“I’m broke, I’m exhausted, I already have a million things to do—and you want me to work for free!?” Such is the conundrum of an unpaid internship.
Alright, alright—just hear me out. All throughout postsecondary, you’re doing unpaid work. Writing papers, completing extensive readings, participating in labs, lectures, and tutorials, commuting to and from campus—the list goes on. We do this as students because we believe spending the time and energy is an investment in our future.
Why can’t we apply the same philosophy to an unpaid internship?
(Not interested? Maybe read Stop Wasting Your Time Applying to Unpaid Internships instead.)
I get it. you spend all this time in school, getting an expensive education, ending up too busy to work more than part-time because of the vast academic responsibilities you’ve suddenly accrued. That said, pursuing unpaid or volunteer work while you’re in school is a significant part of your education. It’s a fantastic way to build skills outside of your academic experience, buff up your resume and help you to apply your newfound skills in a professional environment.
Look, I didn’t want to take on a volunteer position either.
It wasn’t until my fourth year that I realized, hey, this is going to come to an end, and I’ve only ever worked in restaurants. And, without the more direct experience of an unpaid internship, there wasn’t much I could point at that said to an employer, “I can do this job! Pick me!” That’s something I regret most about the time that I spent in university; I didn’t start searching for resume-building volunteer opportunities until the very end of my degree.
It doesn’t have to be full-time
Volunteer work can be quite casual. You can offer your services once a week, once every two weeks, whatever you think you can handle. That’s the thing with volunteering—they don’t pay you, so they can’t demand too much of you.
During my fourth year, I could only offer my employer 7 hours a week, because I was already completely overwhelmed with classes, writing my major research paper and generally being in fourth year. But because I was a full-time student, my employer was very empathetic to my schedule, occasionally even giving me an afternoon off because I had so much else going on in my academic life.
It wasn’t very demanding time-wise, and allowed me to work from home or between classes from my own computer.
Kristen Jess, an English and History student from Ryerson University, had a similar experience during her casual volunteership with Ryerson Folio (the university magazine). “I’m planning to get into publishing after graduating,” she explains. “I realized I needed to beef up my resume, and Folio was great because it wasn’t very demanding time-wise and allowed me to work from home or between classes from my computer. I thought it would be a good chance to contribute in a small way to a really cool project, while also learning from them.”
You get to build the skills you’ll need to actually survive at work
As I mentioned, I had only ever worked in restaurants my entire adult life. Working allowed me to pay the bills throughout my undergrad and stockpile a little extra during the summer, so it worked for me. However, I’d never worked in an office; hell, I’d never even done a job that I could do sitting down. Truthfully, I might have felt bad taking a paid position when I was so woefully incompetent.
It put me in a position to learn a lot about the industry I was curious about, while giving me experience I would have had to wait years to gain.
During my volunteership, I realized not only that had I developed valuable skills from my degree, I actually had many transferable skills I’d developed in my years as a server and bartender. Until my volunteership, those skills were just transferable—I still needed to apply them to something specific. That’s what my unpaid position helped me do.
Kaitlin Saxon (a Fashion Management student at George Brown College) also really values the skills that she built in her role as a Visual Merchandise Manager at West49. “It put me in a position to learn a lot about the industry I was curious about while giving me experience I would have had to wait years to gain.”
You get to make your resume look way better, which helps you get a job
It shows the initiative that goes into finding somewhere to put that creative energy and those skills.
I was an English major. I knew I could write and proofread and edit for style and clarity—but who was going to take a chance on me when I had absolutely no work experience with any of those tasks?
I’m not the only one volunteering worked for. Kristen, like me, feels much more confident showing her resume to employers thanks to her volunteer experience. “I think having the experience is helpful in looking for paid positions because it shows the initiative that goes into finding somewhere to put that creative energy and those skills, and it shows that I’ve got something under my belt—even if it’s something relatively small,” she says.
How to find an unpaid internship or position
Start by looking on campus
Most program administrators and student reps are aware of open program-related volunteer positions since they’re employed for the specific purpose of helping students succeed. Also, if you feel like you could have an open discussion with any of your professors about your career thoughts and/or internship anxieties. They’re likely to know a few people looking for a research assistant, or someone associated with a non-profit organization, to whom you could shoot an email.
They’re likely to know a few people… to whom you could shoot an email.
Ask the people in your program
Your classmates can be a surprisingly useful resource. My unpaid internship opportunity literally came about after I anxiously discovered that I would be graduating soon with no job prospects. Shakily, I asked a classmate, “so, what are you gonna do with your life?” After which we enjoyed a chat about the frustrating plight of English majors, and then she recommended that I apply with the same research centre she volunteered at in second year. I did, and there was my volunteership. And you know what? After I had worked there for six months, they started paying me!
After I worked there for six months, they started paying me!
Check job boards
Indeed, TalentEgg, and Eluta post volunteer positions alongside paid ones. However, with off-campus positions, take care to ensure your employer is giving you the valuable experience you’re looking for instead of exploiting your work illegally. Also, this option may be best saved for the summer or winter breaks, because off-campus employers tend to be less understanding of academic responsibilities (but not always!).
I’m sure you’ve heard the age-old lamentation that “you can’t get experience without a job, you can’t get a job without experience.” Well, an unpaid internship or volunteer position could be how you get your experience. It doesn’t have to be full-time, but it will give you the skills you need to stand out from a pool of recent grads all dipping their toes into an already saturated job market.
I encourage you to seek out volunteer opportunities wherever you can—especially while you’re still a student. Because it’s a fantastic way to build skills outside of your academic experience, buff up your resume, and help you to apply your newfound skills in a professional environment.
Seek out volunteer opportunities wherever you can—especially while you’re still a student.
Start volunteering, it’ll all fall into place. Happy hunting!
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*Opinions expressed are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Student Life Network or their partners.