Doing a free internship doesn’t mean that you’ll necessarily be exploited. But, to avoid this danger, planning your internship in advance with an eye on managing your professional network can help you get the most out of it. Be clear to yourself and your internship supervisor what you want to learn. Additionally, use the resources of your university to help you get the perfect unpaid internship.
Google ‘free internship’ and you will see two types of websites: Websites advertising free internships, and offering help to get one, and websites, mainly newspapers, arguing that free internships are exploitation, and increase the gap between the rich and the poor. If an internship is just another form of education, yes, by all means, interns should not get paid. But calling a job an internship to save costs, is immoral. Now, that being said, if your university offers you credit for doing an unpaid internship, this makes your unpaid internship an educational experience, and hence not getting paid in monetary terms is ethical.
While working as a researcher I have offered unpaid and paid internships. If there was not a budget, there was also no possibility to pay my interns. My university, Maastricht university, offers many opportunities for students to get work experience. As an educational scientist and has mentored many students before it was crucial for me that interns learn something, regardless if they get paid for their work or not. Together with my interns, we set specific and measurable learning goals and our weekly check-ins dealt with the interns’ productivity and learning gains. Pay attention to those things when you do an unpaid internship.
The ease with which you will be accepted for an internship depends a bit on your university brand and alumni network. The university brand is the image your university has, the aspects it is known for. For example, why the Geneva Business School is known for its excellent business education, the American University provides more general liberal arts education. However, while the brand of the American University might be less driven by the content it teaches, its advantage is a large alumni network thanks to the multitude of American Universities throughout the world. This large alumni network can help you in getting an internship. You might be able to intern for alumni.
Summer internships often fall into the category of unpaid internships. For example, IESE, in Spain, integrates summer internships in their MBA program. Another common form of unpaid internships are those offered by a non-profit organization. Some of them lack the funds to pay you. However, if you work for one of the bigger non-profit organization, you might get a stipend or some form of monetary compensation. In any case, working for a non-profit organization highlights your commitment and drive to contribute to society.
The end goal of an internship is to gain relevant work experience and build your professional network, which isn’t always the case with volunteer work. Now, given that you will not be paid for your work, you have two options to be able to put food on your table: Take on a second job, assuming there are enough hours in the day to combine the internship with the paid work, or go to a country or city where living costs are lower. Forget London, Paris, Oslo, New York, San Francisco, or Tokyo. Check out Malta, Peru, or Prag, or other cities where the cost of living is below what you are used to.
Before you embark on searching the perfect free internship, it is wise to sit down and consider why you want to do an internship. Don’t just jump on the bandwagon, but plan this crucial work experience. Begin with considering your current professional network. How big is it? What industries are represented? What job functions? Now, think about your career goals? What do you want to do, and where do you want to live? Many universities have career services that can help you get an internship or even have a list of companies that actively recruit interns. Go check with a career counsellor or discuss with friends to make sure you thought it through.
To sum it up, doing an unpaid internship does not mean that you will be exploited. You might work for a non-profit that does not have the funds to pay you, or you get educational credit for doing it. In any case, you should take the initiative and connect with your colleagues to build your professional network. Go on LinkedIn, update your profile and ask your supervisors and/or colleagues for recommendations and endorsements.