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Can’t Afford to Intern for Free? Here’s What You Can Do Instead

Written by Rahma Wiryomartono

An unpaid internship is not your only option.

Last summer, a friend of mine worked as a research assistant at a university lab. A pre-med student serious about gaining experience in her field, she worked forty hours a week for three months, on top of a three-hour round-trip commute.

She was doing it for free.

Sound familiar? If you’re a student, maybe you’ve experienced a similar situation, or if not, maybe you know someone who has.

After all, unpaid internships have been normalized to the point where many people argue students have to accept them for the sake of gaining experience.

But that’s not necessarily true. So, we’re filling in some blanks about how unpaid internships actually affect students, and covering what you can do instead of working full-time for free.

“What’s wrong with having to work for free?”

It’s not as good for your career.

A study by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) shows students who work in paid internships have significantly higher chances of getting a job offer than those who do unpaid internships.

Paid interns also typically have higher starting salaries than their counterparts.

Unpaid internships typically involve less responsibility and looser roles.

A possible reason behind this is the nature of unpaid internships, which can sometimes involve less responsibility and looser roles. And, in case you were wondering, the findings hold up across a variety of fields, including government agencies, private companies, and not-for-profits.

Only certain people can afford to do it.

When unpaid internships are normalized (how legal or illegal they are is its own separate issue), the enriching experience of an internship only becomes accessible to the students who can afford to work for free.

“Poorer students become excluded from these opportunities, despite their skills and qualifications.”

Poorer students become excluded from these opportunities, despite their skills and qualifications. It’s a system that Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, says in a New York Times op-ed, “accelerates a cycle of privilege and reward.”

Walker says everyone pays for this cycle, not just poorer students. Society loses out on talent and perspective when it closes opportunities off from those who face financial and social barriers.

Even our government is against it.

In March of this year, the federal government’s budget explicitly stated “some internships–particularly those that are unpaid–can be unfair and exploitative.” The budget also included plans to ban unpaid internships in certain federally-regulated sectors.


Try This Instead of Working for Free

Doing an unpaid internship isn’t the only way to gain valuable experience. These are some alternatives to consider, if you’re a post-secondary student in Canada.

Canada Summer Jobs Program

Last year, the program funded nearly 66,000 jobs for full-time students. A lot of these jobs are advertised on a rolling basis through online job boards, like the Government of Canada Job Bank and, and you’ll usually be able to spot a Canada Summer Jobs position if a posting says “Summer Student.”

It’s not too late to look for a job, even in mid-summer. And, you’ll be happy to know this program funds internships across different fields and organizations, like NGOs, summer camps, health centres, the public service sector, and startups. The full list of approved employers for the program is released before each summer, and can be used to browse for openings.

Federal Student Work Experience Program

This program, also known as FSWEP, offers full-time students work experience in federal service. Positions vary from outdoor field work and research to office administration. Managers in the federal public service hire 7,000 students on average each year, and applications are processed online through this page.


Some schools offer co-op programs that integrate career-related work placements with academic study. It’s a great way to gain paid experience while being a student, but often, you have to apply for these co-op programs way beforehand. (But that doesn’t mean you can’t try to switch into a co-op stream once you’ve started school.)

Some schools also provide generous awards and funding to students who pursue co-op experiences and internships. For example, at my school McGill, students who pursue summer internships – either by themselves or through the school – are eligible for internship awards. These awards provide funding for internship-related costs like travel, accommodations, visas, and other expenses, lightening any potential financial load. And in Ontario, many co-op students’ salaries are subsidized by the government to incentivize companies in hiring students.


While the line between being a volunteer and being an unpaid intern isn’t always a clear one, it should be obvious that volunteering is always voluntary. Meaning, you only put in as much effort as you want to, with no formal work arrangement in place.

If you’d like to volunteer but don’t know where to start, community centres usually run events and programming that welcome people to who want to lend a hand. Or, if you’re passionate about a particular cause, you could look into potential organizations that work to support it. Most organizations would be happy to accommodate someone wanting to volunteer.



*Opinions expressed are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Student Life Network or their partners.