By Jessica Green 

Throughout my undergraduate years at the University of Georgia, I have served in a variety of roles. Some that felt random, like my job fixing printers around campus, and some that just paid the bills, like my job at the donor call center. But the jobs that held the most worth for me in terms of advancing my career were the unpaid internships.

These internships were never my first choice because of the lack of financial compensation but the chance to learn from professionals and network came close to filling that void. I would like to acknowledge up front the privilege in my decision to pursue these opportunities.

My university tuition was being paid by the Zell Miller Scholarship, a state-sponsored scholarship which covers 100% of the in-state tuition, and all other bills were taken care of by my parents. This gave me the chance to focus on growing my savings account with additional part-time employment and add experience to my resume.

Although the wealth of knowledge is valuable, it does not put food on the table. For that reason, I do not advocate for unpaid roles unless a secure plan for finances is set in place ahead of time and the position is necessary for personal career advancement.

There were many advantages and disadvantages to working these types of roles. The biggest lesson I learned is that in a space where time does not equal money, take full advantage of everything else. This means getting to know as many people as possible at the company and asking for lessons and advice on their role.

Knowledge and experience replace timesheets and pay stubs so try to soak up every bit of information and save work for your portfolio. Also, prioritize paid and academic obligations when necessary. Most companies are flexible in this regard because there is a general understanding that these tasks take precedent.

The biggest advantage of an unpaid internship is the abundance of resources available. Another perk was the strong emphasis on mentorship. Co-workers will show their gratitude for your work by helping you network and sharing wisdom along the way and long after you have left for new experiences. Sometimes less competition exists for these positions and the chances of getting selected for full-time roles afterward is higher.

The disadvantages of unpaid internships come from feelings of less value or worth. Without proper compensation for your time, your work can feel meaningless. It can also feel like you are doing the grunt work or free manual labor for salaried higher-ups.

This is not helpful for morale because it feeds into the idea of being expendable to a company. While the thought of “free” labor is attractive from a profit-making standpoint, there are serious implications for unscrupulous “employers” that take advantage of naïve students that are only trying to get a leg up in an already crowded job market.

In many cases, unpaid internships can be considered illegal unless some sort of educational component exists. The age-old “pay your dues” mindset plays a big part into why these positions exist. Though I disliked feeding into it, I felt it was necessary in order to elevate quickly in my career.

I do not envision myself accepting unpaid positions outside of college because I don’t think it would be worth the mental and financial stress. I am, however, thankful for those experiences while in college because they set me up for amazing opportunities and strengthened my passion for the industry.

Jessica Green is studying journalism at the University of Georgia. She is a 2020 Cox-SABEW Fellow, a training program in partnership with UGA’s Cox Institute for Journalism Innovation, Management & Leadership.