Unpaid Internships: A Priceless Experience?



If experience is a currency, who’s paying? Companies and organizations pay interns experience as compensation for their time and labor. Students, in turn, pay for this experience as one would, say, pay to study abroad. And whether the money comes from students, parents, or Harvard’s funding resources, that willingness to pay helps to sustain an increasingly criticized internship system.



Experience is a funny word, one used as a selling point for vacation packages and job opportunities alike. Two months backpacking in Europe is an experience, but then, so is a summer spent drafting blog posts and making excel spreadsheets.

Each year, beginning in the fall, Harvard students scour Crimson Careers, email listservs, and organization websites for summer postings. They write application essays and perfect resumes, sometimes with help from the Office of Career Services. They give first round interviews and second round interviews and, if they’re lucky, accept opportunities. All of this is done in the name of the next experience.

Many of the positions that these students pursue are unpaid, made feasible by stipends from the Institute of Politics, grants from Center for Public Interest Careers and the Office of Career Services, financial support from families, or, in some cases, juggling multiple jobs.

In the world of unpaid internships, experience has emerged as a de facto form of currency. As Benjamin J. Hughes ’14, who worked as a Director’s Intern at American Action Forum, says, “Economics teaches you that if you make something productive then you should be compensated of it in some way. Experience is kind of like a nebulous form of compensation.”

Experience will not buy your groceries, and it will not pay your rent, but it may get you a job in the future. It may build your skill set, and it will certainly contribute in some way—for better or worse—to your world view. But if experience is a currency, who’s paying? Companies and organizations pay interns experience as compensation for their time and labor. Students, in turn, pay for this experience as one would, say, pay to study abroad. And whether the money comes from students, parents, or Harvard’s funding resources, that willingness to pay helps to sustain an increasingly criticized internship system.

A SUSTAINABLE SYSTEM?

Unpaid internships rest on an uneasy truce among the desire for opportunities, the desire to make them available, and financial realities.

In 2011, two interns who worked on the 2010 film “Black Swan” filed a lawsuit against Fox Entertainment Group, arguing they should have been paid for their work on the film. Two years later, federal judge William H. Pauley III ruled that the work environment was non-educational and that they should have been paid at least the minimum wage, a decision that some saw as indicative of a sea change. Last October, Condé Nast, parent company of Vanity Fair, Vogue, The New Yorker, and GQ, among other publications, cancelled its internship program after two former interns sued on similar grounds.

Despite these criticisms, students at Harvard, among other sources interviewed for this article, identified a number of factors that make the unpaid internship model surprisingly resilient.

Prestigious organizations still attract students, even if they only offer unpaid positions. Jenna D. Martin ’14, who interned at The New Yorker through the publication’s now-defunct internship program last summer says, “If anyone came to me now, and the internship was the same program, and said should I go for this? I would unambiguously say yes, if you can.” Martin elaborates, “I think that it’s unfortunate it’s not the same.”

Christina A. Nguyen ’15, who took her sophomore spring off to pursue a six-month, unpaid internship at the National Economic Council at the White House, is of a like mind. Reflecting back on her time in D.C. Nguyen says she and her family feel that “it was an experience worth paying for” because “it’s not like an experience you can get anywhere else.”

Yet others see this awareness of prestige and student competition as part of the reason that the system of unpaid internships has continued to sustain itself. Sam F. Wohns ’14, an inactive Crimson magazine editor, who worked at Greenpeace USA as a Director’s Intern last summer, said that other interns at Greenpeace, who were unpaid, were so grateful to have the opportunity that the thought of making a fuss never occurred to them. He found the same to be true for other unpaid interns he talked with that summer.

“They knew that there were so many other people behind them that would gladly take that job without any kind of stipend,” he says.

Mikey I. Franklin, one of the co-founders of the Fair Pay Campaign, an organization that seeks to organize interns and advocates for the abolition of unpaid internships, explains that the prestige and connections attached to such opportunities can discourage complaints. “Understandably, even if you’ve been treated very badly in your unpaid internship, if you worked for six or nine months to make connections and become known in a highly competitive industry, you’re not going to want to speak out publicly about the injustices that you faced,” Franklin says. He notes that one of the interns who sued Fox was leaving the film industry and thus willing to sever ties by bringing a lawsuit.

Others, however, are less critical, believing that the unpaid internship model makes sense since most interns do develop marketable skills. As Martin puts it, “I was very aware I was coming to this with no experience, no demonstrated skills just yet and that I had to prove myself over the course of the internship.”

Robin E. Mount, director of Career, Research, and International Opportunities at the OCS likens this situation to a “Catch-22.” “It’s a chicken and an egg type of problem,” she says. “There are certain places that they’re like, we’re not going to pay you until you have the skills that we need. But if you’ve never worked, how do you get the skills that you need? Because they’re nothing you’re going to learn in a classroom.”

Looking beyond student considerations, many organizations simply do not have the financial resources to pay students. Travis A. Lovett, director of CPIC, finds that, “given the financial climate…, many of our partners just aren’t in the position to pay students.” Depending on the sector, not paying interns is a necessary step to keep their operation afloat while still exposing young people to their projects and exciting them about their work.

In fields in which unpaid internships are the norm, many students feel that change is unlikely. Jennifer T. Soong ’14, an inactive Crimson Arts editor, has worked two unpaid internships in New York, one in publishing and one in museum curatorial work. From what she understands, internships in these fields are uniformly unpaid, meaning organizations have little incentive to break from tradition and pay their interns.

Student competition, the perception of internships as learning rather than work opportunities, the idea that internships are part of the inevitable process of “paying dues,” and other financial considerations in certain industries have come together to create a system that Franklin calls “deeply ingrained.”

“The culture of unpaid internships runs deep in academic life, in political life, in journalism, all of these industries,” he says. “It’s a huge problem.”

Trey Grayson
Trey Grayson is the Director of the Institute of Politics at the Harvard Kennedy School.

INTERNSHIPS AS CAREER STEPPING STONES?

“No one is forced to do this,” Ashley D. Dozier ’14 says of unpaid internships. Dozier herself spent the summer after her freshman year in Atlanta, working an unpaid internship in hospital administration at Emory University Hospital. Many students feel that in order to become a competitive candidate in today’s job market, they need to get experience somehow. For Dozier, working unpaid internships is a way of “putting in your time,” in the hope that it will eventually lead to a paid work arrangement at some point in the future.

But when it comes to unpaid internships, the path to employment may take a few more twists and turns. Sasanka N. Jinadasa ’15, who worked as a Director’s Intern at the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C., last summer, says that think tank internships are not designed to train future employees at the same organization, which results in less investment and mentorship in a given internship. There were 100 students in the CAP summer intern class, Jinadasa says, so opportunities for interns to forge personal contacts with employees were slim. If she had wanted more personal contact, Jinadasa supposes she could have “gone to D.C. and asked for informational interviews with all those people.”

Dozier, who spent last summer at Bain & Company in San Francisco, says that paid internships at consulting firms are often designed to retain interns, in hopes of eventually hiring them as full-time employees.

“They invest a lot into you as an intern, not necessarily financially, but just time, the amount of effort it takes in the interview process, flying partners out to Boston,” Dozier says. “So their goal is to keep as many of their interns going into full time as possible.”

Unpaid internships, despite the monetary investment involved, are commonly used for purposes more nebulous than landing another job. Often, students use internships to try a career or industry on for size. “What last year’s internship did best for me is it helped me figure out if a career in government is something that I would want that to do,” says Hughes of his internship at the think tank American Action Forum. “It helped a lot having that experience and knowing that I enjoyed it for sure, having gotten my hands dirty actually doing some policy stuff.”

Jenna R. Overton ’14, an Environmental Science and Public Policy concentrator and inactive Crimson Arts editor, interned at the Sierra Club in D.C. last summer, also through the Director’s Internship program. Overton, who switched from concentrating in English to ESPP, saw the internship as a way to gauge her interest in further environmental work.

Despite the lack of a clear path to employment, many students feel obligated to take unpaid internships as part of their career plans. When asked why she pursued an internship experience versus another sort of summer experience, Jinadasa replied, “You’re asking me why I didn’t go into consulting?”

The fact that she assumed a paid internship was the only alternative to her personal unpaid experience may reflect the growing view that summer is a time for work. “Traveling never occurred to me. It’s not that I don’t like to travel; it’s just that I have to get work experience,” says Jinadasa.

Even students who engage in other types of experiences may see them as less legitimate.

“I didn’t do anything real,” Maddy M. Berg ’15 says of the summer after her freshman year. “I nannied at Martha’s Vineyard and worked a little bit part time at the newspaper there.” Last summer, Berg interned for the Center for the Prevention of Genocide at the Holocaust Museum in D.C. as a Director’s Intern, an internship that would have been unpaid without the stipend provided through the program; nannying, by contrast, turned out to be fairly lucrative. At the Center for the Prevention of Genocide, Berg conducted research and organized a conference; last fall, she did an independent study with two of her summer supervisors. When comparing these two experiences, Berg speaks fondly of both, but ultimately the legitimacy of an internship pervades; making money as a nanny is not ‘real’ in the way time interning at an office is.

LOCATION IS EVERYTHING

After accepting an internship offer, students face practical concerns such as finding a place to stay and paying for living expenses to make the internship possible.

Students from cities rich in internship opportunities often have the luxury of local family support. Hughes and Victoria B. Piccione ’16 both lived at home while working at internships in D.C. and Boston areas, respectively.

Some filter their internship search from the outset, only considering internships in their hometowns. The summer after her freshman year, Dozier decided she wanted to go home, and “the internship was more of a secondary decision, as opposed to the other way around.” While living at home, Dozier commuted about an hour each way. Since housing and food were taken care of for her while in Atlanta, the time and gas costs of the commute felt reasonable.

Many students do not have the luxury or the convenience of guaranteed housing in the city of their desired internship. If Jinadasa and Overton, neither of whom live in the Washington, D.C., area, had not received the $4,000 stipend through the Director’s Internship program, it would not have been possible for them to take their unpaid internship offers. Even with the stipend, Overton had to carefully budget to live in D.C.; between housing, food, and other expenses, she just about broke even.

With these economic practicalities weighing on them in different ways, students are both satisfied and frustrated when engaging in substantive work while being unpaid. Amy Howell, the director of Career and Internship Services at the IOP, finds that, on the whole, Director’s Interns are enjoying themselves and “adding value to causes they often care about.”

While substantive projects can make an internship satisfying, they can also make the lack of payment all the more frustrating. Nguyen, who interned for six months at the White House during the spring of her sophomore year for the National Economic Council, remembers fellow interns occasionally asking her why she was working so hard. “There were people who would use the unpaid part as something to justify what they were doing,” remembers Nguyen. “Like, If I was working on something really hard, and I would stay there really late, somebody would be like, ‘Christina, we’re unpaid.’”

HARVARD HELPS

At Harvard, grants and other such opportunities can make pursuing an unpaid internship possible.

Harvard offers an array of funding options, though the most prominent are through the IOP and CPIC. “What we find, in fact is that Harvard students—I can’t really speak for other students—have a lot of resources that they can marshal,” Mount said.

The IOP Director’s Internship program partners with organizations to provide students with internship experience in the realms of politics and public service, providing merit-based scholarships of $4,000 to all selected Director’s Interns.

For some, these grants may make an unpaid internship a viable option. “Essentially what it came down to is that if I didn’t get the Director’s Internship then I was just going to go back to my home town and be a camp counselor, which is the job that I held for the two previous summers,” says Piccione, who ended up getting the internship and spent last summer working at Opportunity Nation, a small non-profit in Boston.

Many participants in the IOP’s Director’s Internship Program have gone on to careers in the fields under its purview. From data gathered from Director’s Interns from 1999-2013: 66 percent have worked in politics or public service since graduation, 41 percent are currently working in politics or public service. Seventy-four percent have been involved in public service since graduation through campaign/candidate support, community service, or volunteering, and 79 percent said the internship shaped their career path through connections made, a job offer with the internship organization, or identifying a field of interest to them.

Harvard also provides need-based support for students pursuing internships in public service. One example is the IOP’s Summer Stipend Program, which funds students who have independently found unpaid or low-paying internships and have demonstrated financial need.

CPIC is another such resource. It identifies organizations and funding sources for students looking to work at nonprofit organizations in public health, education, environmental work, youth services, public interest, law, community development, and advocacy. For eight years, Harvard students on financial aid or with other demonstrated financial need have been granted $4000 stipends by the Heckscher Foundation for Children, as well as housing at NYU for the summer to pursue an internship in one of the fields mentioned above.

Without CPIC’s funding, most of the organizations it works with would leave students uncompensated. Yet even with this funding, students may need to seek out other resources. Recalling past students’ experiences with CPIC, Lovett says, “resources that we provide oftentimes aren’t enough to make a student experience possible.... The student may have to take on loans, they may have to take on a second job, they may have to do other things to make their experience happen. We try to provide as much support as we can. For most of our programs, the target goal for funding is anywhere from three to five thousand dollars.”

The Office of Careers Services also serves to support student summer experiences. It administers over 100 different funds to support student summer experiences, as well. Many of these, like the David Rockefeller grants and the Weissman International Internship Program, go toward international experiences (the Weissman supports both for-profit and not-for-profit internships abroad), but the office also offers funding for domestic public service opportunities (OCS funds no domestic, for-profit summer experiences), and offers advising on summer opportunities to all students.

The larger Harvard network off campus also helps make internships possible for students. Nguyen, who interned at the White House for six months, initially had a hard time finding housing because she could not physically go and look at specific apartments, because many listings required a one-year lease. She ended up reaching out to the Harvard Club of D.C., and a few emails later, a fellow Quincy penguin who had graduated a couple years earlier responded with an offer.

While these resources may benefit individual students, some see them as enabling a system that is sustained by unpaid work. IOP Director C.M. Trey Grayson ’94 acknowledges, “I’m sure there are some organizations that take advantage of the fact that we or some other school or program are going to pay.”

Grayson emphasizes, however, that the money is used to make opportunities possible with groups that would not otherwise be able to afford an intern. “For the most part, we are dealing with organizations that are nonprofits, that have very tight budgets,” he says. “And this is a bonus, and it’s a way to create opportunities that wouldn’t otherwise exist.”

For Lovett, Harvard funding potentially lifts the burden of paying interns from the organization. For his part, he focuses on the big picture. “What we’ve really tried to do to combat this culture is to invest in organizations that hire our students long-term,” Lovett says. “With the funding we have available to students, we try to use those funds to develop partnerships with organizations that have made a clear commitment to hire Harvard seniors and recent grads at their organizations.”

Amy Howell
Amy A. Howell is the coordinator of the Institute of Politics Director's Internship Program.

A NATIONAL PERSPECTIVE

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, there are six guidelines that, when met, legally qualify an opportunity as an unpaid internship. Three of the six place a direct emphasis on the benefit of the internship to the student: “1. The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment; 2. The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern;” and “4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded.”

When done right, there are plenty of tangible benefits to taking an unpaid internship. “Every job I have gotten since my first summer in D.C. has been in some part because of people I knew through previous experiences,” says Jinadasa. Berg and Overton were both able to ask summer supervisors to write them letters of recommendations for other opportunities.

Martin sums up these advantages, stating, “I think now it’s kind of expected that you’ve done an internship. Especially if you’re coming to the industry without connections, I think it’s a great way to get that. It’s a great way to get a recommendation, and it’s a great way to gain some experience.”

And yet, there are whole groups created to end these internships. “It’s pretty rare that I speak to people that don’t support our work,” claims Franklin of the Fair Pay Campaign. “People recognize that the current system of having to work for free is deeply unfair, it’s robbing people of the wages they earn, but, more importantly, it’s privileging people not based on talent, but based on parental income.”

While the resources at Harvard may allow more students to enjoy the privilege of an unpaid internship experience, it does not change the fact that this is not a traditional work environment—this is experience that you pay for. As Wohns puts it, “I think unpaid internships, it’s a misnomer; it’s almost a euphemism. It’s a paid internship. You’re paying to work for someone else.”