"Don't work for free" seems like a pretty sensible idea. In general, you should not do work for a for-profit entity without getting paid.

An unpaid internship, however, can be the rare exception to that rule. In some professions, unpaid internships allow you to gain needed skills or open doors that otherwise would remain closed. That's not always the case, but for many people working for free has led to a paying job, or gaining the skills needed to land one.

In the right situation, an unpaid internship is a bit like getting a scholarship to play a sport. You don't get paid directly, but you do get a free education in exchange for the work you provide.

An older worker shows younger workers how a machine works.

Money is not the only way an internship can be beneficial. Image source: Getty Images.

Be careful

When deciding whether you are willing to take an unpaid internship, it's important to know the deal you are making. If you're going to work for free you need to come out of the experience with other benefits. Ask these questions or find out the answers by talking to past interns if possible:

  • Will there be actual teaching where I can learn new skills?
  • Will I be doing meaningful work (not just making coffee or doing errands)?
  • Have any past interns been hired?
  • Will your internship boss write a recommendation for you?

With these answers in hand, you should evaluate what you will get out of working for free. There's no clear formula for it, and it can vary based on the profession you intern in. For example, in some fields union rules will prevent you from doing certain work, but getting to observe may be worth taking the internship anyway.

Sometimes, even if the internship offers little, the connections may make it worthwhile. Some companies only give interns menials tasks but have a strong history of hiring interns. In other cases, the value of having the company's name on your resume or getting a recommendation from someone there may make taking an unpaid internship worth it.

On the other hand, if the purpose of having interns is to save money and nothing else, you probably don't want to take an unpaid internship at that company. The same is true if you talk to past interns and find that they were routinely treated poorly. You also want to say no if the company has specific policies against hiring interns and giving recommendations (having one of those policies is not an automatic no, but together they are a major red flag).

Set a limit

Working an unpaid internship can have its benefits, but it's also very easy to get taken advantage of. Make sure you have a clear start and end date as well as defined hours, or at least an understanding of how many hours you are committed to each week. That doesn't mean you should be rigid or turn down extra opportunities that require more time, but have an expectation set going in.

I, for example, worked one summer as an unpaid reporter at a local newspaper. Once the summer ended, so too did my willingness to work for free, at least partly because I got what I needed (published stories to show prospective employers) and partly because it was clear that using unpaid workers were being used to keep costs down. Once the summer ended, I offered to help out on breaks and vacations, but only if I got whatever minimal pay they offered freelancers.

Keep your eye on the prize

Just like an athlete on scholarship has to take responsibility for actually getting the education a scholarship offers, an unpaid intern must make sure he or she gets the promised benefits from the internship. If there were experiences, training, or other opportunities promised to you, take an active interest in making sure they happen.

In the end, it's important to make sure you do a good job for your employer even if you're not getting paid. You also have to do right by yourself and make sure you gain every non-cash benefit from your work that you can.

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