay more attention to clock, and work around the fix office hours rather than making their own.


It is generally accepted (although not always true) that paid interns generally get "grunt" work, or the general office tasks that no one else wants, and that unpaid interns are treated more like students. This will vary from office to office. However, as an unpaid intern you may feel more comfortable saying "no" to a task that does not directly relate to your goals or studies. Since paid interns are employees, they may not always have this luxury.


Of course, saying not and picking and choosing tasks can have multiple effects. As a paid intern, you may have a slight edge on unpaid interns as "one of the staff," especially if you are working full time. Employees, particularly some of the entry level positions who are typically closer to intern age, may be more likely to work with you and see you as close to an equal because you are earning a pay check and doing whatever works comes your way (just like them!). In some cases, unpaid or for-credit interns get special attention, are assigned an upper-level manager as a mentor, or have more opportunities to shadow various positions than the paid interns do. Of course, this varies greatly from company to company and program to program.

Try not to spend too much time grappling with the paid vs. unpaid internship question; the best internship for you will ultimately the one that challenges you and gives you a great experience. While you are getting your resume and applications ready, look into both paid and unpaid opportunities and interview at each, making you decision based on fit, rather than funds.

Tip: Always consider the academic and career benefits of the internship before the pay; you may be able to supplement your internship with a part time job, but the perfect internship placement is worth the extra work.


Internship & Co-Op Differences